Woodstock Meets Glastonbury: Arunachal's Indie Music Scene
A 'small step' in building a scene for independent artists.
ITANAGAR: Seated on a large wingback sofas in the café of a luxury hotel in Itanagar, a group of young musicians huddle around a round table. In the adjacent restaurant where the air conditioning seems to be working better and will act as the venue for a concert later in the evening, a woman croons 90s songs as part of the band’s sound check.
“We’ve had times when people from the crowd shout at us on stage saying: Local bajao, Hindi gana gao (sing tribal or Hindi songs) when we play our originals,” Nabam Takar says.
Unlike most other tribal-majority states of Northeast India, Arunachal Pradesh’s brush with western or English-language popular music happened only in the late 80s. In the other states of the region such as Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Mizoram, surrounded by Bangladesh, China, and Myanmar, where American and British missionaries had introduced Christianity in the later part of the 1800s, indigenous tribal people had already been acquainted with English-language gospels, hymns, and Christmas carols.
In Arunachal Pradesh, the first brush with non-indigenous music came in the form of Bihu songs from the neighbouring Assamese and later Hindi songs from radio and the state-owned Doordarshan programmes such as Rangoli and Chitrahaar. That coupled with the introduction of Hindi as a medium of instruction in schools across the state meant that by the time the 90s rolled in, the tribal indigenous people of Arunachal Pradesh were hooked to Bollywood music.
In those days, being able to play the guitar was an anomaly in the state and those of who listened to Queen, Guns & Roses, and Bon Jovi, were invariably introduced to them from their time spent in Shillong, often called the rock & roll capital of India, during their boarding school days or in college.
By the late 90s and early 2000s, however, a few dared to take to the stage during small gigs playing covers of popular English songs.
Originals were a no-no.
Things began to change somewhere around the 2010s when the YouTube generation had taken over the MTV generation globally. Singing self-composed original songs became the aspiration.
The response so far has been mixed.
“It’s still a niche crowd that is willing to come out and listen to us singing our original songs,” said Takar, who started as a guitarist before transitioning into a crooner on his own right and releasing two albums.
Dambi Jini, a singer who recently cut two new singles in her Galo language, said that she is not opposed to singing covers as long as the audience has a good time.
“But the satisfaction of singing originals cannot be compared,” she smiles.
As is the case with most places across India, the life of a musician isn’t all sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Making ends meet remains a priority and convincing parents that they want to make music their livelihood is difficult.
“Finding support from your family and relatives is not easy,” says Narmi Jamoh, the bassist for David Angu and the band.
Narmi says that in Arunachal Pradesh, at least, surviving on music alone is not possible.
His singer, David, disagrees.
“You can survive on music alone,” he says, and that there are several paid gigs up for grab. “But you will have to play Bollywood music,” he adds coyly.
Narmi and David have been performing together in different iterations of the band since they played their first gig in the seventh grade- a farewell party for graduating students.
Toko Teji, a drummer who shot to fame when he came second in the second season of India’s version of ‘Got Talent’ in 2010, says that it is an uphill climb for most musicians.
“As artists we want to exercise our creative freedom but not everyone can connect to a particular style of music,” he says.
As for the economic struggles of a musician, Teji realises it’s not easy for everyone.
“I have my own studio (which he rents out for recording sessions) so I personally don’t have much to worry about,” says the prodigious drummer who, incidentally, was my junior in school.
On the day I spoke to the musicians, almost all of whom are still in their twenties, June 21, he and around 15 to 20 other musicians were huddling for a gig to celebrate World Music Day.
A self-funded event organised by the Arunachal Independent Musicians Forum- a loose collective of musician-friends, Takar said that he’d consider the event a success even if only a 100 people buy tickets.
While the independent music scene in Arunachal Pradesh isn’t exactly bursting at the seams, the state does play host to one of the fastest-growing music festivals in the country.
Bobby Hano, the man behind the Ziro Festival of Music (think Woodstock-esque hippie vibes meets the mud and slush of Glastonbury Festival), feels there’s still a long way to go before the music scene explodes.
“The amount of raw talent in the state does not match the amount of music currently being produced,” says Hano, who says that the lack of venues and festivals is one reason for the slow growth of the independent music scene while another being the lack of enthusiasm from audiences.
“For a thriving independent music scene, we need not just proactive musicians but also listeners,” he adds.
That afternoon, the mood is not one of unbridled optimism. Or even negativity. Everyone in the room and the restaurant was seemingly well-aware of the reality that a massive turnout of people will not happen.
Teji says that the event and the Arunachal Independent Musicians Forum, which came about initially as friends chatted in a WhatsApp group, is a ‘small step’ in building a scene for independent artists.
In the end, ten acts took to the stage and performed songs that cut across languages and genres. English and Hindi songs aside, the acts also performed songs in indigenous Adi, Galo, and Nyishi languages.
Takar says that he was “extremely happy” by the response of the people and hopes that the event will be just the beginning in a long road ahead.
And they did cross the ‘100 tickets sold’ mark.