K4 Kekho: Small man casting a long shadow

Sporting two long fringes that run down to his ears and despite not being the tallest man in most rooms, Kekho Thiamkho casts a large shadow. But then again, it was not his looks that shot him into semi-stardom.

Kekho Thiamkho, better known by his stage name K4 Kekho, hails from the small hamlet of Chinghan in Tirap district along India’s international border with Myanmar in Arunachal Pradesh. A relative unknown in a state with a population of around 15 lakh until two years ago, K4 Kekho became a viral sensation when his song, ‘I am an Indian’, began circulating on WhatsApp.

Sung partly in English and a dialect of Hindi unique to Arunachal Pradesh, the song deals with issues of racism and ignorance about the state and the Northeast that people from the region often face in ‘mainland’ India.

Although the song deals with serious issues, it is the satirical tone of the lyrics and the catchy tune that leave a lasting impact on listeners.
The song opens with K4 Kekho’s signature ‘ollo’ (more on that later) and introducing himself before he goes on to the first lines of the song: Arunachal Pradesh ka mein. Kya yeh jegah China mein (I’m from Arunachal Pradesh. Is this place in China)?

K4 Kekho during a performance. (PC: 4K Studio and CCRD)

The ‘China’ reference acts as a double innuendo on China’s territorial claims over the state and sets the tone for the rest of the song.

Midway through the song, Kekho sings: Institutions lok hum logo ko yaha mein padhne ao boltai. Phir roadside mein koi-koi lok jegah se jao boltai (Educational institutes induce us to join their academies. But people on the street tell us to go back).

Those lines are an expression of what many from Northeast, especially those who venture out to pursue higher education, continue to experience in places like New Delhi and Bengaluru. Incidentally, Kekho never spent any significant amount of time outside the state for his education, having completed his graduation from Don Bosco College near Itanagar. However, he had heard enough from his friends to feel confident to write and rap about the issue.

“I used to listen to my friends who were studying outside talk about their experiences. They were so angry and frustrated with what they had to undergo at times,” he said.
On January 27, K4 Kekho was at the lawns of the Hotel Donyi Polo Ashok in Itanagar for the launch of a six-part poetry-themed web series called The Vivid Project where he is one of the six featured poets.

Post a brief appearance on stage, K4 Kekho took time out to wander around when I introduced myself as a fan and told him that he was the reason I came for the launch.
During the conversation, he talked about how he was introduced to music through his father’s collection of old Hindi film songs on cassettes. He even sang one of those songs on stage one year in school.

“The teachers and the older people in the audience liked it but the young students were bored,” he said. The next year he switched to rap music as a more immersive art form to connect with the younger crowd. That decision appears to have paid off.

He is now somewhat of a minor sensation in his home state (‘minor’ meaning that he isn’t exactly getting swamped by fans on the streets looking for selfies or autographs). While he does seem to be living the good life now with him becoming a regular at local gigs, life wasn’t always easy.

Kekho said that as a child he had to walk for two hours from the administrative circle of Lazu to reach his home. Not much has changed as motor-able roads still haven’t been made that find their path to Chinghan.

Kekho doesn’t rap much about subjects that do not have social relevance in his eyes and cares for issues that are close to his community and his home.

He comes from the small Ollo tribe of Tirap district in the eastern part of the state that has been inflicted with insurgency and opium addiction among young men for years. Kekho said that he is currently working on songs that address these issues.

That evening, he gave us a sneak peek to a new song he is working on.
It begins: Ollo. I was born in a village called Lower Chinghan, located in the border of Indo-Myanmar, where one cannot speak for the rights he deserves, afraid of AK-47 loaded real guns. Ollo!

The ‘Ollo’, he said, is a tribute to his tribe and can mean anything from ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘brother’, ‘sister’, and ‘friend’.

By this time, a few of his ‘fans’ had become part of our conversation and listening intently to what Kekho had to say.

Continuing the conversation, he maintains a humble demeanour while his hands constantly wave about front and back, left and right, as if he’s engaged in rap-battle and says that his limited English-language vocabulary makes it difficult for him to freestyle. He also informed that a video for ‘I’m an Indian’, the song that birthed the K4 Kekho sensation, is in the works.

By the end of the evening, our conversation steers towards his height.

“I’m not quite five feet tall. Around 4.8 or 4.9,” he tells us.

One of the people listening in on the conversation quickly adds, “You may be small but your words are big.

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To run a food stall or (ideas at 1 AM)

–Back in 2016, two friends-brothers and I decided to open a food stall at one of the biggest music festivals this side of the world. What followed was a series of accidents, miscalculations and all sorts of pandemonium. This is the story of the time three and a half men ran a food stall.–

What do you get when three men with absolutely no prior experience in the food, catering and/or hospitality sector decide it’s a good idea to open a food stall at one of the biggest music festivals in the country to earn some extra cash while still hoping to keep their jobs? You’re looking at a recipe for complete chaos and setting things up for a failure of unmitigated heights.

The Ziro Festival of Music is an annual extravaganza of independent rock and folk music and everything in between held in the fag end of September amidst the beautiful green-yellow paddy fields of Ziro Valley in Arunachal Pradesh.  I first attended the third edition of the festival in 2014 and absolutely fell in love with the place, its vibes, new friendships that were forged and the endless flow of locally-brewed rice beer and different cuisines on offer.

So after two years since my first visit and three weeks before the festival commenced in 2016, when the idea to set up a food stall at the festival came up it seemed like a great one.

“There’ll be food, drinks, great music and fun vibes like the last two times. What could possibly go wrong,” I thought to myself. I hadn’t the slightest clue of what we were about to be hit with.

Like all great plans, this idea too was birthed at 1 AM after downing more than the recommended pegs of whisky among three friends. The exact details of how and when the idea came about are a little sketchy but I remember one of us (don’t ask who) saying it would be a great idea to set up a food stall at the Festival as a means to make some extra money on the side. Boosted by the alcohol in us, we said cheers to that. While I thought that the idea would be soon forgotten the next day as decisions taken after consuming unhealthy amounts of alcohol usually are, I was wrong.

Like a male protagonist in a Bollywood (or most other Indian) film who continues to harass and pursue the female lead despite her refuting his borderline psychopathic advances until she gives finally in to the ‘hero’ in a moment of cinematic melodrama, the idea to set up the stall too persisted.

After my initial hesitancy and apprehension, I let my ambitious side take over the logical side of my brain and decided to go for it.

“What could possibly go wrong?” I thought so again. Everything, apparently.

So over the course of the next few days, we planned out a menu, set prices, met a guy who would be our ‘chef’ who for some reason thought we wanted to serve Italian food at the festival (pasta and what-have-you).

What we really wanted to do was just make some money and thought that it would be best to serve traditional tribal food in an attempt to cash in on the exotica factor since so many of the festival revellers would be composed of those from outside the Northeast who don’t get a chance to savour the best that the region has to offer.

Then, around two weeks before the festival was set to begin, a friend/business partner and I ran into another friend of mine who suggested that it would be best to serve ‘Indian food’ like biryani or chicken rolls. (Sidenote: Why is food from the Northeast never called ‘Indian’ food?)

Anyway, the suggestion seemed to make sense especially after my friend said that those coming in from Delhi, Mumbai or even Kolkata would most likely eat or taste pork cooked with bamboo shoot perhaps once or twice for the experience of it all.

“After that, they’d look for food they are used to,” he said.

“Hmm,” the two of us thought and brought our third friend/business partner up to speed about the new plan as well as the ‘chef’. So with two weeks to go, we changed the menu.

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The original menu. Not much of what you see here made the final cut. We don’t compromise on quality, son!

 

I should mention here at this point that as yet we still had not confirmed our stall with the organisers although I had been in touch with them. I was fairly confident that acquiring a stall wouldn’t be too difficult since I am friends with most of the top guys. Comfortable in that knowledge, we met our chef again and even had a trial run of the food he could cook. Actually, we just wanted to eat some biryani.

A few more ‘technical sessions’ later, we decided on a smaller menu with fewer items, made some estimates of the cost that would be incurred, came with a name for the stall (The Right Stall- where you can’t go wrong- I was so pleased with myself with that name) and thought we were golden. We had even managed a pick-up truck on discount and most of our utensils would be made available to us in Ziro, again on discount. I can’t begin to thank the number of friends who helped us along the way even though they probably wanted to tell us all that this venture was an extremely bad idea.

Speaking of friends.

An old friend of mine had flown in from Delhi for the festival on my insistence a few days before we were set to leave. Now, my friend was here for the festival but when I told him of our great entrepreneurial plan, he was supportive and said he’ll help out in the stall. In return, I told him that we’ll still have a good time since we would be taking turns manning the stall giving us ample time to soak in some of the bands that had come to perform from all across the country. Long story short, we didn’t and he’s still cursing me till date.

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Seitin, my friend who was unwittingly fooled into manning the stall with us.

 

So, armed with a menu, a chef and support staff, we decided to leave for the festival a day before and set the stall up. The plan was to wake up early, reach Ziro by early afternoon and set up the kitchen and start minting money. Small problem though- I overslept and by the time we packed all our things and left, it was already early afternoon. Needless to say, a few harsh words were exchanged, some glances of “I can’t believe you didn’t wake up on time” were shared and we were on our way.

Well, almost.

You see, for the life of me, I can’t remember why but even after we finished loading all our things and were hardly 20 minutes into our drive that we stopped by the highway for 30 more minutes. That aside, it was a pretty uneventful trip- some jokes were cracked, a little more planning was done, and even involved some driving under the influence. I am pretty sure we broke a few minor road laws.

By the time we reached Ziro it was already pretty late and in fact, the sun had set and most others who were running their stalls were already doing a trial run of their food and drinks (most famously the local rice brew- apong). We got cracking too as soon as we could, extending the roof for the kitchen with a tarpaulin (some of which had to be borrowed from our neighbouring stall. Thank you, guys).

Considering the low-light conditions, we decided it was best to finalise the setup the next day during the daytime. Having dropped our chef and his ‘sous-chef’ at a different hotel, we settled into our room and cracked open a bottle of whisky. For some reason, that seemed like a good idea at that time. It doesn’t take a genius to guess that our day the following morning started much later than was originally planned. Again, some words were exchanged, blames were shifted, the car key was miraculously broken by our strongman friend – a feat that I still can’t believe. If I hadn’t seen it happen for myself. But by late afternoon we were open for business.

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Gearing up for a new journey. Also known as the calm before the shit-storm. This was the last time anyone of us laughed for the next four days.

 

One small glitch that occurred on opening day was that our biryani was completely ruined. Our ‘chef’ had made an error which was apparently a result of us having bought the wrong kind of rice. It was so bad that we didn’t even serve it.

Now, remember when I said that we had absolutely no experience in this kind of thing? It showed in the initial minutes as the first orders began coming in. Chaos, confusion, panic, and pandemonium broke out when customers started coming in. We were taking double orders and serving the wrong dishes to the wrong customers – absolute madness. It was in those moments that I finally empathised with Gordon Ramsey. But we slowly settled in and got into the groove of things and calmed down.

At first, business was slow but it gained momentum as the night progressed. The one item that did exceptionally well was the roasted pork which had been priced very low. The reason, as one of us said, was because people would “lap it up”if we kept the prices low. And “lap it up” they did. It was only after we wound up, went back to the hotel and calculated our earnings that night did we realise that we had sold the pork at a loss!

Having learnt from our errors from the day before, and from feedback from our friends who so kindly helped us, we revised the prices and rectified the food.

The second day we did better thanks to the apong we were selling. By the evening of the second night, the stall was getting livelier as friends began to pour in. In all honesty, were it not for our friends who constantly dropped in, our business would have collapsed in on itself. That all changed the third day when a few of our friends from the fairer sex showed up and just hung out at the stall.

This is going to sound extremely sexist of me but one of the biggest takeaways from the entire experience was that it helps to have good-looking women manning such stalls. Is it fair? No. But that’s the reality of the world we live in and unless utopia comes, that’s how things will be for the foreseeable future.

Another takeaway was that it is best to source materials locally. Thankfully most of our things did come from Ziro but this was something we learnt from a few of the other stall owners who had not done so.

At the end, did we make a lot of money? Are we budding entrepreneurs ready to start a new start-up to be featured in business magazines? Not quite. But the entire experience offered great lessons about the food and catering industry and my respect for people in the industry grew by leaps and bounds.

Running a food stall is no easy task. Keeping count of money, making sure one gets the orders correct while ensuring quality service is delivered are all equations that one needs to take care of all the time. Compromises on any one aspect can mean a loss of customers and reputation. Will I ever undertake such a venture again? Well, all I can say is that life is short and there is no dearth of festivals. So until the next one, cheers!

Growing pains: How the growth of a music fest is fuelling economy and angst

Tam and Yamyang Narang come off as a couple that has been in love since the first time they laid their eyes on each other decades ago. There are no overt displays of affection (as is usually the case with tribal marriages) or any grand verbal declarations of love. But as you sit with them in their kitchen sipping on the rice brew, O, from bamboo mugs as the fire from the hearth burns slowly, warming the cool summer night at their home-stay in Hong village at Ziro in India’s north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, one feels the same kind of love emanating from the wooden walls with which it must have been erected.

Bespectacled and sporting a ‘semi-French beard’, Mr Narang says that he doesn’t remember when exactly they had opened their homes to let strangers in and live with them.

“It was in November 2002,” interjects Mrs Narang as she sits on a moora by the fire preparing rice in a large steel pot for fermentation that would be used to make some more beer.

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My hosts, Tam and Yamyang Narang.

Mr Narang says that the couple hadn’t initially intended to turn their home into a home-stay and that their intention was to spread awareness about cleanliness in the area and promote their Apatani culture.

He says that for the first five years they did not even charge their “clients” and served three meals a day. That has now been reduced to two to allow tourists to take in the sights and they now charge Rs 1000 per night per person.

Mrs Narang says that the first batch of foreigners slept by the fire and that their tour guide was the one who bought quilts for them. The Tam Yamyang Home Stay now has quilts, beds and two rooms to house four people with the additional option of sleeping by the fire in the main house.

She tells me that she’s seen a rise in the number of Indian tourists visiting the valley after the Ziro Festival of Music began a few years back.

Indeed, ever since the festival began, Ziro has shot into most travellers’ checklist globally. At least over three thousand people make the annual pilgrimage to watch independent acts perform even if they have never heard of them ever before and most likely won’t after. But that doesn’t stop the festival faithful from flocking (this writer included), come rain or shine. And while the festival organisers appear to be doing well each year, the most obvious beneficiaries have been those in the hospitality sector.

The hearty hearth

The hearty hearth. There’s a cat there.

Every hotel in the valley has almost full occupancy during the festival week and the increased visibility of Ziro has encouraged entrepreneurs to invest in the sector. New hotels are being built all across the valley, each promising patrons the best view Ziro has to offer.

Over the years, home-stays too have increased significantly as more and more tourists seek out the Apatani way of life wishing to live with, and as, the locals.

There are currently 24 home-stays registered in the valley and more are likely to come up. Each of them offers their own unique experiences but the Narangs’ are probably the most authentic.

Hum loka local style home-stay hain,” Mrs Narang had told me unapologetically when I had arrived in a form of pidgin Hindi used as a language of communication in the state.

The humble home

The humble home.

Unlike many of the newer home-stays that resemble fancy lodges, the Narang home-stay is more rustic, authentic even. But that is not to say that the others are any less good. Some visitors will invariably want certain luxuries like running water and comfortable couches to watch TV from and will prefer the newer options. And those options have grown exponentially over the years, much thanks to the Festival. However, as much as a success Ziro Festival of Music has been, it still has its critics in the Valley.

I was to meet one of those critics who runs one of the newer homes-stay but had to skip as I had to rush back. We did cross paths on the road and exchanged pleasantries but I did not get the opportunity to see his place. I was also told that he is one of the most vocal critics of the Festival and the apparent culture it promotes.

The common (mis)conception surrounding the Festival is that patrons indulge in all nature of nefarious activities ranging from debauchery to narcotics in all forms.

Having visited the festival for the past three editions, that isn’t exactly a misconception. However, anyone familiar with the festival circuit knows that such things do happen. (Not that it makes it right in any manner.)

Even Mr Narang (who has never visited the festival because he is “against these rock acts that have no discipline”) holds the view that there is perhaps too much happening at the festival.

“Arunachal and our youth are in transition and we do have a problem of alcohol and bhaang (opium, but I suspect he meant marijuana),” he says, looking genuinely concerned.

In recent years the organisers have tried to address these issues by putting up signs and making announcements asking patrons to refrain from indulging in drugs. (In all honesty, though, anyone who has ever attended a festival knows that such signs are really a mere formality.) But to maintain a constant vigil in a large open field is no mean task. If drug consumption during the festival is an issue, it will need the co-operation from local residents.

Until then, of course, many more doors of the people are likely to open up once the Festival fever kicks in.

The Ziro Festival of Music will be held this year from September 28 to October 1. Check the official website for information relating to the Fest. ZFM Facebook page.

Remember that even Indian citizens from other states require special permits to enter Arunachal Pradesh. Permits can be applied for online here.

Disclosure: A version of this article was first published in the 2017 Souvenir published on the occasion of Golden Jubilee Dree Festival. The trip was paid for by the Dree Festival Committee.

Can music change the world?

For four days and nights, from September 24 to 27, twenty-eight musicians spanning across various genres came together for this year’s edition of the Ziro Music festival (ZFM) in the picturesque Ziro Valley in India’s remote north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. In four years the festival has grown exponentially and played host to scores of artists.

While music is still seen by many as a leisure activity, musicians across the globe are using their craft to bring about changes. In fact, this year there were a few musicians who made their festival debut at the festival, and used their songs to promote ideas of peace and change.
Yangon-based punk rockers Side Effect, who performed in India for the first time at this year’s festival, sing about politics and social issues that most in Myanmar are afraid to speak about or against.
Lead singer Darko C, sporting a pair of Ray Bans on the morning of the final day of the festival, said with a tinge of frustration that young people in Myanmar don’t care enough to talk about politics; but he hopes it will change.

Beer for breakfast. Myanmar's Side Effect think its important to sing about politics

Beer for breakfast. Myanmar’s Side Effect think its important to sing about politics.

“If we want to see changes then we must bring those changes ourselves,” he told me, gulping down Kingfisher Strong beer at 11 in the morning.
We spoke extensively about music censorship and how it has been relaxed a little recently thanks to “reforms” in the Myanmar government; but Darko reminded me that the more things change the more they remain the same.
For example, their song ‘The Change’ speaks about the apparent shift to democracy from the military junta that happened in 2011-12, with lyrics such as: Is it time to change, the change we always wanted? Kind of hard to believe that; you know should wake up now.
Their song ‘Meikhtila’ is another example of a socio-politically charged song. Written shortly after the anti-Rohingya riots in which at least 40 people were killed, the song talks about the destruction, and the video for the song was shot in the same town where the violence occurred in 2013.
Another artist who raises issues about socio-political problems through his craft is BK.
The young rapper from Tripura wrote in an email before coming to Ziro that he sings about issues of racism and politics and social problems because “I believe that through music we can bring about the necessary changes in society”.
One of the changes he hopes to bring about is in the people’s attitude about the northeast and its people.
On stage, before livening up the place with his immaculate flow, BK told audiences how he wasn’t fortunate enough to be born in a hospice or a hospital, and that he was born in the jungles of his home state where insurgency and communal rife has torn lives apart for decades.

BK sings raps issues such as the marginalisation of tribals in his home state of Tripura and the everyday racism that people from Northeast face outside

BK raps about issues such as the marginalisation of tribals in his home state of Tripura and the everyday racism that people from Northeast face in mainland India.

“Music has the ability to change a person’s attitude. Music can touch lives and change lives. Music is a gift from god. So let’s use music to change lives,” he says.

Singer-songwriter Takar Nabam from Arunachal, who is currently based in Delhi, also later told me that music can bring people together and help heal the world.
Post his opening gig, legendary singer Guru Rewben Mashangva from the state of Manipur said that music “has the power to change the world if people sing about issues that matter”.

Rewben Mashangva (left) a Tangkhul Naga singer from the state of Manipur on stage with Rais Khan from Barmer Boys of Rajasthan in the west of country

Rewben Mashangva (left), a Tangkhul Naga singer from the state of Manipur on stage with Rais Khan from Barmer Boys of Rajasthan from the west of country.

Mashngva is a staple in Ziro and is called the ‘King of Naga Folk Blues’. His unorthodox style of guitar playing combined with his gritty vocals have made him a festival favourite and inevitably draws comparisons with Bob Dylan. Little surprise that the legendary folk singer is one of Mashangva’s favourite singers.

Mercy, of the Tetseo Sisters, has a different take on the issue saying that they do not believe in musical activism “but admit that every song has a message”.

Kuku and Mercy from Nagaland's Tetseo Sisters believe more in spreading joy with their music. And they look good doing it

Kuku and Mercy from Nagaland’s Tetseo Sisters believe more in spreading joy with their music. And they look good doing it.

Based out of Nagaland and New Delhi, the Tetseo Sisters have performed across the globe at various cultural exchange events and have used their music to create awareness about voting rights and football earlier.
And while Mercy says that they do not believe in using music to stir controversies, she admits that “music is a powerful medium”.

Even the always jocular never-seems-to-be-serious Daniel Langthasa aka Mr India of Digital Suicide is positive that music can change the world.

Digital Suicide use their music to camouflage the seriousness of issues that they talk about.

Digital Suicide use their music to camouflage the seriousness of issues that they talk about.

Langthasa is based out of Haflong in Assam and has seen his place torn apart by underground violence – and that is reflected in the band’s music.

Their song #OPERATIONALLOUT acts like an outlet for anger and frustration over the presence and damages arising out of the numerous outfits in the region. The song begins with the acronyms of some of the larger separatist organisations.
The lyrics to most of their songs have no more than ten words played on loop, and his songs such as #AKHUNI that expose the hypocrisy of not talking about sex in the second most populated country in the world. Yet, a day after their performance, when I asked if music can change the world, he says, with his most serious face: Yes.