Rewben Mashangva leaned back on the meadow with his long hair flowing down his nape. The “king of the Naga folk blues” was listening to other folk musicians perform on stage and chatting with a bunch of people sipping apong, the local rice beer, from bamboo mugs.
Arguably the most decorated performer among the 32 solo acts and bands at the Ziro Festival of Music in Arunachal Pradesh this year, Mashangva, 53, is affable, his presence shorn of any air of celebrity.
Set in a vast meadow surrounded by green paddy fields, numerous villages with houses still built as they were hundreds of years ago and forested mountains looming in all directions beyond that, the festival is a perfect setting for folk music performances, although the hours after sunset are dedicated to modern genres. Mashangva mingles with the crowd, sharing rice beer and cigarettes, calling out to new friends with his signature thumbs up in the air. He is at home here.
His good cheer belies the nostalgia and sense of loss that prompted this carpenter’s son to pioneer an ongoing if dispersed effort to preserve and revive the musical traditions of hundreds of tribal communities in the Northeast.“One day, I hope — I dream — that the Northeast will come together. I want an end to our people aping the West,” says Mashangva.
Born and raised in a small hamlet in Manipur’s troubled Ukhrul district, Mashangva spent his formative years listening to his father — a carpenter who made him his first guitar — sing the songs of the Tangkhul tribe as they worked together. “My friends from Aizawl make their own guitars as well. We make them from whatever wood we get, so sometimes, the sound is off,” he says with a laugh.
In his mid-20s, Mashangva embarked on a journey to collect the songs of his forefathers on audio cassettes. He began by travelling to hundreds of distant villages in Manipur. “I felt that music would be lost forever. Western music, including church music, was, and continues to make inroads in the region,” he says. During his travels, he recorded traditional folk songs sung by elderly men and women. “Some of them were very old, I was almost too late,” he says.
Mashangva learned to play several of the traditional instruments including stringed instruments and fashioned bison horns. His carpentry skills came in handy as he fashioned a few changes to the instruments to allow a wider range of scales. To give them a modern twist, he arranged the songs with western folk, blues and jazz sounds (which he picked up on the radio).
And while he wanted to preserve the music of his land, fusing these different styles with traditional tunes has never been an issue for Mashangva — he says that it is the only way to keep folk music alive and attractive. “All around the world, folk talks about the same feelings. The only difference is language. I listen to a lot of music from southeast Asia. Theirs and ours, it’s all the same. We need to keep folk alive, and it has to be modern and fashionable. We need to understand our youngsters,” he says.
As Mashangva speaks, the conversation veers rather naturally from cultural loss to more tangible issues such as peace in the Northeast. “Among the youth, few of their minds are changing. People will change slowly. They might go ‘underground’, but there too, they want to live with family. We only have one life. And we’re killing, not for food, we’re just killing people,” he says.
For long, Mashangva has been the sole custodian of the repository of Naga folk songs. “For the past 15 years, I have been working and performing alone. Only now there are other musicians coming up,” he says. His journey wasn’t easy, the early beginnings made possible only with support from his school-teacher wife. He has come a long way since. A decade ago, the Ministry of Culture conferred the title “Guru” on Mashangva for preserving and reviving the Tangkhul Naga tribe’s disappearing traditions, known as Hao, of folk songs, music and instruments. He was also given the National Tribal Award 2011-2012 along with boxer MC Mary Kom.
At Ziro, before his performance, Mashangva looks cheerful, not cowed that only one other musician, bassist Ringo Golmei, was around to accompany him. He simply asks some of the other artistes who are playing at the festival to accompany him on guitar and drums. An impromptu collaboration follows, one that frequently involves a guitarist asking him which chords to play for the next song.
On stage, Mashangva is electric — he dances near the drummer as he taps his heels hard on the stage floor. In a flash, his performance combined the poetry of his hero, Bob Dylan, the frenetic energy and stage presence of Bruce Springsteen and the ever-present smile of Stevie Wonder. While he writes in English and although most of his songs are in Tangkhul, Mashangva’s lyrics invoke the landscape and the old, simpler ways of living in the hills and forests of the Northeast and a longing for an end to their current troubles.