Popular Music Subculture and the Northeast Youth
By K B Veio Pou
“Goin’ where the wind blows”
John Ruskin once said, “Tell me what you like, and I’ll tell you what you are”. Often, this truth is also expressed about the taste of other things in life, like fashion or music. Sometimes, somehow, there is also a regional or generational similarity in the choices made. And the youth from the Northeast of India share a craze for western flavoured popular music, particularly of the Rock and alternative genre. The emergence of Hornbill Fest, NH7 Weekender Shillong, Ziro Fest, etc. is a manifestation of the popularity of this subculture in the region. This is an everyday reality that is expressed by the youth wherever they find themselves in. Duncan McDuie-Ra in his book Northeast Migrants in Delhi: Race, Refuge and Retail (2012) narrates how the Northeasterners found new hubs even in metro cities like Delhi where distinct flavours of food, fashion and music find expression.
Back in the 1990s when I was in Shillong, there was a craze for popular music, mostly of the rock music. Collections of ‘Yearbook’ – compilation of the best songs of the year – and RSJ (Rock Street Journal) were sought after hobbies of the youth. The 90s was also the heydays of ‘Rock’ music in India. Thanks to the popularization of foreign satellite televisions those days, especially MTV, the culture had far reaching effect. The era saw the launch of the popular RSJ and GIR (Great Indian Rock) concerts which are still affecting the youth today as almost strongly as when they were newly launched. And Shillong was a rock music capital of the country, not far behind other metros like Mumbai and Bangalore in hosting international bands. The region with Shillong as the locus of music, particularly western, attracted international popular bands like Smokie, Bryan Adams, Air Supply, Firehouse, MLTR, and the Christian rock band Petra, to name a few, entertained the fans. Music is certainly a great unifier!
Most people from other parts of India often ask me how it is that most young people from Northeast know how to play at least one musical instrument, especially guitar, apart from singing mellifluously. I don’t really have an answer for that but music is pretty much ingrained in the culture. Perhaps, musics flow in our veins! Reuben Mashangvah, the well-known Naga folk-guru once interestingly put it this way:
Since we were kids, we get hooked to the sound of guitar. We used to work in jhum fields and earn money to buy guitars that came from Burma. But then no one could play the guitar. There was no one to teach us. What we would do was we listened to the radio and discovered the keys and chords for ourselves (David Buhril, “North East India: India’s Rock Hub” in North East Sun, December 15, 2006, p. 21).
Perhaps, that explains a bit! What Reuben said is very much a shared experience of the growing up youth of the region. And undeniably, there is the influence of the western style of music and technology. Writing for RSJ while talking about the music scene in the region, Randeep Kaur says, “The North Eastern region of India is undoubtedly the home to some of the most incredibly talented musicians – it houses some of the best of metal, electronic, folk, fusion, pop and jazz musicians in the country” (“Continuity & Community”, RSJ, March 17, 2018).
I remember, growing up in the countryside and listening to the favorite ‘western music’ played on different radio stations, AIR Shillong, AIR Kohima, and AIR Imphal, as something to look forward to during the day. Though cassettes were available, it wasn’t quite affordable for us to buy all of them in the market. Picking up a nice collection of it was all we could do at a time. And radio could provide us the desired variety. And what’s more, it used to be aired when it suited us best, time-wise. The lazy afternoon normally turned into a lively one the moment the clock struck the time for western music. We could really resonate with the Carpenters when they sang, “When I as young I listen to the radio/ Waiting for my favorite song” (“Yesterday Once More”). It was not just the listening but like Reuben Mashangvah we would try out best to strum our treasured guitars like the ones we’d heard in the radio and cassettes. Not everyone possessed guitars, but if one in the friend circle got it, it was like everyone’s property. We would strum the chords and play it “till our fingers bleed” to rhyme with Bryan Adams’ “best days of my life” (“Summer of ‘69”).
“Life in the Fast Lane”
The advancement of technology and the enlarging communication systems have certainly contributed a lot to the development of a ‘global market’. The world we live in is transforming at a very quick pace: it’s ‘life in the fast lane’. And the Northeast is not left far behind in the ‘rat race’. The ‘images’ that get circulated in the internet have far-widening effect on the youth. The long hair, tattoos, body piercing, etc. have rapidly transformed the ‘lifestyle’ of the youth. The ‘easy going’ nature of the young people has paved the way for the modernized western lifestyle to seep into the ‘open’ culture of the tribes of Northeast.
On hindsight, however, globalization as a policy to permeate the economies of the rest of the world is largely American in nature, given the fact that the western culture is dominated by American values. Being home to “most of the products that dominates daily life around our globe”, America has benefited from its ‘soft power’ as much as it has been strengthened through her ‘hard power’ – military might (Shashi Tharoor, “Can India be a World Leader?” in Reference Yearbook 2005, p. 98). This ‘soft power’ is even more powerful than the ‘hard power’. It does not cause casualties like the ‘hard power’ but seeps into the lives of people and slowly dominates their everyday life. And, of course, this is very relevant in today’s world. America has learned it well that it doesn’t need to use its ‘hard power’ to dominate the world; its ‘soft power’ works in its favor. There was a time when the idea of a nation was limited to territorial terms. In today’s global network society when every corner of the world is “interconnected by nodes”, the peripheries are deterritorialized (Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, 2000, p. 501).
And, of course, one cannot also ignore the commercial or the money aspect of it: “Cultural forms like popular music always relate to money and power” (Johan Fonnas, “Moving Rock: Youth and Pop in late Modernity” in Popular Music Vol. 9 No. 3, October, 1990, p. 292). The emergence of pop/icon and the craze after rock bands can be looked upon as ‘symbols’ that attract the attention of people. A popular music genre is always sought after. And from generation to generation the popularity of music changes. From the jazz to rock ‘n’ roll to rock to reggae to pop to rap to hip-hop to technologically-influenced music of dance remixes and trance genre changes too with the strategy of the market. This is more so since the late 1990s up till now and these are mainly manipulated according to the taste of the consumer. And then, there is the ‘selling’ factor of the product. The fact that rock music sells in the Northeast is already a reason for the international mediators or sponsors to eye that region. And this has been further quickened by the emergence of transnational media and network systems.
‘Enter the Fusion Music’: Resurgence of tradition?
For a long time now, however, music as a career has never been encouraged by the older generation/parents for moral as well as economic reasons. The moral reason is closely tied to the kind of images that the popular icons have displayed – rebellion, sex, drugs, etc. – thereby painting a picture in the minds of the parents that ‘rock’ culture is destructive and hence to be discarded. But the second reason, that is, economic viability, has bigger implications. The largely agrarian society has not quite seen music as a sustainable career option, let alone the high cost of investment that is usually required. But lately, these hurdles have been crossed as many youths from the region have made successful music careers, both locally as well as internationally. It is not a surprise that most schools in the Delhi NCR have people from the Northeast as music teachers/instructors, particularly the western music.
Even in the states of the region, of late, there has been a big push to promote music as an industry. An example can be taken of the Nagaland state government’s initiative to launch the Special Task Force for Music (STFM) in 2005 to promote the music industry. Since then there has been a visible and steady growth of the industry in the state. But this also brings to fore the need for a political will backed by a well-planned commercial strategy to enable a conducive growth of music in the region. The fact that the now famous Hornbill Festival continues to draw publicity and host grand music fest is because it is a state-sponsored annual event under STEM.
On the same note, there is also a kind of resurgence among the Nagas to pick up their long-ignored musical tradition. With a legacy of a vibrant oral tradition where music has a quintessential role to play, the Naga musicians have experimented and reinvented their own musical root. In course of time, there is development of a fusion music genre. By and large, this genre has mystified music lovers. The success of Tetseo Sisters, Abiogenesis, The Purple Fusion, just to name a few, has strengthened this newfound interest. Perhaps, this is also a conscious choice for many music lovers because the fusion music has greater affinity with the folk. This new indigenous identity injected to music shows some promising future in the social relevance of musical art. There is now a rise in the youth music bands that blend their acquired knowledge of the western music and the freshly discovered music of their own and make a different genre of music that is yet to be discovered by the world. We see this slowly penetrating the church music too. For the Nagas, being largely Christian, the church holds an important place in shaping the mindset of the people. There is a clear visible rise of interest in ethnomusicology and it incorporates the church music sphere too. And for a good reason, the fusion music is the one which is likely to sustain.
Picture Credit: Banshanlang Kamar
KB Veio Pou teaches in the English Department at Shaheed Bhagat Singh College, University of Delhi, and is the author of Literary Cultures of India’s Northeast: Naga Writings in English (2015). He has a PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His area of interest includes Writings in English from the Northeast, Oral Tradition, Cultural Studies, Modernist and Post-colonial literature.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.
Thank you for this enjoyable article. As my maternal side is from Shillong and Guwahati, I know how fluidity of music is at another level. It has definitely been one of the bedrocks of my young life so far. To think that Shillong witnessed The Scorpions in action few years ago made such a mark for me.