“To be honest, I found it slightly awkward when I first tried it,” says Praveen V, a former intern with the National Innovation Foundation (NIF), “It made me wonder — would this really work?” In April 2017, Praveen travelled from Chennai to Nagaland for 45 days to assess, on the behalf of the NIF, the workability and popularity of small bamboo instrument called the Bamhum, invented by 57-year-old Naga musician Moa Subong. However, for Praveen, 24 hours with Moa changed all misgivings. “We went for a demo to Shillong, and that’s where I realised how wrong I had been. The response from the audience was terrific,” he says.
By then the Bamhum, a wind musical instrument made of bamboo, had already been around for more than a decade in Nagaland. Just a month before Praveen visited, in March 2017, Subong had won the National Award for Grassroot innovation, conferred in ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Back in 2005, the instrument had had its first official launch during the International Bamboo Festival in Shillong.
This had been after months of “trial and error” by Moa. The process started in 2004, when Moa was looking for a traditional Naga instrument that would best represent his wife, Arenla’s compositions. The duo had started Abiogenesis, a folk fusion band in the early 1990s.
“There aren’t too many traditional Naga instruments — we have a couple, but our options are limited,” says Moa, adding the guitar, piano and violin are “too western” for the music they make.
“Anyway I tinkered around for months. And kept failing. Arenla would be amused,” he says. Then one morning, sometime in December 2004, when Moa was doing the daily testing drill, Arenla called out from the other room — “‘Moa, what is that beautiful sound?’ And then I knew, I had finally found what I was looking for.”
The ‘Easiest’ Musical Instrument in the World
Between the years 2005 and 2017, the Bamhum’s was promoted solely through Abiogenesis. “Arenla was the lead singer and the lead Bamhum player,” says Moa, who calls his creation the “easiest musical instrument in the world.”
The Bamhum, shaped like a small flute made of bamboo, requires the user to hum a tune into its “hole”, which instantly results in a melodious, reverberating sound. “This is probably why it’s popular — even a novice can use it,” says Moa.
Alobo Naga, one of Nagaland’s most popular musicians, adds, “I have used the Bamhum for a few of my performances. It’s definitely one of the easiest instruments to play. But of course, you do have to know how to sing,” he says. “It’s a clever idea — as kids we used to fashion similar instruments out of papaya stems. But using bamboo is pure genius.”
Bamboo is available in abundance in Nagaland. “The material sort of signifies Nagaland — we have bamboo homes, and most things we make are from bamboo,” says Moa, adding that the round and hollow bamboo is like a “ready, god-given body” for the Bamhum.
Often, the instrument is compared to the flute. “It does look like a flute,” says Moa, “but learning a flute may take up to a year, but you can master the Bamhum in a week!”
Across Genres and Borders
Currently, the Bamhum is produced in a workshop at home by Moa alone. The process takes a few months. After picking up the “right” bamboo, he tests it for 6-7 months. “We don’t require much machinery — a stove to heat the iron rods to make the holes, and the regular cutting equipment,” he says. Tribal Naga cloth is attached to the end of the instrument.
The instrument is now sold in select outlets in Nagaland, and an online retail space called Ilandlo. From this year, the NIF — which is an autonomous body of the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India — is helping Moa to switch to mass production by setting up a manufacturing unit.
“Orders for the Bamhum come from Bangalore, Hyderabad and Mumbai,” says Imtisunup Longchar of ilandlo.com, the online portal which sells indigenous northeastern products.
Moa has also invented another instrument, the Tikzik, a bamboo percussion instrument that produces four kinds of sounds. But it is the Bamhum (a compound of the words “bamboo” and “hum”) that has caught everyone’s attention. “It works particularly well with the kind of music Abiogenesis does,” says Moa, referring to “Howey” music, a special kind of Naga folk fusion the band is credited with creating. Abiogenesis has performed in Thailand, Russia, Bhutan and Myanmar.
“The Bamhum can be played in any genre of music — classical, folk, jazz, blues, gospel, pop etc,” says Moa who is also looking to patent his instrument, with support from the NIF. It’s not the easiest thing to achieve for a musical instrument, though. And while Moa is aware, he sees no harm in trying: “If you create something, you would obviously want to protect it,” he says.