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Steering away from westernization, they sing their “Li” (folksong) in the Chokri dialect of the Chakhesang tribe of Nagaland and strum the traditional Naga one stringed instrument, the “Tati/Heka Libuh.

They have been performing on stage for the last fifteen years individually and as a group in various parts  of the state, country and even abroad. Their performances besides their Li - includes western popular music, and on request, popular bollywood numbers too.Their noted appearances are in events like the annual Hornbill Festival of Nagaland, State Road Shows, NE youth festivals, IITF events Delhi and the Handshake Concerts of 2009 in Mumbai and 2010 in Delhi. In a chat with Woman’s Panorama the Tetseo Sisters reveal their tales of success and determination

Hiyohey! A Li greeting to all peace and music lovers around the world.

“We love to sing, be it Li or any other. We are big fans of world music & folk music from around the world. Our personal musical tastes are very varied to say the least ranging from Tibetan chants to the Beatles, Jazz, Blues, Hip-hop, gospel and of course Pop and country. We hope we can make Li as popular as African folk or Irish folk one day soon. In the meantime, we will not stop sharing our Li across and up or down.

The instruments we use to accompany Li are the Tati also called Heka Libüh, Bamboo drums, cup violin, log drums and bamboo shakers (tambourines). Tati is a one stringed instrument, made from the dried gourd case/or horns of Mithuns and covered with skin, with a bridge, neck and key tuner. It resembles the Indian ektara and is plucked to make a string sound providing rhythm and guiding the pitch. Three characteristic sounds can be achieved. It can be played by a single person or by a group of people in unison creating a harmony of three different unique sounds.

Q. How would you describe the term ‘Li’ to the world?

Li is the Chokri word for folksong. Chokri is a Naga dialect spoken by the Chakhesang tribe of Nagaland. Li is the song of the people. It is the common underlying element of all activities of the Nagas in general and the Chakhesangs in particular. There is a Li for every occasion, sad songs, happy songs, peppy numbers, melancholic ones, dirges, hymns and love odes. Li was a way of life and used to be sung by everyone but now it has dwindled down to a few experts and is a dying practice. In our folksongs are recorded the history of our ancestors, their trials and triumphs, their joys and sorrows, and their hopes and aspirations. To listen to a Li is to step into a different realm – it can take you back into a world long gone, allow you to see the world through their eyes. It humbles you because you realize you are only a segment of something much bigger. And you are just a channel for that truth, the truth that tells you where you come from and makes you who you are. It is something worth holding on to. It is something entirely original and essentially Naga. It is our identity and our passport into the world’s music scene.

Q. Azi and Mercy started Tetseo sisters and then Alüne and Kuvelü followed. How has the addition of the younger two been through the years?

Azi and Mercy started learning and singing folksongs when Alüne and Kuvelü were infants. So it seemed like a long time before we could all sing on one stage together as a group. But it didn’t take too long for them to start and then join us. We sang as a family in church and they gradually joined us at events and people would remark that we were such a cute group. Then Azi and Mercy left home for higher studies and continued singing in Delhi and elsewhere, while Alüne and Kuvelü carried on the torch and did shows as Tetseo Sisters back home, sometimes together and often alone. For a long time it was not possible for all four of us to sing together but somehow, we all managed to keep the name going until we became a recognized group - the singing sisters- the Tetseo Sisters.

Q. How do you feel about the name “Tetseo Sisters”?

We are proud to carry the name ‘Tetseo Sisters’. We didn’t pick the name. It picked us. We gradually came to be recognized as the Chakhesang folksingers on TV and at functions; then it became known that we were all sisters and that we were Tetseos. Finally we became the Tetseo Sisters. We create quite a bit of confusion as to who is who as some people have seen only the younger Tetseos while some have only seen the older Tetseos. They tell us, “Oh you guys have grown so fast” or simply “Are you all really sisters? In which order? ” and we share much laughter over guesses with them.

Q. How did you take the challenge of singing in Chakhesangs folk song or Li when the world and especially the youth from our region are more attracted to western music?

We do sing western music too and we enjoy it like any of today’s youngsters. But we are proud that we can do something we can call our own and do it well too. Not too many people can sing folk songs in general while in Nagaland, almost anybody can sing a western song fairly well. So it feels really good to be able to do both and also be recognized for being able to do something extra too. It is quite challenging too, but the attention and encouragement we get in performing folksongs has kept us going. We keep looking forward to a proper recognition of our efforts even in a small way and when our fans or elders tell us they are proud of what we are doing, it feels so worth all the trouble we have gone through.

Q. The challenge of keeping the tradition alive! How do you all do it?

We do have difficult moments. Sometimes we have to choose to sing Li even when singing western music could bring us more financial gain. And sometimes we don’t have a choice but to do what we are doing. It is quite frustrating too when sometimes people ask us if we know how to speak English or hindi, assuming that we are from the dark ages. It also limits the kind of audience we have though we are happy to note that young people today are very open to the idea of attending a folk concert than 10 years ago. They are taking pride in their culture and appreciate what we do. It is the small things that keep us going. We don’t have a big banner or organization behind us. We do what we do because we love doing it and we also feel the need to keep doing it. Hopefully we can make a living out of it someday but that is a far flung dream for now. But we dream on as we hiyohey!

Q. Apart from your parents who else have inspired you to take on this field?

Like we said before, it is the small things that keep us going. Our parents have instilled a huge sense of pride in our culture and traditions. We also feel that it is a gift from God and a legacy we need to carry on. Our motto is “share Li- down and across” and though it is not always practical to stretch ourselves thin, we go the extra mile to put Li out there and to share it with others. We get encouraged when people walk up to us and say they are proud of us and we get even more determined to do better when people criticize us. A lot of people tell us, ‘folksongs don’t sell’ but we tell them “you mean you can’t afford it?”. Our main aim is to make Li accessible to all but not at the cost of our efforts, after all, we also have to eat.

Q. Do you have any concepts in your songs and albums?

Our songs always have a story, some have even two stories in it. Folksongs are in a lot of ways storytelling in musical form. Our ancestors practiced the oral tradition of passing on stories through Li. Our first album has one song, which is an epic tale of a twisted romance with elements of jealousy and other angles to it. Every song we sing has a story. It is a song sung at a specific time, occasion or season and it has a storyline which may have nothing to do with the occasion but it characterizes the song. The songs in our debut album don’t really have a common theme. Some songs are festive and happy, others are dark and melancholic. We have tried to put a representative song of each mood and season in Chapter one. There are some love songs, work songs, a lullaby and even a Christmas song. Some of our top favourites are in there.

Q. When do you plan for a new album and what it will be?

Soon we hope. It will be called Chapter two. And we hope to put in some of our other favourites we were forced to leave out and a couple of folk fusion songs we couldn’t finish in time for the first album.

Q. What reactions do people have towards your music?

Most people love it. They usually tell us it is so unique and that they have never heard anything quite like it. They do have preferences though. But they always get very curious on hearing our songs and even if they can’t understand what we are singing about, they tell us they can guess from our expressions or from the melody and rhythm. We do try to explain what we are singing about but it is not always possible. But people actually take the trouble to walk up to us later and ask us to explainand we are always happy to oblige. So far, the response has been very positive and encouraging.

Q. Tell us about the album Li-Chapter One.

Our debut album, Li- Chapter One has been a much awaited project finally reaching completion. Two years ago, we had almost given up on it but our parents kept us going and finally it is done. A lot of hard work has gone into it and a lot of personal sacrifices had to be made but we believe it is meant to be and so here we are in spite of all the odds. A lot of people helped us along the way and we are very grateful.

It has twelve tracks- some of our favourite numbers and it is a sampler of the many varieties of Li. We hope everyone will be asking for more after they finish listening to the record. Our first music video is also in the wings. We intend to explore the folk music of all the Naga tribes eventually, starting from here so we have called it ‘Li : Chapter One - The beginning’.

Q. One of you sisters, is now married. Will Azi continue to sing or she will become a house wife?

She is at the moment on her extended honeymoon. But she will sing with us whenever she can. Her husband is very proud of her and her achievements.

Q. Tell us about your ‘Tati- instrument’ and why did you decide to use the same?

The Tati is a one stringed instrument much like the Indian ektara. It is made of dried gourd or the horn of the Mithun, covered with dried hide. It has a long thin bamboo/cane body with a bridge made of bone/ivory and has a tuner. It makes three distinct sounds on plucking the string at different points of the instrument. It can also be tuned according to desired pitch. The ‘Tati’ gets it name from the sound it makes –“ Ta..ti...ta..ta..ti…ta”.

We didn’t have to decide to use it. It is a part of our music. Some of the songs just can’t do without it. We have also improvised on the instrument and even in the way of playing it. And it is always a pleasure to teach people how to play it. It is so easy and fun. There are very few Tati making artisans nowadays, making the instrument very rare and expensive.

Q. How was it performing with the likes of Pt Visha Mohan Bhatt.

Awesome. He was very friendly and encouraging. Sharing a stage with people excelling in their own thing was such a boost and to be equally accepted by the audience was heartwarming.

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