Sing Like a Tetseo

Four sisters from Nagaland are going places with their folk music.

Written by Zaira Arslan | New Delhi | Published: April 7, 2013 10:20 pm

Four sisters from Nagaland are going places with their folk music.

Like most people in Kohima,Mutsevelu,Azine,Kuvelu,and Alune Tetseo grew up listening to and being surrounded by music. The four girls learnt the songs their mother hummed,much of which was in their local dialect,Chokri,spoken in the Phek district of Nagaland. “Our mother put in a lot of effort into teaching us these songs. When we first started,we were not so enthusiastic about learning Chokri songs,” says Mutsevelu,better known as Mercy. (Of the four,Azine has taken a break from touring after the birth of her child). “But over the years we became more interested in Li,or the folk songs.”

When they perform at gigs across the country,the Tetseo sisters sing the songs of their tribe,handed down orally through generations. “Li are traditional songs in the form of poetic verses and phrases with stories within stories which can be interpreted in many different ways,” Kuvelu says. Sometimes,they are not even consciously taught. “It’s a very community thing; you’re singing while you’re working and then people pick up the songs and pass them on,” says Mercy.

Often,the meaning of a ditty is lost to the people now singing them. “Some of the songs are so old,we don’t know the full meaning. Nobody does,” says Alune. But the majority of the songs are about the Chakhesang tribe and its affinity with nature. “The songs tell us the stories of our people,” says Mercy. “We don’t have a written account of our history. So Li is a window to the lives and ways of our ancestors.” Their repertoire includes love songs,songs about nature,odes to beauty,friendship,daily accounts of life and festive songs. O Rhosi,they say,is one of the liveliest folk songs they have come across. It is performed at festivals synchronised with the music.

Since their first performance at the Hornbill festival in Kohima,the sisters have become a welcome addition to the Indian music scene. They have played in Mumbai,Delhi,Chennai,Bangalore,Ahmedabad,Kolkata,Mussoorie,Chandigarh and Tura.

Their most recent gig in Mumbai was a part of a programme called Folk Nations by the British Council to promote the tradition of folk music. In addition,they have played twice in Bangkok,besides also being selected to perform for Prince Andrew’s visit to Kohima in 2012 to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.

All four went to school in Kohima,following which the older three went to college in Delhi. While Mercy has a Master’s in psychology,Azi has one in political science and Kuvelu is currently doing one through correspondence from the Indira Gandhi National Open University in sociology. The youngest,Alune,just took her Class XII exams. The Tetseo girls’ tutoring in music began while they were still in school. “All of us started learning and singing very early in life while in junior school in Kohima. Azi and I performed our first songs in school and then at the local Doordarshan/All India Radio children’s program and in church too,” recalls Mercy. “As Kuvelu and Alune grew up,they joined us and we became the sisters’ act.”

For a long time,the group now referred to as the Tetseo Sisters did not have an official name. “We didn’t have a name and we were just the ‘Chakhesang singers’ or the ‘folk singers’,” says Mercy. “Then our audience learned that we were sisters so we became the ‘singing sisters’.” Eventually,as it became known that their family name is Tetseo,people gradually began calling them the ‘Tetseo Sisters’ and the name stuck.

They are graceful performers,with a powerful range of vocals. They also play musical instruments,most of which are specific to Nagaland. The most common of these is the tati,a single-stringed instrument made of a dried and hollow bottle gourd attached to one end of a pole,with the string tied along the length of the instrument. A second is the khrokhro,a tambourine made from gourd.

Occasionally,they sing covers of English songs,and even the odd Bollywood number,but their primary focus has always been to sing in Chokri,to keep their music alive. “In a way we’re so cut off from the rest of the country,it takes time for us to take our music places,but it will happen,” says Mercy.

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