The Singing Sisterhood

Meenakshi Kumar 05 May 2014

Grounded in tradition, the Tetseo Sisters have revived local Naga folk music, ‘Li’, and contemporized it to suit modern tastes. But in doing that they have not compromised on the essence of the folk music. The four sisters, Mercy, Azi, Alune and Kuvelu, have been performing since childhood, and are perhaps the only girls band which has been making music together for so long. The sisters sing in the local dialect Chokri.  In an interview, they tell NE Travel and Life their memorable performances and what it’s like singing together as sisters.

When did the Tetseo Sisters come together to form a band? What was the idea behind forming this group?

We have been performing as children for a long time now starting in the early 1990s. Eventually we were recognized as a group who sings folk songs and since then our journey has continued. We never thought of forming a band. It just happened over many years and not at a particular moment. As we continued performing, we realized that we were doing something good and real, and we concentrated on doing the best that we could with it.

Your music is rooted in Naga tradition. Was it a conscious decision to sing Naga folk songs and not succumb to the pressures of western music? Tell us about the music that you sing?

We have been promoting Naga folk music but we also perform western music. In Nagaland, there are so many talented musicians and we love western music. But ‘Li’ or Naga folk songs is something the people of our land live with. Before we had western music and hymns, we had Li. With Li it has been a journey of discovery. The songs that we sing are folk songs from the Chakhesang tribe of Nagaland. The dialect is called Chokri and there are thousands of songs, all passed on from generation to generation orally. It is a community activity essentially, and more a way of life than strictly a performance. Our songs are about life, love, people, relationships, history, nature and anything under the sun.

How do you rehearse for your songs? Do you always agree or have disagreements among yourselves? Who among you is the one you all listen to?

When we are apart, we listen to our recorded material and practice. Or we get on the phone and try out parts; or practice on our own. We rehearse in the car too sometimes, run through lyrics, song list and verses wherever or whenever. We have our share of agreement and disagreement but we usually see eye to eye. Or rationalize and the majority wins after considering all the angles. We all get our moment.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of sisters singing together?

Advantages are more than disadvantages. The level of understanding and comfort is high. We understand each other and split responsibilities to keep the team thing going. The only disadvantage is that we take it for granted that we will be together all the time, which doesn’t really work out every time and we expect the others to be there all the time. We all have our own thing going on and it is hard to coordinate for travel with our personal schedules.

Who or what is your inspiration?

Many people and a lot of different things inspire us. Our parents, friends, people, nature, different cultures, events, music and art are among the things that inspire us.

Which are the places you have performed in so far? What has been the most memorable performance till date?

We have performed across India. Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Ahmedabad, Mussoorie, Guwahati, Tura, Shillong are some of the cities we have performed in besides the many venues in Nagaland. We have performed twice in Bangkok, Thailand and are looking forward to more performances abroad. We have had some great fun and every gig has something special to it. Handshake, Bangkok 2011 was a good evening and so was Folk Nations 2013, Blue Frog Mumbai. Storm Festival Bangalore 2014 and Simsang Festival, Meghalaya in 2012 are some lovely experiences till date.

Are there other all-women bands in Nagaland?

There are other all-women groups in Nagaland for sure but we are the more easily recognized group. In fact, we are the only group doing this consistently for a long time. It is pretty awesome to be the first name that comes to mind when people talk of all-girls group and folk group in music circles and even outside.

When you look back, how has the journey been?

We rarely look back but we have had a great journey and we look forward to many more years of fulfilling music.

What lies ahead? What are your plans in the next few years?

We usually don’t plan too much. A lot that has happened over the years has been spontaneous and things just fell into place. Sometimes we spend days planning and it doesn’t pan out, at other times, they just click. So, we believe in being prepared for all eventualities and when it clicks, then we pour in our all and work really hard.

Photo credit: Tetseo Sisters

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