Music is an integral part of human life. Throughout the ages, music has played a significant role in the development of the human mind and soul. In short, one can say that the degree of development of a society can be determined by studying the evolution of its musical forms. I personally grew up experiencing the rich diversity of this corner of the planet, the region we choose to club together as the Northeast. Nature has been kind to the region, evident in the rich cultural traditions that are ingrained in our day-today life. However, the fact that our rich folk traditions have become almost redundant, if not already extinct, is something which bothers me no end.
As such, it was indeed a welcome change to stumble upon a Naga couple, who have remained steadfast in their decision to work on their own unique sound. And in the process, they invented a musical instrument, a completely new world musical genre and two nominations for the Grammy awards – the most coveted award in the field of music. Meet Abiogenesis – a five-piece rock outfit from Nagaland, which has created an entirely new world genre of culturally identifiable music by distinctively mixing traditional, folk and rustic elements with contemporary sounds. In short, they have repackaged Naga sounds for the world audience.
Abiogenesis, formed by Moa Subong and his wife Arenla in 1992, is probably the most earnest rock band in the world. The efforts of Abiogenesis towards the fusion of Naga folk with Western rock is called Howey music, which is defined by its shrill wails. And to aid them in establishing Howey music is the bamhum – a wind instrument made of bamboo. The bamhum is somewhat Bagpiperish in sound and at the same time, it leans heavily toward the snake charmer’s flute. The bamhum has been developed by Moa and I guess it is the only new instrument to be developed in the entire world over the last one hundred years, others invariably being mere improvisations.
The story behind the invention of the bamhum is interesting. Moa Subong wanted a traditional wind instrument that would complement his band’s brand of Naga folk-flavoured rock music. The search was an exercise in futility and he ended up inventing the bamhum. Moa recounts, “When Arenla was appointed by the North East Zonal Cultural Centre (NEZCC) as a Guru to teach folk music and theatre, I realized that the Nagas did not have an indigenous musical instrument, which was versatile and which could be played with all forms of music.” The bamhum was unveiled by the then Governor of Meghalaya MM Jacob in May, 2005 during the International Bamboo Festival at Shillong.
The bamhum draws its name from its two basic roots – the bamboo which it is made out of and the effect derived by humming into the instrument. The bamhum is a medium-sized bamboo instrument that one hums into to produce melodic tones. The tones are sourced from the user’s vocal chords and they resonate with a captivating effect on the listener. Two rattles are assembled on the opposite end of the knot that works as a resonance chamber, which converts the tune of the hum into the unique sound of the bamhum. The simplicity with which the player can play the bamhum is an added advantage for a player simply needs to hum a tune into the hum hole. According to Moa’s wife and lead vocalist Arenla, the bamhum is an easy-to-use wind instrument that requires no training and does not have any theoretical lessons to learn. “All it entails is controlled breathing and an inclination to hum, and one can progress from a learner to an expert in no time.” The inventor Moa says, “The bamhum can be played as a solo instrument, as a back-up or as a supportive role in a band/orchestra, and it can even be played in an ensemble with many bamhum players playing various parts of a song.” He hastens to add, “It can be played in any kind of music – classical, folk, rock, jazz, blues, gospel, pop etc.” However, when asked about the reaction of people outside the region towards the sound of the bamhum, Moa admits, ““Outside Nagaland, people mostly find it strange. But it’s melodic. After hearing it a couple of times, they get used to it and like it.”
Abiogenesis is made up of Arenla (vocals and bamhum), Moa (guitar and bamhum), Longden (lead guitar), Imli (drums, percussions) and Kongdir (bass). The band’s name Abiogenesis refers to the hypothetical process by which living organisms develop from non-living matter (such as mice appearing near stored grain). It was inspired by a few friends who had fallen prey to the menace of drugs. “Abiogenesis means ‘life from lifeless matters’,” says Moa. “The drug users are like the living dead. We wanted to bring them back to life through our concerts.” Their albums are characterised by a distinctively retro sound that veers between 1960s folk pop, 1970s country music and 1980s hard rock.
Rocking together for almost 30 years and now in their late 40’s, both Moa and Aren are true representatives of the Nagas – with strong ethnic roots and a distinct cultural identity, skilfully merging the modern and the traditional – with performances all over the world. Both met as teenagers and decided to settle down not long after. And all this while, music has been the predominant factor which has bound their lives together. The couple was earlier rocking with Kolkata-based bands like Shiva and Fifth Dimension in the late 80’s and early 90’s; bands which have long got defunct. The duo, however, had no intention of slowing down as they continued with their musical pursuits with the same vigour with which they had started off. With the invention of the magical Bamhum, their calling gets even more defined now.
One cannot say that the band is ultra-refined or polished in terms of global music, but I can definitely say that they play “high” music in terms of skill and technical exactness. Their captivating “strangeness” in terms of previously unheard of sounds is actually their strength, an enchanting appeal to world sojourners, to earnest seekers of roots and homelands. Abiogenesis is non-imitative, totally original, rooted in maturity and unashamedly innovative – qualities that will carry them a long way.
As a band, Abiogenesis has five releases in its kitty but it hit big time only with the release of their first album of Howey music, Aeon Spell. Released by Saregama in June 2007, the album went on to be listed in the 50th Grammy Awards in two categories – the best contemporary world music album and the best rock performance by a duo or group with vocals (for the track, You’re Breaking Me).
Not just music, Abiogenesis had taken the very essence of the rich culture of their Naga tribe, and to a certain extent that of the entire Northeast, in front of the world audience. Their stage display in terms of dress – grand traditional fineries – helps gives them a distinct character. Moa, who belongs to the Ao Naga tribe, says, “Apart from music, we also fuse what we wear.” Even their songs are infused with distinct Naga gasps and groans, such as ‘Ai-yaa-h’, ‘Ai-yaaa-kao’, ‘Ho-wei’, ‘O-hoi’, ‘Haa-ya’ and the like. Asked to comment on the rustic appeal, Aren says, “Those cries come straight from the heart.”
And when we are talking about music from the heart, I feel that the hypnotic music which Abiogenesis produces is not intentional, and neither is it programmed – it is something that just happens, unplanned. Take Arenla’s voice for instance – her voice oozes with sensuality and has exceptional bounce and energy. I don’t think even she is aware of the sensual and imaginative power of her voice which perfectly complements the mystical tunes of the bamhum. Her typical Naga accent adds to the mesmerising capacity of the band’s music. To put it in simple words, her voice can echo around the mind like a seductive power – causing one to come to terms with his or her roots, not just cultural but also psychic. It compels one to confront long closed chapters in the book of life and harmonize the past with the present and the future.
Though Moa and Arenla were unwilling to compromise on their identity, they were still a bit fearful about the initial public response of the public towards the bamhum. As such, their first album, Aeon Spell (Saregama, 2005) saw the bamhum being played in only a few tracks. Their second offering Rustic Relish, which was released recently, is entirely based on Howey music, which Moa feels has become their unique sound now. Rustic Relish has been officially released by CD Baby, USA and is currently available in Indian music stores.
Abiogenesis’s lyrics, which are all in English, shift between romantic and socially relevant themes. My favourite track in their debut album Aeon Spell would undoubtedly be the video single, Saramati Tears. As the name suggests, the song is all about Mount Saramati, the highest peak in the conflict-ridden State of Nagaland. Moa elaborates, “The Saramati peak can see every nook and corner of Nagaland and it is in tears because of the present situation, the fratricidal killings. Through this song, it is appealing for peace, love and harmony.” Misty Dzukou – another mystical trance numbers – is another favourite of mine, along with the track Undiluted Love. While Aeon Spell was mainly experimental and assorted, Rustic Relish, as a whole, leans heavily towards contemporary Rock and the bamhum gives it a distinct identity of its own. Their second album was also listed for last year’s Grammy Awards.
With an eye for a bigger platform and a better market, Abiogenesis is definitely a band that will appeal to the western palate, especially to the European sense of a global and eclectic taste in music, fashion and lifestyle. Here’s hoping that the band manages to herald a new dawn in the regional music scene.