Recently, I was lucky enough to take part in a musical residency called Folk Nations in Nagaland, North East India. The project was organised by the British Council and involved introducing 6 musicians from the UK to musicians from all over the North East.
I have to say that Nagaland wasn’t a region I was familiar with before going. The North East is almost completely separate from the rest of India, joined only by a narrow strip of land in between Nepal and Bangladesh.
Nagaland is a mountainous state in the foothills of the Himalayas and is home to 16 officially recognised tribes (although I’m reliably informed that there are more) known, oddly enough as the Nagas. Each tribe has its own language and there are also many dialects, which means that Nagas often have to speak to each other in a creole language called Naagamese, or in English. Nagaland borders Myanmar (Burma) to the East and the majority of the people of Nagaland are of Sino-Tibetan origin. A long history of exposure to Baptist missionaries also means that over 90% of Nagas are Christian. All these factors made Nagaland very different and unfamiliar; it felt more like a forgotten Himalayan kingdom than a part of India to me.
Richard James recording traffic the market sounds in Dimapur
I travelled with Richard James (ex-Gorky’s, ex-Pen Pastwn, still Richard James), via Kolkata where we met the other four UK musicians, had a rehearsal and did a gig. Let me introduce you to these four, because they were all fantastic musicians, lovely people and a pleasure to work with. They were; Rob Harbron on concertina and fiddle, Miranda Rutter on viola and fiddle, James Findlay on guitar and fiddle and Jarlath Henderson on Uilleann pipes, flute and guitar.
I can’t overstate my admiration for these four enough. They taught me so much about their musical traditions and were delightful traveling companions, collaborators and friends. Please have a listen to, and buy their music!
Our ride to the North East
Having got the UK delegation together we traveled to Nagaland to meet the musicians from the North East. The musicians came from an organisation called the Music Task Force, a state funded body under the chairmanship of Guhkato ‘Gugs’ Sema that promotes the musicians and music of Nagaland.
We were based primarily in Dimapur, a dusty town on the border with Assam that functions as a hub for the rest of the state.
The gang negotiating traffic in Dimapur
For three days we met and jammed with a large group of musicians from all over the North East in a pretty little heritage park on the edge of town. It was a real privilege to hear the music and the tales of the region told and sung in a variety of tongues from the land’s own people.
Four of the musicians, Phulen, Kalyan, Manoj and Phu Ning Ding were from Assam. They brought with them instruments such as the siphung (a type of flute), been (a sort of two string violin), pepa (a buffalo horn) and gogona (a type of jaw harp ). They also brought the melodies of Assam and traditions such as Bihu music which I found fascinating.
Rob playing the been with Manoj (centre) and Jeremy (right)
Phulen (left) playing siphung with Kalyan (Centre), Rob and Jarlath
Phu Ning Ding was like no-one I’ve ever met before, a very spiritual individual from the Karbi tribe who could speak many of the region’s languages. He is also in a metal band called Warklung and has a deep connection with the region’s traditions and a fantastic ability to improvise when singing. His playing of the ‘Karamdabung’, a sort of tuned percussion instrument became a common feature of our jam sessions.
Jeremy was a gifted young flautist from Mizoram, although I suspect his true passion lies in metal guitar as he never missed an opportunity to shred!
Phu Ning Ding singing with the Karamdabung
From Nagaland itself we were introduced to Mercy, who hails from the Chakhesang tribe. She sings in a vocal group called the Teteso Sisters with her two siblings and also plays the Tati. Her knowledge of Naga traditions is fascinating and she has a real gift for explaining the region’s idiosyncrasies, politics and problems. We also met Moa from the Ao tribe, who sings and writes in his native language, although he wasn’t able to stay for the whole project.
Mercy with James and Phu Ning Ding at the Jumping Bean, Dimapur
After three days of jamming with the North Eastern Musicians it was time to head up to Kohima for a night time concert and a trip to the Hornbill Festival.
View from the Hornbill Festival outside Kohima
Kohima is a sprawling town spread out on the slopes of the Naga hills and is the state capital of Nagaland. The mountain setting and cool, clean air were certainly most welcome after the dust and humidity of Dimapur. Although only around 75 Km from Dimapur it took us three hours to get there by car, winding slowly through the rough mountain roads past pineapple plantations and tropical forests. I can’t say I minded one bit.
The journey up to Kohima
Pineapple sellers on route
Kohima at dusk
The Hornbill festival is organised by the government of Nagaland and brings together tribes from all over the state. The tribes perform songs and dances in traditional dress, hold sporting competitions and demonstrate traditions through cookery, crafts, rituals and much else.
The night before the festival we UK musicians had a gig at a rock festival in Kohima. It was quite an unusual place for us folky types, as it was a large rock stage high in the mountains that had been hosting an array of mostly Metal bands all evening. A four year old Naga drumming prodigy opened for us and then we were on; six musicians from disparate parts of the UK playing live together for only the second time. We opened with James’ version of the sea shanty ‘Belly Boys’ which went down really well and although the audience did thin out a bit towards the end of the set, everybody seemed to enjoy it and I came off stage a bit bemused, but elated.
4 year old drummer Along Longkumer upstaging everyone at Hornbill Rock Festival, Kohima
The next day we traveled to nearby Kisama for the Hornbill Festival. It was a truly wonderful experience to witness the last day of the festival and I found the traditional songs and dances particularly fascinating. Often they were telling a story, such as the journey of the tribe in search of new land to settle, or the tale of how the tribe began. Most groups sang and danced at the same time, often with one individual directing the troupe and the rest replying in a form of question and answer. The music was overwhelmingly vocal with only the occasional percussive instrument providing a rhythm for the dance. The groups often sang in harmony, creating a magical atmosphere with many-layered chords.
A traditional group performing at the Hornbill Festival
After sampling some Naga delicacies washed down with some pretty potent rice wine we sat down to watch the closing ceremony, in which all the different tribes come together for a ‘unity dance’ around a bonfire. Now, I don’t normally dance but this was an opportunity I couldn’t miss. Once it was announced that anyone could join in, I latched onto a group of Lotha tribesmen dancing and chanting in the distinctive Naga style. It wasn’t long before Jarlath also felt the pull of the beat and we danced for a good while around the heat of the fire.
Dancing around the fire
Unity dance at the end of the festival
Back to Dimapur
Jungle outside Kohima
Refreshed and inspired by our time in Kohima, the next day we returned to Dimapur and picked up where we left off with the musicians from the North East. It was easier now that we were all getting to know each other, and the traditional music we’d heard at the festival had given us ideas.
A few days later we were ready to perform a gig at the Jumping Bean Cafe, Dimapur. There were 14 of us crammed onto a small stage and we managed to put together a set of about 10 songs.
There was plenty of crossing over between cultures, with siphung and been playing english folk tunes along with Hornbill inspired vocal harmonies. Myself and Rich joined in on a Bihu song with Kalyan and Manoj which I particularly enjoyed playing.
I felt that the night was a success and both the audience and the musicians appeared to be excited after the performance. We had a farewell party in Gugs’ place outside of town, which was a real treat. I ate hornet, which was a first for me! The large black insects are chewed to release the juices, including the venom which gives them a strong flavour and a definite kick!
Grubs on sale at the market in Dimapur
The next day we were off, most of us returning to the UK but myself and Rich away to Mumbai for a few days. It was a real treat to be a part of the project and I feel very privilaged to have been able to jam with so many talented musicians from the UK and Nagaland. I hope that this project will lead to further collaboration between the North East of India and the UK and indeed with the rest of India too.
I’d like to thank Dipti, Tas and Stuart from the British Council, Gugs and his family for being such fantastic hosts, all the musicians involved in the project and the staff at De Oriental Dream, Dimapur, who kept us fed and sheltered for the majority of the trip!