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Home and Away: meet the Arunachal musician who is taking the Nyishi language to the world

In Mumbai, a 26-year-old from Arunachal Pradesh is quietly making his mark in the independent music scene, as he builds bridges between the familiar and the new and between home and away.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati |
Updated: November 13, 2019 6:06:32 pm
Taba Chake, a 26-year-old musician from Arunachal Pradesh sings in Hindi, English and Nyishi. Photo Courtesy: Taba Chake.

After every concert of Taba Chake’s, people come up to him and exclaim, “Wow, you can speak Hindi too!” The musician from Arunachal Pradesh is amused, but patiently explains each time: “Yes, I am from Arunachal Pradesh. Yes, we do speak in Hindi too. No, I am not Chinese!”

But last week, when Taba was tagged in a video on Instagram, he was caught by surprise. It was a cover of his Nyishi song, No Doma Lo by a singer from Mumbai. “And it was perfect. Every note. Every pronunciation,” says Taba.

No Doma Lo is one of the three Nyishi songs —  a language spoken in different degrees of variation in parts of Arunachal Pradesh — in Taba’s recently launched album, ‘Bombay Dreams’, a folksy ode to the city he moved to in 2015. Since the ten-song-album (a mix of English, Hindi and Nyishi) dropped in April, it’s been topping Apple India charts, selling out at independent gigs in Mumbai and Bengaluru, and has quickly earned the 26-year-old Taba, more than 50,000 followers on Spotify — establishing him as a new favourite in independent gig spaces around the country.

Breaking Stereotypes

What confounds the singer-songwriter is not just his sudden popularity in the indie-music scene, but the wide acceptance songs in his mother tongue are getting. According to data available from Census 2011, there are about 3,00,000 Nyishi speakers most of whom belong to the eponymous tribe from Arunachal Pradesh, perhaps the most linguistically diverse state in the country. Yet when Taba grew up in a village called Rono in Papum Pare district, English and Hindi were the languages one aimed at mastering.

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Now years later, hearing Nyishi roll off another tongue, in a land so far and so different from home, makes Taba proud. “Truly, music has no boundaries,” says Taba, “I decided to sing in Nyishi because I thought it would help to educate people about Arunachal Pradesh. Actually no one knows anything about Arunachal Pradesh — that there are a number of tribes, that each tribe has it own language, one very different from the other. And that we are probably the only state in the Northeast, who does speak a fair amount of Hindi,” says Taba.

The diversity in the plethora of tribal languages within Arunachal Pradesh has led its residents to use Hindi more often than one would imagine in this corner of India. “I remember after one of my concerts, a bunch of Assamese guys came to me with their Pune friend and said to the latter: ‘You make fun of our Hindi…but listen to this guy, listen to him break your stereotype’,” recalls Taba.

Album cover of Taba Chake’s ‘Bombay Dreams’.

Moving Away

The three Nyishi songs, No Doma Lo, Hugulo, and Ngo Akin, have got Taba messages from places as far flung as Delhi and Madrid. “The funny part is my Nyishi isn’t very good — its dialects are still being standardised, and often I can’t find the right word for the emotion I am trying to express…and that is when I call my mother for help!” says Taba. The lyrics to all his songs, including the ones in Nyishi, are uploaded along with the video.

His mother, who still lives in Rono, had a formative influence in his musical journey “As a kid, she would listen to Bollywood songs, or hum old folk songs. My uncle would bring cassettes of Michael Learns to Rock from Shillong,” says Taba. Yet it was only in school, impressed by one of his “more urban” classmates from Naharlagun, that Taba realised that this (music) was what he wanted to do in life.

“I told my parents that I wanted to go to Bengaluru to study music. I sold my car, and I was off,” says Taba. This was around 2010, a time, Taba says, Arunachal Pradesh was untouched by cafes and music festivals. “Right now we have festival after festival, but back then, trust me, the only cafe we had was a cyber cafe,” he says, with a laugh. “Even if they were unsure of my journey, it was brave of my parents to let me go.”

From the Heart

Earlier this year, Taba launched Bombay Dreams in a gig in Mumbai. “It was a space called Habitat, I was worried whether people would come, but not only was it sold out — people were actually singing at the concert. It changed everything,” says Taba, who describes himself not as ‘independent musician’ but a ‘mix indie’. “Because I am influenced by all genres — jazz, rock, metal, pop,” he says.

Just a couple of years ago, a scholarship had got him into the prestigious Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music in Chennai but he dropped out before graduating. “It was too theoretical for me. All I wanted to do was play from my heart,” says Taba.

And that is exactly what he is doing now — in the languages he wants to.

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