There is music all around Mokokchong. “And a musician in every house, in every family,” says Imnainla Jamir, a resident of the hill town in Nagaland. Jamir is one too — a guitarist who makes “modern music – a bit of jazz, a bit of blues”. At all of 17, she is certain that she wants to become a professional musician. However, until a few months ago, she wasn’t quite sure how. True, her Instagram videos were “pretty viral” but would that translate in to a viable career choice?
The answer lay in a phone call she received from Kohima last August. Jamir was offered the chance to learn music in Kohima, everything sponsored. Since September, she has been living there — attending regular as well as music school.
“She is young and extremely talented. When we saw her videos, we knew we had to get her here,” says Theja Meru, the man who had phoned Jamir.
In July, Meru took over as advisor of the newly formed Task Force for Music and Arts (TaFMA), a state government initiative (under the Department of Youth Resources & Sports) that aims to make music an ‘organised industry’ in Nagaland.
While the concept was launched in the early 2000s, (then called the ‘Music Task Force’), it is only in its new avatar as TaFMA that it has answered the clarion call. The cultural calendar of the state is suddenly dotted with events: not just concerts and festivals but music workshops, seminars, and talent hunts.
“Six months — and it’s like the entire department is on steroids,” jokes Clement Imsong, a musician based in Dimapur, adding, “On a more serious note, Nagaland got AR Rahman to perform at the Hornbill Festival this year — what a breakthrough.”
A GRASSROOT MUSICIAN
For its part, Nagaland has always loved its music. “Let’s just say, we are immensely blessed,” says popular musician Alobo Naga, musing, “Perhaps it’s in our genes. Singing is a way of life, a part of our culture.”
Yet, over the years, there are only a handful of names that have emerged as success stories from the state. And Naga, apart from names like Tetseo Sisters and Nise Meruno, is one of them. It has required some amount of ingenuity though — he launched his first album, curiously enough, on a pen drive. “You need to think on your feet. Talent doesn’t necessarily warrant success — especially in a place like Nagaland,” says Naga.
The seat of independent India’s longest-running insurgency, the volatility of Nagaland isn’t conducive to a thriving social life, which many feel, is an important precondition for music and musicians to flourish. For long, live gigs were hard to come by, and in the few cafes that existed, musicians had to bring their own sound equipment. “As a musician, you could rarely break even. Many times, your best bet was performing at the neighbourhood wedding,” says Imsong, who isn’t a full time musician, but involved in his family business. “What we needed was a platform.”
TaFMA’s intervention aims at doing just that: providing a platform. Armed with a number of outreach programs, it has been able make in-roads not just in to more remote districts of Nagaland like Phek, Tuensang and Mokokchung, but has also created links outside the state. Since July, they have held a number of initiatives focusing on the ‘grassroot’ musician — Open House, Ticket to Hornbill, Band Incubation Project are all aimed at handpicking talent from remoter districts who usually don’t get enough exposure. 17-year-old Jamir is one of them. “When we found that she was living in far-off Mokokchung, we knew she needed the exposure,” says Meru. Jamir is now being trained as part of the ‘Band Incubation Project’.
TaFMA’s new avatar has a plan as well as a long-term vision. For the first time, the state has managed to clinch mentorship contracts with the likes of AR Rahman and Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. For those who want to understand the business side of things, TaFMA has a series of monthly lectures called “ThinkFest”, wherein artiste-managers like Luke Kenny and Jishnu Dasgupta fly into Kohima and hold sessions with young and upcoming musicians. This year, Nagaland will be sending a team to the World Choir Olympics in Belgium for the first time.
The 49-year-old Meru, the man at the helm, says his days are packed. On a December morning, he can be found at the Regional Centre Of Excellence For Music & Performing Arts, preparing a group of students for the Hornbill Festival 2019 closing ceremony. For three decades, he has been a musician — in and out of the state. He opened Dream Cafe, Kohima’s first cafe — and first actual “hangout spot” for the youth — in 2003. As the head of TaFMA, it is these concerns that inform his new policies and initiatives. “Suppose I wasn’t a musician or an artiste, suppose I didn’t have the network, I would just come here and sit all day.”
The music scene in Nagaland had seen initial activity back in 2012 itself. Much had to do with a music retail platform called “Indihut”, which intended to provide a common platform to local independent artists. “The brief period of two-three years was like a spark wherein many artists started trying to write original songs and release on Indihut,” says Yanpvuo Kikon, the co-founder.
“But let me make it clear that entertainment, music or lifestyle related activities thrive in more wealthy economies and peaceful places. Our local economy and situation is still not very viable for an artist to prosper by working full time as an entertainer,” he says.
Even in the early 1990s, when efforts were made by groups to organise music festivals, this could not sustain itself. Kikon also says that the “dry state tag” was challenging. “Anywhere in the world since time immemorial, celebrations were always merrier when there is some amount of wine flowing,” he says.
The difference in current times, however, is the dedication TaFMA; and it seems to be working. The excitement is palpable. At D-Cafe, one of Kohima’s older cafes, where a few musicians are prepping for a gig, Imsong says that he’s never seen this kind of energy. “For the first time, a weekend culture — of music and gigs— is trying to be developed in Nagaland. It won’t happen overnight but atleast it’s a start.”