ON HIGH NOTE - The music of North East
It is well known that the Northeast, with its multiplicity of tribes and cultures, is an anthropologist’s delight. It is also, in fact, an ethno-musicians paradise. This is a region where music, whether devotional, work-related (folk) or purely recreational, plays a very important part in the day to- day lives of the people of the seven sister states here. Almost all rural homes, however humble, have a musical instrument, whether a dotara or flute. It is very common to see, in a middle class urban abode, a harmonium or taanpura in the valleys, or a keyboard and guitar in the hills. The popularity of Western compositions, too, is strongly felt, especially in the hill states. For decades, pop and rock bands have flourished here, and made their presence felt in both the numerous clubs that dot the region, (including tea and oil clubs) and also on the larger stage of the metro cities of the country. The Bob Dylan Memorial concert held every year in Shillong is a lively reminder of this. No wonder international groups such as the Scorpions make this town one of their stops when performing in India. Besides, classical Western music too, flourishes, with pianists and vocalists trained in highly regarded music institutes in the West greatly enriching the musical scene back in their homes. This richness in the sphere of Western music is a fusion of the inherent musicality of the people with the influence of the Church, and missionary education, which has opened windows to the West. There are also people like Debojit Saha and Amit Paul from this region, who have performed wonderfully on national television music contests, bringing glory to their various states. Hindustani classical music is studied with fervour, too, and Begum Parween Sultana of Assam is a wonderful product of the classical tradition. Besides, there is the iconic Dr Bhupen Hazarika who straddles the musical world like a colossus, and also young Zubeen Garg , Kalpana Patowary and Papon ( Angarag Mahanta ) who, too, are making waves in the music scene, on a very impressive scale. And how can we forget the melodic masterpieces of Sachin Dev Burman and the vibrant music of his son, Rahul? All these musicians, and more, have brought the heritage of their home states to enrich the musical culture of the nation.
The Buddhist influence has been strong in Arunachal Pradesh. The chants and devotional music of this religion, nurtured in the great monasteries of the State, have formed a beautiful strand in the State’s melodic heritage, adding to the wealth of local music already extant in its valleys and mountains. Devotional chants form an important strand of the musical legacy. It is from this vibrant cultural background that the Buddhist monk Geshe Ngawang Tashi Bapu has emerged. His album Tibetan Master Chants with its multi-phonic chants was nominated for the Grammy Awards in the Spiritual Music category in 2006. Of course, there are the traditional songs of Arunachal Pradesh, too, which are often ritualistic in nature, though they can sometimes be celebratory, also. The State has a large number of tribes, each with its strong cultural heritage. Among the songs of the tribes are those accompanying the dances of the Adi people, such as popir and ponung, the Hiri Khaning of the Apatani, and the Aji Thamu of the Monpas and so on.
The mingling of different cultures is seen to fine effect in the music of Assam. The rich musical heritage of this State is heard in the huge variety of folk and devotional songs that the state boasts of. Each area, each region has its own cache of folk songs, each different in melodic and rhythmic scheme and structure from the other. Therefore, while the great elephant and river song of Goalpara in the West bring in a typical ambience, the Bihu songs of Upper Assam, with their characteristic double beat and melodies point to cultures further East where these airs originated. In between are the beautiful folk songs of Kamrup, sung usually with the two-stringed dotara and bamboo flute. The songs of the Barak valley have their own uniqueness, too. There are also a variety of other folk songs, chief among them being the nisukonigeet (lullabies), Ainaam, Biyanaam, and so on. The instruments used in the various genres are usually the dhol for percussion, though handclaps too form an important part. There are also unusual instruments such as the gogona (Jew’s harp), clappers made of bamboo, and mohor xingor pepa, a kind of pipe made from the curved horn of a buffalo. It must be remembered that the region is home to a large number of people from different ethnicities, all of whom proudly guard their musical heritage even today. In Assam, the music of these various peoples, such as the Bodos, the Rabhas, the Misings, the Dimasas, to name a few, are enriched by their own melodic and linguistic inputs. The instruments that are used here are usually created from material that is easily accessed from Nature. Though simple, the melodies on these drums and flutes and simple stringed pieces are attractive and quite often complex. Religion and music have always been very closely linked in many parts of the world. A large part of the great musical heritage of Assam rests proudly on the music of the Satras, those centers of Vaishnavite worship where the devotees praise the Lord through music and dance of a high order. The dance of the Sattras, the blanket term for which is Sattriya, has already been recognized as a classical dance form of India. The accompanying songs, devotional in nature and luminous with a unique melodic and literary beauty, are known as Bargeets, or great songs (of devotion). They were composed by the founder of the movement, Sri Sri Sankardev, (circa 1449-1568) and his disciples, foremost among them being Sri Sri Madhavdev. Based on specific melodic and rhythmic cycles, these raags and taals are nevertheless different from the Carnatic or Hindustani classical music traditions, even though they have their own strict rules and conventions. The bi-facial khol plays a large part in keeping the beat, along with brass cymbals of various sizes, according to the requirements of the song and dance. There are also the numerous other kinds of songs within the rich treasure house of Sattriya dramatic and dance traditions, such as oja pali, songs from Bhaona, and so on. There are some beautiful songs based on the religious sentiments of the culture that developed after the Muslims settled in this valley. Known as Jikirs, many of them were composed by the mendicant-preacher Azan Fakir Peer sahib.
Nestled like a jewel at the edge of the region, Manipur is an extremely culturally rich state. The devotional dance of the State has long been recognized as a classical form in the country. The accompanying music has remarkable elements drawn from Meitei as well as Vedic culture. There is also the music that has come about as a fusion of the several well defined ethnic components. Among the many kinds of beautiful traditional songs one hears here are Khullong Ishei, Lai Haroba Ishei, Thabal Chongba, Nat music, Napi Pala, Ras Lila songs, Gaur Padas, and so on. Among the traditional instruments are the ancient and very important Pena, made of bamboo and a gourd or coconut shell, played with a kind of bow, and the pung, a kind of mridangam or khol used extensively to create complex beats, used especially for Sankirtan music. Besides being the Abode of the Clouds, Meghalaya is also home to a rich repertoire of music and dance. The Garos, Khasis and Jaintias all have their rich musical heritage, which also form a part of such festivals as Wangala, Nongrem, and Shad Suk Mynsiem. Garo songs celebrate heroic deeds as well as- life events, while Khasis sing of nature, which has given such an abundance of beauty to their state. These are accompanied by a variety of flutes, drums, stringed instruments, and so on. The traditional music of Mizoram is accompanied by drums made from the hollow trunk of a tree. Brass cymbals, reminiscent of those found in Myanmar, are also important accompaniments. The music is also enriched by a variety of wind and stringed instruments.The vocals deals with hunts, as in Bawh Hla and Hlado, religious ceremonies, such as Thiam Hla and Dawi Hla, and of course the beautiful love songs, Lengzem Zai, and so on. Today, Mizoram, along with Nagaland and Meghalaya, also boasts of a high quality of church and choir music, with rich vocals raised in melodious harmony. The traditional music of Nagaland was often group-oriented. As an accompaniment to their rich heritage of folk dances, they also showcased the inherent musicality of the people. Uniquelu, traditional music in Nagaland is one of the few in the country that have incorporated harmony. The music of some tribes has as many as eight harmonic paths, embodying a high level of musical sophistication. There are songs for almost every occasion, with the love ditties and marital music being often quite moving. The state of Tripura is rich in folk music, much of which is a unique blend of the indigenous with newer influences from other parts of the country. The tribal communities each have their own rich repertoire of songs and dances. Rabindranath Tagore had a long and intimate association with the State, and this has enriched the music. Some of the instruments used in their music are the kham, the saumui, (bamboo flute) cymbals, etc.
Indeed, it is a fact that the large number of tribes found in this region ,have their own unique dances, as well as their accompanying songs. In the absence of a written script till recently, songs were used in several of the hill states, especially, as a medium to encapsulate their rich oral tradition. Songs have often been a means of transmitting history and mythology, the melody serving as an aide memoir to the words. The Creation myths of several communities are encapsulated in melody and passed down through generations. Sometimes these melodies are mesmerizing chants, though quite often they are melodically well developed, too. It is seen, therefore, that this region is a huge, rich storehouse of music, both traditional and contemporary. The musical legacy is only now slowly opening up to the rest of the world, and providing insights into its uniqueness and luminous beauty.
(Mitra Phukan is a reputed novelist. A vocalist in the genre of Hindustani classical music, she also writes short fiction and translates books from Assamese to English. Her first novel in English (also the first by a north-eastern writer), The Collector’s Wife, was published by Penguin-Zubaan.)