Mar 15, 2013

Naga Musicians You Didn’t Know Were ‘Big’ outside Nagaland

When the athletic Nagas aren’t busy running from bullets, they are singing songs. The association can be traced to the ancient times. Those days when dangling crotches and cheeky brown posteriors were the houte couture of the day, death metal was a common musical style – ancient Naga warriors sang beautiful war songs when lovingly lobbing off their enemies’ heads. Of course, their ill-fated opponents had no option but to sing a death metal song before donating their precious hair to the cause of music.

In 2008, probably the very first-ever production album – pro work, that is – from Nagaland surfaced in the form of ‘El Roi,’ from a Kohima rock band that went by the moniker Divine Connection. In 2010, the band would swing their way into India’s vibrant but poverty-stricken rock scene by winning an MTV talent hunt ‘Kurkure Desi Beats Rock On.’

Then, came a nerdy group of dreamers called Alobo Naga & The band who found themselves performing their screen, sorry, dream, when VH1 decided that this chinky-eyed bunch of talents were worth big airtime. Soon enough during summer 2011, their single ‘Painted Dreams’ began its mission towards pulverizing nearly every Indian TV that had a VH1 channel. The rest, as they say, is no mystery. Nagaland was clearly good old Hindustan’s biggest rock factory since Rock Machine.

I think.

But that’s only what popular Media tell you. You’d probably heard only about Divine Connection and Alobo Naga & the Band. For those of you who believe Facebook is Gospel, here are some Naga musicians you hadn’t come yet to click the ‘like’ button. 

Naga purists, go eat your hearts out. The following musicians have achieved a bigger distinction not so much for landing a TV spot or wining reality shows but by their longevity, prominence and establishment in foreign music industries.

Ren Merry: Naga Pioneer & Legend

Several weeks ago, there was a name in the Governor’s Award for Excellence list for 2013. Renthungo Merry.

Eyebrows went up at least 700 meters high.

Who the eff was this Renthungo Merry? The man – probably the first full-fledged classical guitarist from among the heavy-headed Nagas – is Ren Merry. 

Ren Merry will always be the one guitarist who held fortress on his own – or built one – when every Aren, Abemo and Asalie  were pounding their heads into the wall in the name of noise. In 2010 he was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Calcutta Classical Guitar Society for contribution to classical guitar music. The US-based guitar instructor was one of the six classical guitar masters. 

For a long time, Ren Merry shared a fate similar to Naga novelist Easterine Iralu’s – seen and heard but unsung. Only this year did Ren Merry finally find recognition in the form of the Governor’s Award. He is today an acclaimed classical guitar instructor in Colorado and a known fixture in the academic classical music population Colorado and neighboring US states.

Merry was born in Wokha, the place that would lead him on decades of journey all the way to the United States of America. Upon graduation in 1992 with a Master’s degree in Music Performance, he returned to Nagaland with his American wife Tammie to teach at Patkai Christian College. Following a five years stint as classical guitar instructor, he left for the United States. There, he taught music at Westminster Christian Academy in Louisiana, the United States, for seven years. He was recently conferred doctorate in Music Education by the University of Northern Colorado.

The virtuoso doesn’t wish to talk much about his early albums released in Nagaland. He has a CD titled Ren Merry: Classical Guitar; A collection of hymn arrangements and originals.

Kilang Pongen: Rock in Bangkok

Kilang Pongen – the Naga rock dude thing from Mokokchung who has been busy running through Bangkok’s rock scene for several years now. Before better winds flew him to one of Asia’s most vibrant music industries, Kilang was this geeky looking front man of a rock band called Faith. And then, singer of a popular Dimapur rock group called Heritage. Kilang Pongen decide he wasn’t going to do much noisy things.

So he went ahead solo and released his debut solo album ‘Breakthrough’ (2004) – arguably one of the first and finest examples of original, professional rock music production in NorthEast India.

Two tracks from Breakthrough were selected to be on ‘Think Again,’ India's first ever Christian Rock compilation released around 2005. Another track, the classic metal anthem ‘Miracle’ was featured on another all-India compilation ‘Awake & Arise - A Musical Tribute to Life.’ After ‘Breakthrough,’ Kilang went on a tour across the state, and the Northeast region and the mainland as well as in Nepal and Thailand. 

Divine Connection and Alobo Naga & The Band owe their hallowed noise-making run to Kilang Pongen. And so do hundreds of noise mongers in Nagaland – a state where you would most likely be branded an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh if you don’t know how to play the guitar. 

Today, Pongen is based in Bangkok in Thailand racking up good dust. And he is digging up gold: A guy called Brett Clarke – who has produced and worked with some musicians called Amy Grant, Metallica, U2, Jewel, Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban or even a girl called Carrie Underwood – is producing and playing in Kilang’s second album ‘Kilang.’ Another heavy puller Paul Hudson (oh, not Mr. Die Hard himself) is helping Brett Clarke and Kilang crank up the shindig.

Among Jamir: Just think of the Avengers 

No Among Jamir doesn’t go around twiddling and twaddling in red underwear and silk cape – he is just a “too small” bassist for a not-so-small Indian rock band – Agnee. Agnee found their noisy selves playing the theme track for The Avengers, one of Hollywood’s biggest superhero flicks that raked in moolah by the millions.

The track called “Hello Andheron.” Yes, you have seen it on YouTube too. Yay. Oh, there you remember now. Yay. Well, their bassist is from good old Anishi-happy Mokokchung – Among Jamir, the man who ran away from desk job because “I am a lazy man.”

For those of you who don’t know, Jamir have been playing with an impressive Indian A-listers starting from Indian rock music pioneer Gary lawyer, one of India’s best rock guitarists and composer Sanjay Joseph himself, Australian country singer Bobby Cash among others.  He was also a part of two bands Lambada, winner of Idea Rocks India (circa 2002-2009) and Pharos, a jazz outfit from 2005- 2007.

Now he is busy pushing the low ends with Agnee. The Avengers soundtrack opportunity was the turning point for him. “This is my third year with Agnee. And yes, I ran away from desk job coz I'm a lazy boy and can't imagine working for 30 days a month.”

On a more advisory note, the bassist acknowledges that music ‘requires hard work and patience.’ “There are so many things to study and learn in music, and even I have billions of things to learn. The music industry is big and will stay. From news channels to sports and films, music is required. So, if you are a musician you'll never go hungry, you will earn honestly and you will enjoy what you do. But, remember dear rockers ‘fear of the Lord is the beginning of all knowledge and wisdom,’ he adds.

Imlitemjen Imchen: The Naga Fingerstyle-er

How many times have you thrown up trying to survive the endless flurry of supersonic notes every Naga guitarist seems to want to blast across the stage? Thank your goat that you shan’t endure the mindless indulgence anymore – Imlitemjen Imchen is here with his acoustic guitar. You are meeting a musician who you would be introducing to your kids later as the Nagas’ first finger style guitarist.

For those of you who came in late, Fingerstyle or Fingerstyle Guitar is a recent and highly specialized guitar style. In contrast to traditional guitar styles such as flat-picking (e.g., contemporary rock) or chord repertoire (e.g., the classical guitar) Fingerstyle’s chief characteristics are the use of entire digits accentuated mainly by percussive and open tunes as opposed to picking individual notes, repertoire or strumming. Artificial harmonics, hammer-ons or pull-offs in open fretting (or a combination of them) and yes, using the acoustic body of the guitar as percussion, used alternatively with playing the notes, are some of the main features of the fingerstyle technique. A painfully difficult form of playing – at least for non-fingerstylers. Just think of BoB sexton, Andy Mckee, John Eurell Sr. and John Eurell Jr.

In the summer of 2011, Imchen played Jumping Bean as promotion for his then-unreleased debut ‘First Fret Boarding.’

When his debut was released in summer 2012, few took notice except for more eclectic and critical music circles who welcomed the “new form” of music – that too from an Indian musician.

For the sake of space, the Media recognition he received from the Indian media was more than what the ungrateful – if unimpressed – Naga listener gave him. In fact, most have not heard of Imchen except by musicians in the more artistic circles in the Indian music circuit especially big metros like big bad Mumbai. Imchen continues to enjoy Mumbai’s welcoming industry and music scene. Building on that, he is currently working on new materials for his second album.

Oh. Of course, you have heard of someone called Senty Toy? Of course, you ungrateful, ill-informed, impressionable and Bosti (Naga) “music fan.” Bleh. 

(Published: Eastern Mirror, March 2013. see issuu file and photos here