Music has always been rife and rich in the north-eastern corner of India. The legendary Bhupen Hazarika and Lou Majaw from the days of yore to contemporary favourites like Soulmate, Boomarang, Abiogenesis, the North East has consistently produced music synonymous with brilliance.
Besides soloist and groups, several all-women bands are proliferating in the North East. The Tetseo Sisters are a household name, hailing from the Chakhesang tribe; the sisters come from a small village of barely 400 people in a town called Thüvepisu in Nagaland.
For the uninitiated, the quartet consists of four sisters from Nagaland — Mütsevelü (Mercy), Azine (Azi), Kuvelü (Kuku) and Alüne Tetseo (Lulu). Their genre is folk — traditional Naga folk songs in particular. They were trained in performing Li songs of Chakesang tribe by their parents who are actively involved in the cultural revival movement of Nagaland. An ‘a cappella’ style of singing combined with storytelling, and the occasional use of one-stringed instrument ‘tati’ or ‘heka libuh’ (mithun horn), their compositions are mostly lores on Nagaland. Some of the folk songs they sing have been compiled in the traditional songbook Li kukre kutiko. The sisters continue to learn Li, mostly in Thüvepisü, their ancestral village in Phek district, and regularly perform in different parts of India and overseas.
In a state that has a reputation for being highly musical, today the Tetseo Sisters are one of just a handful of professional bands that perform traditional Naga music, whereas all the other bands across Nagaland have drifted to perform gospel, rock, pop or other Western genres of music.
The Tetseo Sisters have performed at festivals across the globe, including Hornbill Festival in their home state and at the 2014 Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo in the U.K.
Lulu, Mercy, Kuku, minus Azine, were in Mumbai some time back and gave a rousing performance at the (Experimental Theatre) NCPA in Mumbai. We had a short chat with the girls backstage.
Tell us about Tetseo Sisters, the band. How did it all begin?
We are a sibling group of four sisters backed up by our parents and our only brother. It all started with learning a folk song to dance to for a cultural dance competition in school. We put up a great show along with some friends and from there, it took off to appearances on local TV, school functions and eventually official state programmes, cultural exchange programmes and festivals. The group of young children and afterwards teenagers fell back to two teenaged sisters and two toddlers singing folk songs on TV and now we are all young adults doing what we love best — performing the beautiful folk songs of our land for the world to hear.
How do you define your music and which genre would you put in?
We primarily perform folk songs of the Chakhesang Naga tribe, especially songs sung by people in our village, Thüvopisü in Phek District of Nagaland along with some folk fusion and a bit of English pop, choral and gospel music as well.
Your music is strikingly different from other bands and it has a way that connects to the audience. What is the selling point that makes it different from other vocal groups?
Our music is definitely different. It’s kind of organic, rustic and raw but soothing and sweet at the same time. The vocal style of Li focuses on the harmony of different voices with strong dynamics in line with the mood of the song. Our USP is an effort to provide a complete experience of voice, context, stories and colours through our costumes, instrumentation and our own life experience with Li and what it means to us and our people. We think of ourselves as storytellers through song and verse.
Where do you draw inspiration from? Who’s been that one person who acts as a source of motivation?
Our parents have always been our main motivators and often play the devil’s advocates too. Life, nature, friends, people and all that happens around us provide inspiration.