FOLK MUSIC Guru Rewben Mashangva, conferred the National Tribal Award in New Delhi this week, talks about his efforts at restoring songs and musical instruments of hisTangkhul Naga community. SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY

In his songs there is more than rhythm and a die-for rasping voice. In his instruments is the touch and feel of generations that are long gone. Forever clad in tradition, even a hairdo representative of his Tangkhul Naga tribe, Imphal-based musician Guru Rewben Mashangva's is a pretty fascinating story.

Son of a poor carpenter, Rewben's first guitar as a child was crafted by his father. “I saw a toy guitar with some child in my neighbourhood; we were poor, couldn't have afforded it but I was very keen. Realising that, my father made one for me,” says Rewben, in New Delhi this week to receive the Central Government's National Tribal Award for his outstanding contribution to tribal music and art.

To Rewben goes singularly the acclaim of reviving Hao music, music that belongs to his tribe that populates along the Indo-Myanmar border. The vanishing act was largely due to the advent of new music in their society, such as carol singing with the spread of Christianity during the British period.

Rewben grants credit for his 21 years of research work on the subject to his memory. “As a child I used to hear my father sing Hao songs. Since I was also very interested in music since childhood, and used to sing carols in the church, I loved hearing him sing. But by the time I grew up the old songs were nowhere to be heard. That made me think and I wanted to know my own culture,” says the 51-year-old. So village to village he travelled, met old people, scratched their memory, recorded the lyrics and started singing them in gatherings and concerts. “I have covered around 200 villages since 1990 looking for these songs,” he says.

The songs mostly celebrate nature. “They are in short forms but we have them for every season. Then we have songs about rivers, the hills, the universe, the heaven, about harvesting. We also have songs about women.” These songs, along with his own music which reek of political unrest in Manipur, comprise three albums so far. “The last one came in November 2011,” he says. These songs have the Blues feel and are now referred to as Naga Blues.

Alongside, Rewben has also revived two of his tribes' musical instruments lost to the times. One is a flute, yankahuii, and the other is a violin-like instrument, tingtelia. “The flute is three feet long, very thin, reed like, made of bamboo. Tingtelia is again made of bamboo with a bow that has strings made from the hair of horse tails,” he explains.

Salvaging these folk instruments was not easy. To revive the tingtelia, he needed seven years. “Most old people I talked to were pretty sketchy. I don't blame them, they had not seen these instruments for long and hence had faded memory of them. I began by drawing them and finally got the shape right. It To get the sound out of them is another story. It took me a couple of years,” he says.

Interestingly here, Rewben points out the deep bond between the people and the local produce — bamboo. “Bamboo has been an important part of tribal life in the North East. From making their houses to furniture to utensils, it has been used everywhere. These instruments prove its connection with the local music too.” He also remembers his father playing a trumpet-like instrument made of bamboo. “I am thinking of making one like that but what I am scared of is that it would need a lot of energy, lung power to play it,” he says, chuckling.

Rewben is teaching Hao music to his son, Saka. Donning the traditional ponytail Haokuirut, Saka accompanies Rewben to most concerts. Rewben's love for his culture and the resolve to preserve it is impressive but what shocks you is when he says, “You know, we are wrongly called Tangkhul Nagas. We are actually Hao Nagas. The British named us Tangkhul because of a misunderstanding. Tangkhul in Hao language means ‘yes'. So our elders were merely saying ‘yes' to the British, thinking they got the name of the tribe right. And before they knew it, they began to be called Tangkhul Nagas!”

Rewben is teaching Hao music to his son, Saka. Donning the traditional ponytail Haokuirut, Saka accompanies Rewben to most concerts.