Rewben Mashangva, 'father of the Naga folk Blues', on making music that straddles diverse cultures
Rewben Mashangva is a fan of Bob Dylan and plays the guitar. He also champions the folk music of Manipur.
You may imagine that 5 am is not a good time for concert-goers to attend a live performance by a singer whose language they do not understand. But you'd be mistaken. At the Jodhpur RIFF 2017, many attendees had to be sent back from Jaswant Thada, the venue for Rewben Mashangva’s early morning concert, as there was no room to accommodate the crowd. People climbed the nearby rocks to listen to him, even from a distance.
Rewben’s popularity across regions and language barriers has to do with his innate sense of rhythm and the universality of folk sounds; above all the ability to unerringly have the pulse of his audience is what makes him a star. The Manipuri singer is known in the Shillong music circuit as 'the father of the Naga folk Blues', as a die-hard fan of Bob Dylan, but the loss of folk traditions of the North East troubles him, despite his unprecedented success as a concert musician.
A few grey hairs in his ponytail notwithstanding, Rewben exudes a childlike simplicity (he was born in 1961). Candid about his very ordinary background, the carpenter’s son talks passionately about his love for the guitar and the many folk instruments he would love to introduce to his concert audience, even though people would prefer guitar and pop, especially in the Shillong music scenario.
“Before it was divided into seven states, Shillong was the capital of the entire North East. Christianity, as a new religion, became dominant here and took over the tribal cultures. Manipur alone has 40 different tribes and each tribe has its own unique culture. The tribes threw away their culture under colonial dominance; with it vanished their unique worldview — their music, songs, language and folklore. Now, as the youth become aware of the richness of their cultural roots, they want to learn their own music but don't know where to look for guidance. There are many good singers, but they are all influenced by the western idea of music. I too became a singer influenced by Bob Dylan, and the guitar (for me) became the obvious choice,” Rewben told Firstpost in an interview.
Rewben loves to play folk melodies on the Yangkahui (a variety of bamboo flutes that produce variations of notes) that he has refined to suit modern tastes, but the concert heat creates an imbalance in its delicate sound. He does play the Seichang ngachi (the horns), occasionally and the Langden (drum), while the guitar dominates his shows, producing ethnic folk sounds. There are practical reasons too, behind this choice. “If I play the folk instruments and sing our folk melodies, I might get invited to play my music on a small platform perhaps once a year or so; guitar gives (me) a larger platform, it gives me a voice. Now when I sing folk tunes and play folk instruments, people listen.”
Its not just about music that calls for balance, he tries to bring that balance in all aspects of life. “I live in town (Imphal) for the education of my four children... I realise I have forgotten words from my language — the words we use for herbs, plants, trees... everything is replaced with English terms. We have become half of the half. So I try to bring in songs in my dialect, from the Tang Khul tribe of Ukhrul district of Manipur. At the same time, because I missed out on a good education, I had to start learning English as late as 2004, when I became a concert musician, because connecting with the audience is equally necessary,” he says.
Unlike other pop singers, Rewben is not obsessed with love songs. He'd rather look for the universal in his music: the relationship of man with nature, the language of the orchid plant, a quest for “Keo Keo” (the language of the birds), of manual activity. His songs are an expression of common human landscapes that find resonance across cultures.
Despite the popularity of his own songs, Rewben continues to be in awe of Bob Dylan. “The finesse of his thought, expression and music is inimitable, I guess I can’t reach that level because I lack proper education,” he says.
Rewben also rues his lack of proper training in playing the guitar, even though his style is unique, influenced with ethnic sounds. “I play the guitar but not as professionally as the westerners. I believe I can't compose songs unless I understand the instruments and learn to play them,” he says. Herein lies the dilemma of his music. The instruments he understands and the language of his songs come from two different cultures. Perhaps this conflict infuses his music with strong emotional appeal. “People may not understand my language but they do respond to my emotion. I'm trying to bring a compromise between two systems of music; modern people like my music even though its sounds are folk,” he muses.
Rewben's first guitar was made by his father. He says he took permission from his wife to embark on a profession of utmost uncertainty — that of a performing artiste — and he compensates for his absence by cooking delicious meals when he is back home from his busy concert schedule.
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