The Tetseo Sisters have been sharing a bit of their culture with the rest of the world for close to two decades now, through Lis, the traditional songs of Nagaland.

Language no bar The Tetseo Sisters from Nagaland are taking their culture to the world
Features Monday, May 18, 2015 - 05:30

"O Rhosi! Celebrate the rebirth of a new earth every spring; 

Life rolls out with song and dance. Like Nature moving to the tunes of the wind, Let us all join the rhythm of life. Revel in being alive.

O Rhosi! Sing a new song with the tati*, A song of the winds of the winds of changing times and good fortune."

The women sing in harmony as their slender frames sway in well-choreographed movements. The roving stage lights, drums, piano, sound boxes and other musical instruments in the background are in stark contrast to their traditional clothes and jewellery.

Rhosi, as one of them earlier explained, is a flower that blooms throughout the year and the song is a celebration of youth. An explanation to the song at the start of the performance in Delhi was necessary. In all probability, not a single person among the audience understands the language in which they sing – Chokri is spoken by people hailing from the Phek region of Nagaland. 

The Tetseo Sisters

Born and brought up in Kohima, Mercy (33), Azi (32), Kuvelü (26) and Alüne (23), fondly called Lulu, have been sharing a bit of their culture with the rest of the world for close to two decades now, through Lis, the traditional songs of Nagaland.

Having been acquainted with music at an early age, the girls have the learned the songs of the Chakhesang community to which they belong, from their mother and other family members. The Lis are mostly inspired from personal experiences.

Passed on orally from generation to generation, the melody of these songs remains the same, but they sometimes work around lyrics. "We sing of love, life and friendship, of brave warriors and the summer, of women pounding rice and tilling, of nature and its people," Mercy tells The News Minute.

In primary school, Azi and Mercy participated in a cultural fest where they performed folk songs and dances. "Come to think of it, we were always surrounded by music while growing up. There was music in church and school," says Mercy.

A performance with other local children on Doordarshan helped the pair take the first steps toward building a career in music, with offers from across the state pouring in.

When Azi and Mercy moved to Delhi to pursue higher studies, Kuvelü and Lulu were still very young. "But one summer when we were home, we saw Lulu and Kuku sing and perform. We then decided to perform as a group," she recalls.

It was then, that they became the Tetseo Sisters and performed together on stage for the very first time in 1994 on the "Doordarshan Annual Day", which is organised by the public broadcaster. 

From there, it was a journey that took them across the country and even beyond, and not all these experiences are pleasant.

In a blog on their website, the group once wrote, "Every security check is a nightmare as we end up spreading out all our jewellery to the curious stares of other travellers and the wry questions and snide remarks of the airport security staff. Makes us feel like a circus team. But we have gotten pretty used to it."

But there have been quirky moments too. In 2007, during a performance at an event hosted by the Chief Minister of Nagaland, the girls could see a visible excitement in the crowd. "We initially thought they were discussing our music, but backstage, we were told the crowd was trying to figure out who was the youngest among us," says Mercy laughing.

The Tetseo Sisters usually begin their performances – mostly scheduled during the music season between October-April – with a classical piece, followed by a fusion number. Their instruments too are an interesting mix of the old and the new – both the traditional Naga one-stringed instrument "Tati" and the guitar and piano combo lend themselves equally well to the essence of Li songs.

"We think of ourselves as story tellers. We are here to tell a story," Mercy says proudly.

One of her favourite songs is an orphan’s lullaby- a touching song about two orphaned sisters. The older sister sings to the younger one about how they will now have to grow up without a family.

Mercy says, "In a way, the older girl is also comforting herself through the song."  

That their language - Chokri -  is not understood by the majority of the audience, has never really posed a problem. "Some have even asked us if we know English or whether we can speak in Hindi," says Mercy, adding that her education in Delhi has taught her enough Hindi to converse with ease.

It is the melody that people connect to and music, unlike other forms of art, can be felt by everyone, she adds.

In 2011, they compiled their work into an album called Chapter 1. Even though their performances have been limited of late with Azi taking a break to raise a baby and Lulu completing her studies at a medical college, they are busy working on the next album.

When the sisters take the stage to perform, their traditional costumes often raise curiosity in the audience.

"We have a very vibrant culture," says Mercy, "which needs to be highlighted and preserved. This is our cultural identity and people appreciate it." Having grown up at a time when everything was "westernised", and it was "uncool" to wear traditional clothes, Mercy feels there has been a remarkable change in the attitude of people towards folk music over the years.

A lot of people now seem to have realized that it is okay to be different, that folk culture, too, is cool.

In the last decade, the mushrooming of several smaller traditional music festivals indicates the slow but steady popularity of the genre.

In a separate performance, the women sing "O Rhosi" with practiced ease, never missing a beat. During the chorus, the audience can be heard repeating the phrase after them. Music, as they say, is a universal language.  

Images source: Tetseo Sisters/Facebook

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