“Songs of the Blue Hills” looks at the contest between tradition and modernity in the music of the Nagas.
“All songs, be it of harvest, love, war and festivals, were sung in the community dormitory for the youth,” says Guru Zachunu Keyho, who has collected nearly 600 Chakhesang folk songs. He is remembering the days before the coming of schools and churches in Nagaland, when cultural wisdom was transmitted to the youth through folk songs and dances, at the morung or dormitory. For Keyho, those days are over. “Today’s youth don’t have any interest in these things. Thus, with every generation, we are losing our songs and tradition.”
Tradition is a word that recurs frequently in “Songs of the Blue Hills”, a new documentary by film critic and filmmaker Utpal Borpujari, which journeys through the music of Nagaland. Through interviews with musicians, music teachers and ethnomusicologists, the film looks at what ‘tradition’ entails, who lays claim to it, and how endangered it is.
Although popularly perceived as a single tribe, the Nagas comprise more than 40-odd tribes and sub-tribes, spread across North East India and in Northwestern Mynamar. Like ethnic communities the world over, folk music and dances are at the heart of Naga culture. Also, Nagaland is perhaps the only State which has a Music Task Force, which functions under the aegis of the State Government to promote music in the State.
“What is very interesting is that since the Nagas do not have written history – or the written word – traditionally, it is their folk music that helps orally pass on their history from one generation to another,” says Borpujari, who has previously made the documentary “Mayong: Myth and Reality”. “The idea was to maybe make a 40-minute-odd-long film. But as my team and I started researching and contacting people, I realised that it was not going to be as easy as it sounded. Every day we found new groups, new singers, and more and more interesting music.”
While the culture Keyho describes passed with the coming of the missionaries, whose influence coloured the music of the Nagas, lately there has been a revival of folk music with several young groups taking to it. Some of them are the Tetseo sisters, who belong to the Chakhesang tribe and sing Li; Purple Fusion, whose members belong to the Ao, Lotha and Sangtam tribes, and who borrow from the repertoire of each other’s tribes; and Moa Subong and Arenla Subong, who blend their traditional Ao sounds with rock influences.
While their efforts have not been received enthusiastically by some folk practitioners, who worry that fusion could destroy the “real Naga tradition and culture”, they are convinced that fusion is also a way of keeping tradition alive. The older and younger generation may disagree about the means of preserving tradition, but they are both acutely aware of its importance, and the need to sustain it.
In fusion, according to musicologist Abraham Lotha, “Certain element of dilution is there but I would see it in a positive light in terms of the artistes trying to be creative in their musical talents, and in creating such kind of fusion music there is a market for it too. So it does help spread Naga music beyond the borders of the Naga areas.”
The film, which has been screened at film festivals in Warsaw, New York, Gothenburg and Kochi among others, had to be confined within the borders of Nagaland owing to budget constraints, but Borpujari hopes to take “this journey further into Naga singers in other parts of Northeastern India, someday in the future.”