Tunes of the tribes

Multi-instrumentalist Sankarshan Kini hopes to bring the music of isolated Arunachali tribes to the fore with his album Enchantation: Arunachal Folk Music Experiment

Arunachal Pradesh has 26 different tribes, with about 100 sub-tribes, and each has a different native language,” says Sankarshan Kini, who has travelled to the state five times last year.

The Wancho Ladies, whose harmonies seemed slightly discordant, at a recording session in their home in Arunachal Pradesh

In the year 2013, he was approached by Bobby Hano, one of the organisers of Arunachal’s most popular music festival Ziro, to work on a project to preserve the dying folk music of the tribes. “Never mind the rest of the country, even the youth among the tribes isn’t aware of their music. All of them have television sets in their bamboo huts and Bollywood has taken over,” reflects Kini.

Very often, their native languages bear the same fate. “The Khapa language, which is used by the Nocte tribe, is definitely on its way out,” he adds. Even the Nocte singers who performed the song ‘Chole’ — the first track on his album Enchantation: Arunachal Folk Music Experiment — don’t speak
the language.

Contemporary twist
Dr Hatobin Mai, who runs a charitable trust Living Dreams, commissioned Kini to give the tribal music a contemporary twist to get the youth as well as international audiences interested in the music. The result was a six-track album, featuring the songs of the Nocte, Nyishi, Monpa, Adi, Wancho and Galo tribes enhanced with a little bit of afro jazz, rhythm and blues, and a dose of Don Bhat’s electro-rock.

“I wouldn’t call it fusion, because that would mean we created a hybrid genre. This is a juxtaposition of two different genres. While some of the tribes use a combination of vocal projections, none of them supplement their vocals with instruments. The background music on the album could very well have been set to contemporary lyrics, but what sets it apart are the tribal voices,” says Kini, who played the guitar, violin, trumpet and bass for the album.

Different styles
“The Nocte sing about a boy and a girl swinging, but the others were mostly repetitive chants. The Wanchos, whose harmonies seemed slightly discordant, as well as the Buddhist monks of the Monpa tribes, were throat singing,” he reveals. Adamant that the latter not sound like the background music at a spa, Kini juxtaposed the chants with vocals from gospel and R&B vocalist Vasundhara Vidalur.

Kini played, composed and oversaw the production of the album, with Bhat producing two tracks, until it was presented before dignitaries during a state function on February 21. “I’ve now handed over the procedure to a music label and the album is likely to be available for public consumption soon,” he adds.

The trail
Kini’s first ‘recce’ trip was in October. Hopping into an SUV with Hano, the musician started from Itanagar to Ziro and Longding and drove across to the south of the state. “All we had was a mic, a laptop and a soundcard. We had eight days to meet eight tribes,” says Kini.

“We’d give them a day or two’s notice, informing them of our arrival. And yet, on some occasions we’ve landed up to find that the singers weren’t around. For them, days don’t really matter. I think they work according to seasons,” says Kini, reflecting on the very different work ethics as compared to Mumbai’s obsession with seconds, minutes and hours.

While recording was a typical creative challenge he is used to facing, these logistical challenges were tougher to handle. “The thought of working in a place that isn’t conducive to it isn’t pleasant,” he says. He admits that there are many musicians in the state he’d love to work with and for his next project he has his sights set on the Olo and the Apatani tribes.

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