Imphal-based Akhu Chingangbam claims he’s a lousy physicist. But the musician, popularly known for his role as frontman of alternate folk rock band Imphal Talkies, did complete his doctorate studies--if only to prove to his detractors that “it wasn’t just the uneducated who chose music.” Chingangbam, who performed in Mumbai last week, is most excited about his latest venture--the Imphal Music Project--which allows him to collaborate with other like-minded musicians to spread awareness about issues plaguing the people around him.
What is the idea behind the Imphal Music Project? How do you choose your collaborations?
The project began out of my determination to bring to fore topics that aren’t talked about in the mainstream. For instance, the song for the first collaboration--with Indian Ocean bass guitarist Rahul Ram, Naga folk singer Guru Rewben Mashangva, multi-instrumentalist Hem Gurumayum, Imphal Talkies guitarist Sachin Angom and Sunil Loitongbam--talks about the communal conflict in Manipur. Just before we began recording the song in January, a Manipuri film actress (from the Meitei community) was assaulted by a member of the Naga socialist army. It was very fitting for Guru Rewben and me, as a Meitei, to sing together. The song is also about losing touch with tradition and culture and about Manipur’s Loktak Lake. Rahul Ram, who I’d met many years earlier, during a student protest in Delhi, sang a few lines in Manipuri about the sangai deer which is nearing extinction. The song was something I wrote in 2003, but it’s still very relevant.
I really enjoy collaborating with other artistes. It helps me understand other cultures. When I choose who to jam with, it isn’t about the kind of music they play but what they believe in. It is important that they be concerned by what’s happening around them.
Which artistes are part of the second episode of the project?
Mumbai-based guitarist Sumit Bhattacharya has come on board. I’m looking for other artistes to collaborate with. I even wrote to Joan Baez one night--I did get a response, probably from her agent, but it was in the negative. But jokes apart, it would be really fitting to work with a Bangladeshi artiste this time, because the song is about the Shahbag protests which began in Dhaka in February in demand of capital punishment for the accused war criminals of the 1971 Liberation War. I have been reading a lot about the protests and am currently writing the song, which will be partly in Bengali (which Sumit will help me with) and partly in English.
Your first album, Tiddim Road, was released in 2009. When can we expect the second one?
I have decided to release a double album containing 28 songs next. The recording will begin in April. While the first album was completely in Manipuri, the second one will also have songs in English. My bandmate Sachin likes to stick to Manipuri, but writing comes to me very spontaneously--sometimes I write in English and other times in Manipuri.
Apart from the guitar and harmonica, which other instruments do you use?
I recently bought the ukulele in Thailand. It is a Hawaiian string instrument, which I taught myself how to use online. I’ve also used the pena in my latest release--Lullaby--it is a traditional Meitei instrument.
What is your opinion about the current music scene in Imphal?
Rock music has become a huge part of Imphal. Street concerts happen all the time--we even had one to celebrate Holi. But what’s really disturbing to me is how Americanised the young rockers’ way of understanding the world is. I just can’t digest that. I haven’t seen any of them sing or talk about the troubles we’re facing in Manipur. It’s strange to me how they witness something horrific and then go on stage and sing Hotel California! For me, when you have a microphone on stage--that’s when you can tell your story, that’s when people will listen to you. That is why I choose to sing songs such as Eche (a tribute to Irom Sharmila) and India, I See Blood in Your Hands.
Music helps me express anger. I was a student in Delhi for 13 years, but I constantly felt like an outsider. Most people believed I wasn’t Indian. Back in Imphal, it was no easier. The common people here are constantly caught between the Naxalites and the government.
Has singing protest songs got you into trouble?
Not yet. But my parents are worried about me. People believe I’m part of a political outfit--but that’s not true at all. My music is only about expressing myself. Besides, not everything I write about is political.
How did you go from studying Physics to writing protest poetry and music?
My aunt, who I lived with while I was attending university in Delhi, introduced me to a lot of American poets, including Robert Frost and Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. But it wasn’t until I read Allen Ginsberg’s poem ‘America’ that I was truly inspired. I began researching Manipuri literature and came across the works of 1960s poets Thangjam Ibopishak and Yumlembam Ibomcha. I began writing at this time too. My first poem was about a professor who used to teach us Mathematical Physics. He was pretty old, he could barely stand against the blackboard to write; he would sit on a chair and show us the solutions.
Even today, I’m more into poetry than music. A couple of friends and I publish a journal in Delhi called ‘Our Private Literature.’ We began this journal because we find that others don’t understand our kind of poetry. Now we have entries coming in from Kerala and Maharashtra.
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