The many joys of Ziro

An idea is born

Five years ago, an idea was born from a chance visit to the Ziro Valley in Arunachal Pradesh’s Lower Subansiri district when Delhi-based musicians Menwhopause had their show delayed after a students’ union had called a bandh on the day of their performance in the state capital, Itanagar. With nothing to do to kill time, concert organiser Bobby Hano decided to take the band members to his hometown.

Taken in by the view, Bobby and Anup Kutty, the band’s bassist, began to flirt with the idea of organising an outdoor music festival at Ziro.

One year later, with the help of the state tourism department and the Itanagar-based Living Dreams Trust, the Ziro Festival of Music was born. Since that chance visit and a few bumps along the way, the festival has become a must-attend event for music lovers and folk artists and independent bands from across the country and has propelled its way to India’s ever-expanding festival scene.

This is the story of why.

 

Journey of your life

It had rained the night before the festival began and the venue was bound to be squishy and muddy just like it had been in the years past. Traversing through the ‘highway’ to reach Ziro can be an arduous task for even the most skilled of drivers.

It is important to mention that there are two main arteries through which travellers can visit Ziro.

After having made your way to Guwahati from Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Kolkata or wherever, one can either take the route from Kimin or enter Naharlagun via road or through the daily train from Guwahati. Now comes the part about the road to Ziro.

This is the ‘highway’ that we had to drive on.

Road

This is the ‘highway’ we had to drive on.

 

Conventional wisdom says that travelling from Kimin will lead to better road conditions than taking the road from Naharlagun, the state’s twin capital town. However, it is also longer by at least an hour and a half. That shorter ‘road’ however, is one that comes with conditions applied; conditions such as landslides, rock-filled, mud-slid and the likes. So unless you are really confident in your skills as a driver, leave it to the experts.

In fact, a landslide the night before had brought considerable damage to a section of the road and falling rocks had squashed the front end of a car.

Along the way is a stopgap place called Potin where there are some small eateries where travellers can have some chai and parathas. For those looking for a hearty meal, the establishments here offer something called ‘pressure cooker rice’.

What that means is that the rice cooked in pressure cookers is not burnt at the bottom and tastier as opposed to rice cooked in large saucepans where the quality can be sacrificed for quantity.

Pressure cooker

These are just some of the joys one can encounter on the way to Ziro.

The road to Ziro has, in fact, become the buzz amongst festival regulars and virgins alike. While anywhere else the decrepit conditions of the roads would have played spoilsport, the organisers of Ziro fest have given it a positive spin by calling the trip to Ziro the ‘Journey of your life’. And indeed it is because after we checked into our hotel and headed over to the venue ground, the view of yellow-green hued paddy fields overwhelms you every time you see it.

 

View

A view to kill for.

On ground Ziro

Although overnight showers had left the venue ground pretty messy, not one person present appeared to have had their spirits dampened the least bit. First-time visitors were busy making rounds of the many food stalls that were also selling the now famous varieties of rice beer called apong, while returning festival goers were busy hugging other returnees and ‘spreading the love’, so to speak. The crew were mostly pacing back and forth getting ready for the show to begin, constantly talking between the crackle of their walkie-talkies.

Like last year, this time around too there were two stages- Danyii and Piilo. The names of the stages corresponded to words for the sun and the moon in the language of the Apatani tribal folk who call Ziro Valley home. With 28 acts, the performances were divided between the two stages with the folk and (mostly) acoustic acts playing at the daytime Danyii stage while the heavier acts followed in the Piilo stage during the night. Kicking off at around four, the first day skipped the daytime performances and jumped to night’s acts after the mandatory ‘Welcome to Ziro’ speech by the local legislator.

Only three acts performed the first night beginning with an acoustic performance by Assam artist Dayglocrazie. Followed next were festival regulars and crowd favourites from Arunachal, alt-punk rockers Yesterdrive and Omak Komut Collective.

Yesterdrive had made their gig debut at the festival’s second edition in 2013 and returned last year to launch their self-titled debut album. Based out of Delhi, they returned this year for what lead guitarist Haggai Rongmei said is a “homecoming”.

Since their debut, the band has performed across the country and are a regular feature in the Delhi live gig scene. Their success continues to grow as MTV Indies, one of the sponsors of the festival, recently released a video of their song called ‘Sleep Song’.

After lighting the crowd on fire, up next were the Omak Komut Collective- a fusion band juxtaposing the sounds of the Blues with the rhapsodies of the Adi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh.

The band has been performing in Ziro ever since it began in 2012 and has been a mainstay. Their songs have become sing-alongs for local audiences and each year their legion of fans keeps growing. This year too was no different as they ended the night leaving many high on their music.

The next day the skies had cleared and people had turned up in large numbers and seated themselves lazily waiting for crowd favourites and crowd pullers Tetseo Sisters from Nagaland.

Most people were swooning even before the sisters began performing as both men and women were falling in love with the two sisters who had come, Mercy and Kuvelu aka Kuku.

Before the start of each song, people who had travelled far and wide from across the globe listened intently to Mercy (the eldest among five siblings) as she explained the meaning and context of each song before performing them in the Chokri dialect of Nagaland’s Chakesang tribe to which they belong.

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The infectious sounds and smiles of the Tetseo Sisters.

Perhaps governments can only hope to bring about the kind of cultural exchanges the way musicians are able to through such festivals. For example, in the far corner of not just the country but even of the region, who would have ever thought one would get the chance to experience the musical stylings of Rajasthani folk musicians Barmer Boys?

Dressed in their traditional attire, complete with the colourful turban, these talented artists had the crowd go absolutely ape over their music.

Playing the morchang (a type of jaw harp) and the khartal (a wooden percussion instrument), front-man Rais Khan had everyone believe that a horse was running amok in the lush green meadows.

Khan would later also go on to perform with Manipur-based singer Guru Rewben Mashangva on the last day.

Mashangva has been performing and fine tuning his craft for over thirty years and now deep into his fifties, is considered a true legend and is rightfully known as the King of Naga Folk Blues.

Mixing his love for blues music with the Tangkhul tribal beats, Mashangva is more than just a musician. Always jovial and almost always up for that one final shot of whisky (or apong), the 54-year old is never low or down in spirits. Through his music, he is keeping the Hao form of music alive and constantly creating new interesting music all the while.

With Khan

Rais Khan (left) and Guru Rewben Mashangva bridging the cross-cultural and generational gap.

Having performed across the country and winning numerous honours, Mashangva has collaborated with the Raghu Dixit Project for The Dewarist and is always up for impromptu collaborations. This year, as part of his performance at the Danyii stage, the Guru performed with Rais Khan and told the audience that the two had first met each other some years ago at an event in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan when he was with his son and Khan was with his father. Many amongst us felt it was something special to witness two generations of musicians from different parts of the country coming together to make something beautiful.

 

Visitors galore

Aside from music, the festival has done wonders for the local economy with an ever-increasing number in tourists inflow over the past few years.

Festival director Bobby said that in one year the number of foreign visitors and domestic tourists (aside from those from the state) has doubled.

He said that forty foreign visitors came to the festival this year while the domestic visitors from other states numbered around 1,800. Contrast that to the official figures from the tourism department that says that 19 foreign tourists visited Ziro last year in the entire month of September while the number of domestic visitors for the entire month last year was 1,416.

While Ziro and its beauty has always been a favourite for many people, the festival has helped enhance its visibility.

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Yesterdrive ‘pose’ for the camera.

Hage Kano, the general secretary of the Apatani Students Union feels that the festival has made Ziro an international destination.

The Pechi Putu ground where the festival is hosted each year was once a burial ground. Naturally it wasn’t a place that people were too eager to visit but ever since the festival began, the venue has become a favourite of sorts of youngsters.

Social sciences teacher and a member of a local NGO called Ngunu Ziro, Punyu Chada, helps home-stay owners of the area connect with tourists throughout the year. He too said that the festival has certainly helped with the tourist inflow and collaterally helped the economy.

 

Making it work

Stray incidents of booze-induced temper flaring activities aside, the Ziro Festival of Music just…works.

Mashangva says that the combination of “people, place and culture is what makes Ziro so great”. Being his third straight year at the festival, the Guru clearly loves the place. But even a first-timer like Rais Khan says that the place is “badiya (wonderful)” and “kya jegah hain (what a place)” when describing Ziro.

Such is the enchantment of the place that Darko C and Tser Htoo of Myanmar’s post-punk band Side Effect had only words of praise despite having had to travel for 54 hours through six airports and one railway station.

Performing in India for the first time, the band were almost at a loss of words when describing their experience of being in Ziro, managing to only mumble words like “beautiful”, “amazing” and “great to be here”.

Daniel from Digital Suicide, who is never short of words during his performances keeps it short and says, “the only reason Ziro works is because of Ziro”.

Bobby attributes the festival’s ‘organic growth’ over the years which has led to its success.

Standing next to the bamboo-made merchandise stall, he said that it is because of this ‘organic growth’ is why so many people are willing to repeatedly endure the long and painful journey.

Strangers striking up conversations, musicians collaborating on stage, smiling faces everywhere, the festival truly does live up to its motto of ‘Eat. Drink. Merry.’

Perhaps it was only apt that the festival came to a close with the oldest performer of the event, Mashangva, bringing down the house with his rendition of Bob Dylan’s Forever Young.

 

A version of this story first appeared in the recently-launched December issue of the travel magazine, The Himalayan Pulse. 

 

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.

Play that folksy music!!!

Mercy and Kuku of Nagaland’s Tetseo Sisters had big burly men behaving like little girls.

Mercy and Kuku of Nagaland’s Tetseo Sisters had big burly men behaving like little girls.

An assorted group of young and old lie scattered leisurely on the meadow, some holding bamboo mugs filled with the locally made rice wine called apong, waiting for the music to begin. When siblings Mütsevelü aka Mercy and Kuvelü aka Kuku of the Tetseo Sisters take to the stage, the audience swells in numbers and sounds of cheers fill the venue declaring the arrival of Northeast India’s folk music.

Merely three years old, the Ziro Festival of Music or ZFM has become a favourite amongst musicians and non-musicians alike. Coupled with an eclectic mix of musicians and lush green paddy fields that dot Ziro valley in Arunachal Pradesh, it is easy to see why. And while this year’s edition of the festival (held from September 25 to 28) saw the largest line up of artists and was even extended by a day, it also witnessed the rise of Northeast folk music.

Home to various communities and tribes, the Northeast has always had a reputation for being musically rich. However, for artists from the region, the inclination and preference for performing has always been towards western style music. If anyone needed proof that that trend is now changing, one needed to be at the ZFM this year.

This year, the organisers of the festival were supported by the Itanagar-based trust Living Dreams which works to preserve tribal culture and released a folk-fusion album featuring music of six tribes of Arunachal Pradesh at Mumbai recently. One of the festival founders Anup Kutty, of the rock band Menwhopause, says they took a conscious decision to include more folk artists from the region this year; a decision that definitely yielded the right results.

And although it is easy to categorise, the truth is that the term ‘folk’ fails to truly capture the vast of array of sounds of the various musicians who had travelled many miles on dilapidated roads to perform for a mere 45 minutes.

The Omak Kamut Collective perform blues renditions of tribal Adi songs

The Omak Kamut Collective perform blues renditions of tribal Adi songs

The home grown Omak Komut Collective for example perform in the language of the Adi tribe. Some of their songs cannot even be termed as songs in the traditional sense of the word but ancient tribal hymns and prayers. However, with the heavy use of blues guitar, their songs have a fun feel to it that makes it impossible for people to not jive to. This is in contrast to the Karbi artist Warklung’s hypnotic tunes.

Using at least five different instruments (one of which includes a fresh hollow bamboo), Warklung from the state of Assam managed to send some sections of the audiences already intoxicated by the aforementioned apong to an almost transcendental state of mind.

Another artist who has a similar ability to entrance is Rida Marbaniang of the Meghalaya’s Shillong-based Rida and the Musical Folks. While their performance may have left a little to be desired, singing to the sounds of the guitars and traditional Khasi instruments, it was clear that the vocalist has the ability to both uplift and mellow crowds at the same time; a quality that again reasons against the generic term ‘folk music’.

While the four-day event’s highly-charged evening performances were on much demand, it was the daytime’s soothing performances that audiences nursing hangovers needed. No one did that as well as the Tetseo Sisters.

Dressed in tweaked modern versions of their Chakesang tribe’s traditional dresses, Mercy explains to the audience why sisters Azine and Alüne were unable to make it to the fest even though they really wanted to. For those who had made a mad rush to watch the sisters from Nagaland perform, it didn’t matter.

Armed with the traditional string instrument tati made with mithun horns, an Apple Macbook and omnipresent smiles, the sisters take to the stage with their brother Mhaseve who occasionally accompanies them on the guitar. Their opening song Thokwrli about women working the agricultural fields and caring for the semi-domesticated mithuns help connect the audience to the roots of their Li- a style of singing characterised by powerful multiple vocals.

From performing an electro-infused version of the popular O’ Rhosi to debuting their latest single Ohe, their songs dealt with issues of love and loneliness (or the lack of it). As Mercy would explain the meanings of each song, the existential-esque tone of their Li would become clear. Expanding on Ohe, she says that the song is about the fleeting moments of life and the importance of spending time with loved ones.

Given their present popularity, especially on social media platforms, it is hard to imagine that the Tetseo Sisters faced criticism when they were starting out in the late nineties.

Mercy says that when they began performing, they faced opposition from Church leaders who felt the Li went against Christian beliefs. But they persevered to preserve what she says is part of people’s lives. That perhaps is one of the biggest challenges that tribal musicians from the region today face- preserving part of people’s lives through the songs of yore. Something that Manipur musician Rewben Mashangva agrees with.

A proponent of the Tangkhul-Naga Hao form of music, Rewben, or Guru as he is affectionately referred to, feels tribal people are losing their identity and that music is way to reclaim it. A veteran musician who has performed across the country for three decades, the 53-year old knows how to cater to his audience and changes to a more bluesy style of music to get the crowd going. He begins his set with ‘Princess of the mountain’, confessing how much he loves women, his wife included. Not one to shy away from building a rapport with the audience, Rewben takes out time to crack risqué jokes. But his carefully selected songs also make people think.

The King

The King

Moving effortlessly between his Tangkhul language originals to such classics like Hank Snow’s Nobody’s Child, Rewben’s powerful coarse voice encompasses the green meadow with good intent. “I get my energy from the crowd”, he later says.

“I want to preserve our old songs, many of which we have already lost’, Rewben says and confesses that he is himself unsure about the meaning of the chorus to one of his biggest hits Hope Pee.

He explains that the meaning behind the phrase “has been lost through the ages” before quickly speculating that it was probably used to invoke spirits because the song tends to make people get up and dance. “I think the song was used to make a call for people to get groovy”, the charming ‘king of the Naga folk blues’ says with a smile.

First published in The Thumb Print on October 2014. Link: http://www.thethumbprintmag.com/ziro-festival-the-new-fusion-destination-arunachal-northeast-music/