Arunachal’s recently concluded Ziro Festival of Music stayed true to its celebration of folk and modern music. Adam Halliday takes a closer look at the festival’s rustic and country appeal
The Vagabond Jeffy John, not yet 30, first hitchhiked to Ziro five months ago on a local man’s motorcycle. The Apatani (a tribe) invited the Malayali to pitch his tent in their yard, offering him food from the family’s kitchen. In love with Ziro, Jeffy returned to volunteer for the third Ziro Festival of Music, which is considered Northeast India’s biggest. It brought together folk-fusion artists and modern music genre bands from across India, to the paddy fields and meadows in Arunachal Pradesh’s Lower Subansiri district, in front of 3,000 people camping for four days (September 25-28).
The crowds spent the afternoons on a natural meadow amphitheatre in front of Danyii (the smaller stage hosting fusion-folk gigs) for three afternoons with musicians from the NE and elsewhere. In the tents, volunteers brought meat late at night and cooked it over wood fire, with revellers still left with the energy to make merry after up to 10 hours of music.
The festival’s easy-going nature, with impromptu collaborations among some artists on stage and jam sessions with small gatherings around someone with a hollow guitar off-stage, blended well with the vast meadow mound surrounded by paddy fields where the festival took place.
On the last afternoon, Karbi folk artist Warklung took to the stage with an assortment of instruments. With only two songs done by the end of his 45-minute slot, an appeal from the audience got him extra time for three more. Warklung, whose ghostly instrumental sounds and hoarse vocals are inspired by the Karbi’s traditional music, said, “I have just one or two shows a year. People talk about folk music but they focus on rock musicians even when talking about folk music.” He does admit that even his music contains other elements, including an ukulele and a hollow guitar.
Although Nagaland’s four-member outfit Tetseo Sisters use mostly traditional instruments, they have to shorten most of their Li songs from the originals sung by the Chakesang tribe so modern audiences “don’t get bored,” said Mutsevelu Tetseo a.k.a Mercy. Their songs still talk of young women tending to animals in meadows, or an aunt who sings a lullaby to an orphaned infant, or lament the sun setting too soon on the days when friends are together. But the lyrics are no longer the exact words used centuries ago. The sisters, whose career began when the youngest of them was just a toddler in the early ’90s, use choruses of old songs blended with lyrics of their own.
The political is of course never far in the NE, and there were some gigs that subtly contained these elements. Neil Adhikari, during his gig, introduced a song saying, “Songs have to be written about people in power because they are incredible.”
In another instance, Akhu, the frontman of Manipur’s Imphal Talkies, sang a popular number which goes: “Blood soaked body/ that’s my daddy/ you just shot him/ you just killed him/ we don’t need your guns and bombs/ we just need songs of love”.
“We do talk [about it] but it depends on how much people consume. And Indian bands are not very political. That’s very sad,” said Akhu. But even on this note, Ziro’s spirit was perhaps best explained by the happy wanderer John. “This is the only music festival with armed police. Normally we just have bouncers. I saw one guy with a grenade launcher. I went to him and said, ‘Can I touch?’ He was shocked. He asked me why I wanted to touch it. So I said, ‘I play video games and I always use the grenade launcher but I’ve never seen a real one’. He laughed and let me,” said John.