It is a sound Arenla Subong has grown up hearing: “how-ee, how-aa, how-ee, how-aa”. For her ancestors across tribes in Nagaland, this was the go-to chant for any group activity, be it farming, fishing, or even dancing. Today, the chant has evolved into a genre of world music. “Howey music,” explains Arenla, “a mixture of traditional tribal chants with a bit of blues, pop, jazz and rock.”
Through the eighties and nineties, Arenla and her husband Moa, both Dimapur-based musicians, now in their fifties, kept experimenting with Naga tribal tunes. “We wanted to do something with our beautiful songs. But we knew if we stuck to purely folk, it wouldn’t appeal to many. That’s why we decided to play around with modern music,” says Moa.
By the early 2000s, the couple was well-known in Nagaland’s music circuit. They had met in the 1970s. “I was a young teenager and so was Moa. We would see each other at concerts in Mokukchung, where we grew up,” says Arenla, who in her younger days, would perform covers of songs by her favourite bands, from Led Zeppelin to Queen.
In 1992, the duo decided to form their own: Abiogenesis, a folk fusion band, which steadily gained popularity across Nagaland. But through the years, while they performed in local concerts, they continued to tinker around with what they called “modern” music. “But we never wanted to westernise our music.” The musicians have always been clear about one thing: “Abiogenesis stands for modernisation and not westernization.”
After years of experimentation, in 2005, the couple says, they “found nirvana”. “We were finally confident enough to officially start referring to our kind of music as a legitimate genre: ‘Howey’, coined from the ‘how-ee, how-aa’ chant, mixed modern music with tribal Naga chants” says Moa, who around the same time, invented a musical wind instrument called the Banhum.
Two years later, they released the first Howey music album: Aeon Spell. And there was no looking back. “People loved it,” recalls Arenla. In 2007, the album was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Contemporary World Music album of the Year category. “And in the years that followed, Abiogenesis was invited to perform in various parts of the world: Thailand, Tunisia, Russia.”
Now in 2018, more than a decade later, Arenla is directing what she calls the first “professional” Howey musical film, Enter My World. The 75-minute-musical, now in post production, has a simple premise. “A writer and her assistant get lost in a jungle. They are held captive by hunters in a Naga village. And that’s when they realised they are caught in another era altogether: a folk era!” says Arenla, describing her film as a “fork-era fiction.” But the highlight, admits the duo, remains the music. “It is a Howey musical — while the spoken dialogues are in English, the tunes are all Howey.”
In 2009, Arenla, who also writes plays, had directed a film called Lichaba’s Daughter. “Technically that was the first film with Howey music — and while it did well (it was even screened at a Moscow festival), it was experimental more than anything else. We did it on a budget of a lakh,” says Arenla.
Enter My World, however, has a budget of about thirty lakh. “We have got a camera person and editor from outside Nagaland,” says Arenla. First conceived in November 2017, the film does its best to depict the richness of Nagaland, in terms of landscape, culture, language and tribes.
“Our forefathers would communicate in tunes, in music,” says Moa, “And while it differed from tribe to tribe, the ‘how-ee how-aa’ way was the most common.”
The dialogues in the movie also follow this distinct musical tonality. “For example, even to say something like ‘how are you’ or ‘where are you going’, our ancestors would say it in a sing-song manner, even if it was not necessarily notational,” says Moa, adding, “It’s a rare, unique form of communication.”
This is what, according to his wife, makes Enter My World so special. “If you listen to our music, you will feel like singing. It’s fresh and it comes from the heart. Howey has the potential to energise — both the listener and the singer,” says Arenla.