Politics from the fret board of Guitar

Ronid Chingangbam *

When people talk about music there is only one band that comes often to my mind, its none other than Rage Against The Machine. This band is worth remembering not just for their energetic and dynamic sound but also for the politics they play as a progressive rap rock band.

Their lyrics speak of the harsh realities of modern and contemporary life, which surprisingly is conspicuously absent even in contemporary American literature. They talked against the hypocritical nature of CIA, the US government and how they ruin innocent lives in Mexico.

They started a relentless campaign to free Mumia Abu Jamal. They use music as their tools to fight for justice. They create music for a cause and not just for the sake of music, for entertainment or for aesthetic pleasure.

But here in India, our rockers have a tendency to copy the west simply, leaving the important issues that are printed in the newspapers everyday lying on their breakfast table. A friend of mine once told me that being political in music is a personal choice of the artiste, but I say it is a personal choice of being uselessness.

Why would our rockers not sing a song to condemn the recent serial blasts in Assam? Why have they never said anything when Pebam Chitaranjan immolated himself as a protest against AfSPA 1958, and the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama Devi? Why would somebody forget Machang Lulang who spent 54 years in prison without a trial when he was arrested at his home village of Silsang, Assam in 1951 under section 326 of the Indian Penal Code for "causing grievous harm"?

Such is our society where our lives are threatened every moment by the numerous political outfits or by the Indian Para-military forces. And we still live our dream, walking on the blood-filled roads to reach our destiny. But, when it comes to rock music we have lost its real essence and power by simply sounding dumb and uselessly loud. It is said that art reflects the spirit of the age and it is mirror of the society. In our case, I guess our mirror has broken into a thousand pieces. Our music certainly does not reflect even an iota of our lives and realities.

Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn, in his interview in Rock and Reel magazine, London said, "Ignoring politics doesn't save you from its effect." And he believes "there is a tendency among musicians to be so wrapped up in what they are doing that they don't really notice what else is going on." And yes that seems exactly to be happening with our musicians.

Very few artistes in Northeast India reflect the social turmoil that the people face in day-to-day life. One exception is, of course, Tapta. If you travel the roads of Imphal you will hear music blasting out of loud speakers, and 9 times out of 10, it will be the music of Tapta, singing about everything odd and wrong in our society which the society accepts with nonchalance as normal.

Whether it is about corrupt politicians or the futility of the so-called on going revolution, the Indian Para-military forces, etc. Tapta's songs voice his discontent. The people of Manipur love his songs as he fuses Rock, Folk and Hindustani sounds with his highly ironic lyrics laced with sarcasm. The only problem, if there are any, is that Tapta is too localized musically to reach out to the other parts of the country and the world.

Now with many new record labels mushrooming up in every corner, music bands have a better chance to show the world where they belong to and what they sound like when the people next door are killed with bombs and bullets. One such new record label is Counter Culture Records, which give new artistes a good chance to be heard. Phat Phish records too have earned the reputation for cutting albums for new and promising artistes.

A band, which was produced recently by Phat Phish Records, was a Malayali band Avial who sings only in Malayalam. Avial is one of the best bands in the country that performs only original music. Apart from record labels, music fests also offer a good platform for band.

The Roots Festival, an annual music festival that is held in several states of Northeast India with international bands is an example of such a platform. The Springboard Surprises, founded by Keith Wallang, is behind this awesome festival. Hats off to Keith Wallang who is an ex-band member of Great Society and Mojo. Finally, the real rock scene of 60s in America has arrived to Northeast India.

However, all this are recent trends, the story was something else when Lou Majaw was sailing in the Sea of Sorrow of his life. There were no promoters. He struggled through out his early life slinging a guitar on his back going from place to place to sing and get a couple of meals. "Sea Of Sorrow" performed by Great Society in their debut album 'Breakthrough' way back in 1987, tells the story of Lou Majaw's early life and his struggle for a 'break' in music.

Very few Indians would know about the band Abiogenesis from Nagaland, in fact it might be less than a handful of music lovers. It is sad because, I would not be wrong in saying that they have made history by making to Grammy nominations twice.

The band has invented a musical form "Naga Howey" as the band named it. They have invented a bamboo-flute kind of an instrument which has made their music haunting, trust me its spine chilling, check out the song 'Saramati Tears' on their website. And yes! Soulmate too has made their way to Memphis Blues Festival and all over the country they have earned fame and name.

But what is evidently missing in them is politics, the politics that we belong to an alienated place, which is so cornered, and ignored, and left as it is because it serves as a picket fence between Myanmar and India. We have, no doubt, proved time and again that we do have a good sense/taste of music and also produce great sounds.

However, just producing good music is not enough anymore. Mao Zedong said that political power derives from the barrel of gun but here as a believer in music I must say, "Political power can also be derived from the fret board of guitar."

PS: This article was written originally for the magzaine "The North East Voice." I thank the editor of the magazine for allowing me to republish it in The article has many points similar to my earlier article entitled "Rock Music in Manipur: Part- I" which was published last year in
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* Ronid Chingangbam contributes regularly for . He can be reached at ronidchi(at)gmail(dott)com
This article was webcasted on 23rd Jan 2008.

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