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.

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/