Tetseo Sisters Keep Traditional Folk Songs Alive


The message of happiness, life, birth and love; the pleasure of a carefree childhood, of growing up in humble surroundings away from the region’s political upheavals, the contentment that comes with a spartan lifestyle amidst tranquil, lush green forests…

When one hears about the wonders of life in the singsong voices of the Tetseo sisters’ quartet of Kohima, even without understanding the meanings of the words, one is lost, enthralled.

Nehi mozo…… hi yo ha nu di yo le

Uhi yole…… hi yo lohe liazho

Vesetsolu…… hi yo vo Vesetsolu

(There is none that I desire, love, but you!)

(Vesetsolu…..A song for you, beloved Vesetsolu)

“This is a simple song, an ode to Vesetsolu Lizo, a fair damsel sent to tend to the cattle. Our forefathers had such an endearing way of expressing their emotions in a simple, lyrical way using hardly any instrument as accompaniment, that their words and music touched a chord with every listener,” says Mercy Tetseo, 29, the eldest of four sisters, who are today working hard to keep alive the traditional folk songs from Nagaland.

There are more than a 100 ‘Li’, or folksongs of the Chakhesang Naga tribe, that the Kohima-based Tetseo siblings – Mutsevelu (Mercy), Azine (Azi), Alune and Kuvelu – are singing in Chokri dialect these days, to the accompaniment of the one-string Tati, or Heka Libuh as it is known in the Naga language. This instrument, the only one used locally, is very similar to the ‘ektara’ (one stringed instrument) used by singers of bhajans, kirtangars and other traditional non-classical singers in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and even Egypt.

Having spent their entire childhood going on long treks amidst the beautiful hillocks of their Thuvopisu village, in Nagaland’s Phek district, it was very easy for the girls to pick up, understand and identify with Li. Everywhere they went, they heard these songs that had been passed down for generations in these parts. “We heard and learnt it from our mother’s womb,” says Mercy, laughingly. “But this certainly doesn’t mean we don’t like or sing any other form of songs,” adds Kuvelu, 19, the youngest of Tetseo sisters, hastily.

That’s why when their band of four performs at concerts, along with their music composer and sound engineer brother, Mhaseve, they also take requests for popular Bollywood numbers and Western pop songs. “We listen to all styles of music, including folk, from different parts of the world. From country music and Bollywood songs, particularly those of composer A.R. Rehman, to international singles of Katie Melua, Celine Dion, Norah Jones, Yanni, Muse and Enigma, there’s nothing we can’t sing,” elaborates the shy youngster, who has just completed her Class 12. What the sisters find very amusing is that while their Indian audiences demand Bollywood numbers or other pop songs, foreigners crave for Naga folk music.

Although Kuvelu and her sisters have been good at academics too – Mercy, Azi and Alune are postgraduates in psychology, political science and sociology from Delhi University – singing is their family’s legacy. Their mother Setsulu, a singer, and father Kevesho, a well-known Tati player, were the force behind the children’s interest in folk songs.

Says Mercy, “Mother is a perfectionist. When we were younger, she would warn us, ‘either sing properly or don’t even attempt it’.” Her other piece of advice, ‘always perform with a cheerful smile so others can enjoy your music’, has also never been ignored. In fact, in those young days, Mercy remembers receiving extra pocket money from Setsulu after a particularly great performance.

In the last 15 odd years, the sisters have been either performing together or at times in pairs. They have regularly appeared at numerous cultural programmes, musical events and festivals in their home state and across India, including at the annual Hornbill Festival of Nagaland, various state road shows, Northeast youth festivals, India International Trade Fair (IITF) events in Delhi and the Handshake Concerts in Mumbai (2009) and Delhi (2010) and Bangkok, Thailand (2012).

“Music is in the blood of all Nagaland people. Almost all of us sing here. And now in the last six to seven years, with the government paying more attention to the youth of the state, more and more musical bands – rock and fusion, particularly – are emerging from our region,” says Mercy.

Despite the fact that “music is really encouraged here”, the sisters are unhappy that many of the old Li melodies are being lost due to a lack of performers. Moreover, there is nothing written or recorded in Li music as well. Not only songs, but even some of the local dialects, are getting obscure. On their part, the quartet makes it a point to travel to far corners of Nagaland and seek out elderly singers who remember the songs. The effort is to pick up the words and tunes and incorporate them in the sisters’ own repertoire.

The variety offered by the folk music tradition of this small state on the northeastern fringes of India is astounding. For example, the Southern Angamis of Kohima district have a rich repertoire of folk songs; the Sumis of Zunheboto district and the Rengmas of the Tseminyu subdivision in Kohima district, too, have their own lilting tunes. The Aos of Mokokchung are distinguished for their beautiful solos, or folk story telling in song, while the Zeliangrongs have the bamboo and hornbill dances, as accompaniments to their music. The tribes of Chakhesang, Sumi, Lotha, Chang, Yimchunger and Konyak have vigorous and complicated, yet elegant, war dances, with spine-chilling war cries and chants.

Say the talented sisters, “Elderly people tend to forget some of the words. In such cases we pen our own verses to fill in the gaps.” The quartet usually performs without frequent repeats in songs during the average of six to seven concerts that they hold every month in Nagaland. Each event includes a minimum of 10-12 songs. But whenever they perform outside the state – they hold six to seven such concerts a year – it is their novelty factor that attracts audiences.

“We are always attired in our colourful state dress and use the Tati as the accompanying instrument. People are curious about us and that helps us in drawing in the audiences. Of course, we also make it a point to explain the meaning of the songs, as we go along, which helps everybody enjoy the melody,” elaborates Mercy.

The Tetseo Sisters have recently launched their maiden album, ‘Li Chapter One: The Beginning’, and they hope that with it Li will get the appreciation it deserves among followers of folk music and thus claim its rightful place in the repertoire of world music. “We want to tell the world at large that there is a whole lot more to the Northeast than just violence and strife. Open your ears to Li and you will find the message of peace, harmony and friendship like all folk music,” chorus the sisters.

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