‘Social distancing fuels creativity’

Guru Rewben Mashangva says his latest song captures the emotions of people affected by COVID-19

Updated - March 19, 2020 07:36 pm IST

Published - March 19, 2020 06:30 pm IST

For a musical antidote: Guru Rewben Mashangva

For a musical antidote: Guru Rewben Mashangva

Social distancing may be challenging to practice for many, but leaning into solitude comes quite naturally to Guru Rewben Mashangva. The Manipur-based musician believes that periods of self-quarantine are “useful for artists to fuel their creativity”. At the same time, contemporary issues and connection with human experience remains at the heart of his improvisatory approach to folk music. Sifting through the newspaper headlines a few weeks back, he had composed a song on coronavirus.

“On the empty streets, of Wuhan,

Fear and despair roam,

Wearing the face of

Coronavirus today….

Heartache and pain, we’ve been through before,

Heartache and pain, you’ve been through before,”

Driving home the point that music must be in sync with our shifting world, he says, “The news headlines talk of people as statistics, the number of affected people in China, Italy, India, but what are the feelings people are going through? Music must talk about that,” he emphasises, moving to the refrain of the song: “China be strong, be strong Wuhan…”

The self-taught musician blends folk music of the Tangkhul Naga tribe with Blues to create a unique musical universe. He has played with bands and as a soloist he sings and plays several instruments.

Extended hours of solo practice mark most days for Mashangva. Yet, when it comes to musical interactions, he prefers unrehearsed jams with other fellow musicians. “I like the spontaneous chemistry that emerges when musicians get together. I don’t like rehearsing too much with others and being too fixed, we need to tune in to each other in the moment and improvise.” His music remains rooted in folk flavours, yet it flows with the sway of the times. “The mind is fleeting all the time, our thoughts change each day, each moment. Even if I perform the same song another day, it will have different influences. It’s a different song each day.”

Re-imagining sounds

As we delve deeper into the conversation, Mashangva dishes out the slide he uses with his guitar. It is unusual, and looks slightly different. His face lights up with a grin as I curiously handle the slide ring. “I made this myself,” he adds quietly, “from spare car parts.” I wait for him to explain while he chuckles with enthusiasm. This is one among many more musical parts and instruments that he crafts himself.

“Sometimes, I am unable to find in the existing instruments, the exact sound that I’m imagining in my mind. So, I begin searching for ways to create those sounds, sometimes that leads to playing new instruments, playing the same instruments differently, producing new dimensions or carving a new instrument entirely!”

The guitar is his constant companion as he sings, yet he also dabbles with the bamboo flutes, drums and a variety of horns. “My father used to play the trumpet,” he recounts, “and he was also a carpenter.” For him, passion for music and carpentry fuse into experimenting with old and new tones.

As a youngster, he got his first guitar from buffalo traders from Burma who were travelling through a nearby village in the 1970s. “I had this guitar with me for a long time but I didn’t know how to play it, there were no music teachers in the district.” He would strum the instrument fondly, hoping to learn complex techniques some day, while he listened and learnt many folk songs from the singers in the community.

Turning point

“In 1987, I composed a folk song with my brother,” Mashangva recalls with delight. This became a turning point in his musical journey as they attempted to sing the folk melody with the guitar.

“We didn’t know how to play the guitar properly, and people told us that the guitar didn’t suit folk music. But I remember this strong conviction that I wanted to fuse the two. I didn’t know how, but I could sense this was what I wanted to do!”

His resilience led to deeper explorations into Blues, country music, and other similar genres. A decade later, he was skilfully fusing forms, hailed as the ‘father of the Naga Blues’ and the ‘Bob Dylan of the Nagas’. He reminisces, “In 1992, I performed a Bob Dylan song at a community celebration. I couldn’t speak English fluently, but I got the lyrics, and added a folk touch.”

Back to roots

He knew he had hit upon a unique aesthetic. Rehearsing alone for hours on end, he melded Dylan songs with the traditional folk repertoire.

A few months later, performing to an audience of more than thousand people at a festival, he received a standing ovation. He had carved his niche.

“Sounds of nature really inspire me,” he shares as he belts out another composition he calls ‘The Cicada Song’.Inspired by the sounds of the crickets, the song thrives on catchy rhythms and gripping insect sounds. The lyrics, written by Mashangva himself, are alternately hilarious and philosophical. His voice is strikingly youthful and matches the exuberance on his face. “Each season sounds different, have you noticed? In winters grass has dried, in the spring the new leaves blow with the wind, in the rains the water trickles at different speeds, it’s all music.”

For the musician, his folk roots are the essence of his music. “There is so much more to explore and share from the treasure of folk music. I find the new experiments by young musicians very exciting. If they layer western influences with the wisdom and depth of folk music, it will give their music a different dimension,” he says.

For Mashangva, no conversation is complete without music. He picks up the guitar again, and asks me to tap along as he attempts to improvise a song out of our conversation.

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