Songs of a simpler life

Amrita Prasad
Friday, 23 February 2018

The Tetseo Sisters, a Naga folk quartet, who are performing at the on-going Ragasthan Music Festival in Jaisalmer, share stories about their home through their music

Ragasthan Music Festival is a three-day desert camping festival where music, art, cinema, adventure, culture come together under an uninterrupted canopy of stars and a majestically stark landscape. Hosted at the Thar Desert, Jaisalmer the desert festival, which is on till February 25, will be featuring Tetseo Sisters, a folk quartet from Kohima, Nagaland, along with others artists from different parts of country. 

The Tetseo Sisters, comprising Mütsevelü (Mercy), Azine (Azi), Kuvelü (Kuku) and Alüne (Lulu) first performed as a group in 1994 and have been making regular appearances since 2000 at the Hornbill Festival and many national and international events. 

Despite no talent management and very few opportunities and avenues in the region, the four sisters have fought their way to get paid gigs and churn out remarkable music. 
Excerpts from the interview: 

Tell us about your upcoming performance at the Rajasthan Festival.
We love Rajasthan and have travelled to a few parts of the state. But this is the first time we will be performing a full concert set, so we are doubly excited. We will be performing a few new numbers that we hope to release as singles soon. They will be a part of our new EP.  

Every gig that we play is memorable because we give away a bit of ourselves every time we share a story or a song. We expect to connect with new fans and old, introduce unique Naga sounds to Rajasthan, and of course be inspired by the other excellent artistes who will be playing at the festival.

What kind of influence does your native land have on the music you specialise in?
We primarily perform the traditional songs of the Chakhesang Nagas — one of the 16 official tribes of Nagaland. We sing in the local dialect Chokri and a couple of our songs are acoustic, electro pop, folk fusion with a few English and Hindi covers thrown in. We come from the hills, blue skies, green rice fields and earthy valleys, so our music has a touch of these elements. Our culture drives our music.

What stories do you want to tell through your songs?
We continue to be inspired by the people around us, our travels and interactions with other artistes. We also look to social media to keep up with the times and ensure our music stays relevant and different at the same time. There are many stories in our folk songs. We learn about the old days, our history, values and virtues in our traditions. 

While our Naga society is indeed patriarchal, our folk songs tell us that women were celebrated, honoured and respected. Women had the right to make choices and were equals to men. Nature was protected and nurtured. These are virtues worth preserving and stories worth retelling.  We want to remind ourselves of the beauty of the simple life and how we need to find joy or take pleasure in our everyday actions and deeds. 

You have been Nagaland’s cultural ambassadors both at home and abroad. How do you want the world to look at your state and culture?
India being a very big and diverse country, we are all just vaguely aware of our fellow countrymen and neighbouring states. We all hold stereotypes and suffer from them too, but perhaps they can also help us understand each other better. Too often, the seven sister states are clubbed together and referred to as just North East because we are usually left out of the mainstream interest or focus. 

Very few bother to learn about the varied tribes and cultures that make up the seven sister states and Sikkim. Through our music, we get to talk to people, share our views and also discuss the culture of Nagaland and the other sister states. While we don’t usually sing about a particular issue, we get to start a dialogue about our part of the world and that is such a privilege. We share information and hope to help bridge the gap between the communities of this side of the country with the rest. 

Our music is, however, neither political, nor with an agenda to highlight issues or protest. Our music is to help connect, create interest and curiosity and shows others a glimpse of the culture and beauty of Nagaland. There is so much more to the North East and Nagaland than poverty, corruption, strife, backwardness, isolation, exotic colours, different food habits etc. There is a rich cultural diversity and vibrant nature in Nagaland. And while we are a proud tribe/people, we are just normal human beings struggling and striving to realise our dreams. 

How can the government help make the folk music of Nagaland become mainstream?
We always maintain that there is an audience for every genre and our fans completely agree. Folk artistes and craftsmen all need more support and platforms to showcase their art and crafts and earn a livelihood. 

More events, schemes, workshops, cultural exchange events, awareness and more attempts to record, document and preserve oral traditions and folk arts will be appreciated and are the need of the hour.  While there is no need to make folk music of Nagaland mainstream per se, there is a pressing need for infrastructural development and a support system for the many talents in all genres to find a foothold in an organised setup and market themselves to a bigger audience in a sustainable way.  

There are very few institutional effort to do so.  It would help to have a system of recognition of the few masters and engagement of experts in each field to research, document, share and preserve the art.

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