The Revivalist

Rewben Mashangva plays the Tangkhul Naga folk blues

Mashangva delivered a typically energetic show at Itanagar during the Roots Festival, 2008. Ritesh Uttamchandani
01 June, 2014


DESPITE THE CHILL of the mid-February evening, Rewben Mashangva and his son Saka were stripped down to their shorts in the tiny green room of Pragati Maidan’s Lal Chowk Theatre. Other artists from across the country, who had travelled to Delhi for Desaj, the Sangeet Natak Akademi’s annual concert of tribal and folk music and dance, jostled for space in front of three full-length mirrors. A dozen giggling children from Kerala, who had just finished a Singari Melam percussion performance, were taking group photographs backstage. I watched as Mashangva and his thirteen-year-old son each wrapped a long cotton cloth around his waist, knotting it just above the crotch. Mashangva slipped his arms into a sleeveless red-and-black jacket typical of his tribe, the Tangkhul Naga, while Saka pulled on a black T-shirt. Some performers nodded towards them in recognition, others stared curiously at their hairdos, called haokuirut, with long ponytails and clean-shaven sides.

By the time father and son took the outdoor stage towards the end of the show, the sun had set and the air was biting cold. The sparse audience—mostly people who had wandered in from the adjacent 2014 World Book Fair—had already sat through Manganiar and Himachali folk music, Rai dance and Chutkuchuta from Odisha, and looked a little dazed. Mashangva walked on with an acoustic guitar strapped to his back, a mouth organ hanging around his neck, and a yangkahui, a three-foot Tangkhul Naga flute made of a single piece of bamboo, in hand. He blew into the flute, pressing its four holes to produce deep, haunting notes.

Just as Mashangva learned folk songs at his father’s side, his son Saka is his constant companion and usual accompanist. OURVILLAGE FILMS

After a few minutes, Mashangva put the flute down, grabbed his guitar, and launched into a solo that was more Delta blues than tribal folk. To the uninitiated, the music might have sounded like something out of a country western film. The audience wasn’t drawn from Mashangva’s growing fan base of independent music supporters who usually attend the commercial festivals he has been performing at for the last few years. The Pragati Maidan crowd might have wondered why this guitar-slinging musician from the northeast of Manipur was included in the otherwise staid line-up. Yet as Mashangva pranced back and forth across the stage, shifting from foot to foot in time with the rhythm Saka struck out on a cowbell, people were soon raising their phones to take pictures.

Some in the audience were familiar with Mashangva’s three-decade long career, and recognised the folk verses woven into his lyrics and the elements of traditional Tangkhul music in his blues fusion style. One young woman told me she was a music teacher, and a big fan. “His music is so complete, no?” she said. I didn’t know what she meant precisely, but I felt instinctively that she was right.

MASHANGVA INVENTED HIMSELF as a musician during the 1980s and 1990s, at a time when the non-Bollywood music scene in urban Manipur was, as in many Indian cities, dominated by rock imported from the West. Long hair, tattered jeans and leather jackets were the markers of all things progressive. In 2000, the Revolutionary People’s Front, one of Manipur’s oldest and most influential separatist groups, banned all Bollywood films and Hindi television channels in the state’s more urbanised valley districts.

Shamphang, one of Mashangva’s “gurus,” who taught him how to play the tingteila, a type of folk fiddle. OURVILLAGE FILMS

Theatre owners quickly transformed their cinemas into shopping malls and educational institutions, and cable operators began airing foreign channels, particularly South Korean ones such as Arirang and KBS. Soon, a generation of urban Manipuri youth was living and breathing Korean culture: not just television serials, but also fashion, food, language, film and music.

Between Bollywood, hard rock and K-pop, popular culture in the state had little space for folk songs. In particular, it had very little space for any aspect of Hao—the vernacular term used by the Tanghkhul Naga, who form about seven percent of Manipur’s population, to encapsulate their indigenous belief system and way of life, and the term Mashangva uses to describe his own music.

In April, when I met Oinam Doren, a Meitei filmmaker who made a National Award-winning documentary on Mashangva, he was watching Arirang at his home in Kwakeithel, about a mile from Imphal’s Tulihal International Airport. Doren spent a year shooting Songs of Mashangva (2011) across four states, recording Mashangva’s attempts to recover fragmentary and fading aspects of Tanghkhul Naga music. Despite being a fan of South Korean television, Doren told me, “I have a strong conviction that had we been exposed early on to our culture and songs in an aesthetic way through the media, we would not have been so vulnerable to outside culture.”

Mashangva has been guided by a similar belief in his efforts to revitalise Tangkhul Naga culture. Though his music is steeped in Western blues and folk rock, he has earned the popular titles “king of the Naga folk blues” and “cultural ambassador of the northeast.” In 2004, the Ministry of Culture, under its Guru-Shishya Parampara scheme, gave him a more formal title: that of “Guru.”

The erosion of the forms Mashangva has sought to revive can be traced back over a little more than a century. In 1890, a midnight palace coup in Imphal, fuelled by a rivalry between two groups of Meitei princes, plunged their kingdom into conflict. The British intervened, and the situation escalated into the Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891. As the British government seized the opportunity to consolidate its hold over the region, William Pettigrew, a young Scottish missionary in Assam’s Chachar district, keenly followed the news from the neighbouring state.

Recalling this time, Pettigrew, an Anglican, wrote that “the conversion of the Manipuri Hindu in the valley was our goal. Knowledge of Bengali and Manipuri, gathered while waiting outside the frontier, had prepared the way for this work but it was not to be.” Pettigrew established a Christian school in Imphal in January 1894, but within six months the conservative Vaishnavite Meitei society was pushing the government to evict him from the Manipuri capital. The imperial government, fearing political unrest, ordered his recall. Undaunted, Pettigrew decided to become an American Baptist and foray into the hill districts. When his attempt to penetrate the south-western and northern hills of Manipur was met with stiff resistance from the Kuki and the Mao Naga chiefs, he set about “establishing mission head-quarters among the head hunting Naga tribe called the Tangkhul Naga”—he wrote in The Baptist Missionary Review—“in the hills in the north-east corner of the State, bordering on Upper Burma.” At the beginning of 1896, Pettigrew set up Manipur’s first Christian mission in Hungphun, a scenic village just outside the capital of the Tangkhul-dominated district of Ukhrul.

Ngachonmi Chamroy, who has long collaborated with Mashangva on writing English lyrics, told me his father and uncle were among the early converts to Christianity. When I met him in Imphal in April, Chamroy recalled an old story of the missionary’s arrival. “Pettigrew arrived in Ukhrul, dapper with his safari suit and hat. Later, his followers arrived in fancy clothing. Many people simply wanted to look just like them.” Within about two decades, as different churches opened and local converts began to spread the word, the pace of conversion picked up.

In the process of the conversion of 90 percent of Manipur’s tribal population to Christianity, many markers of Hao culture receded. Some of the losses were material—in particular, traditional beaded jewellery, a marker of prestige, was ground down under orders from Christian priests. Others losses were of intangible heritage. As missionaries set about promoting literacy in English and increased communication between Naga villages, folk songs, which were intrinsically rooted in local dialects and geography, began to be forgotten. “Folk songs used to be an integral part of the oral traditions, of passing down history from generation to generation,” Chamroy explained. The loss of these songs was at the heart of a larger forgetting of history and tradition.

Although ethnographers have chronicled this loss and researched the oral histories, Mashangva has actually tried to revive them. He has not only dug deep into his people’s past to recover old instruments, songs and stories, but also given them a new life, via the more accessible sound of the blues. “The youth have lost touch with their past,” Mashangva told me in one of our first interviews, just before the Pragati Maidan performance. “If I have a role, I believe it is to promote our culture through folk songs, so that the younger generation will begin to appreciate themselves rather than ape mass consumer culture.”

And Mashangva’s unique musical blend of the old and the new eventually found its way onto mainstream platforms. In 2011, he performed on the first season finale of The Dewarists, a musical television series, with the band The Raghu Dixit Project. In 2012, a widely disseminated compilation titled Rock Music Manipur featured one of Mashangva’s most popular songs, ‘Chonkhom Philava.’ The song starts with the plaintive strains of Mashangva’s tingteila, a bowed Naga instrument, then an additional layer of arpeggios on an acoustic guitar. A slide-driven blues riff seamlessly underscores the repetitive melody of the lyrics, which use natural metaphors to celebrate the beauty of a young woman in a Tangkhul chonkhom dress. This “princess of the mountain,” is at home in her tradition, but sung about in a new way. A leaflet introducing the song explains: “The freshness of youth, like the black thorn flower, blooms in the heart of the young people that Rewben calls out to.”


MASHANGVA WAS BORN in the summer of 1961, less than ten kilometres from Pettigrew’s original mission, in Choithar, a hamlet of about a thousand people. Choithar is set high in the Shirui hill ranges, which lend their name to a delicate lily that famously grows only in the area. (In one song, ‘Iwui Shim’, Mashangva compares the way this flower adorns the earth to the beads worn by his ancestors.) As a child, Mashangva was close to his father, a carpenter, and followed him wherever he went. While helping with the woodwork, he listened to his father humming old folk songs in a low drone, or sometimes playing a trumpet-like bamboo talu.

Mashangva’s lyrics are informed by the natural beauty of the Shirui Hills around Choithar, the hamlet where he was born. OURVILLAGE FILMS

In April, I visited Mashangva at his home, a one-room extension of his aunt’s house in Imphal’s Nagaram neighbourhood. Mashangva met me on a tin-roofed veranda, which doubled as a living room. Beyond it, I made out a bare room with a crib and a guitar case. After a quick exchange of pleasantries, Mashangva took me across the street to the cottage of his friend Chamroy, a political activist he calls his “consultant.” The two have known each other for over two decades, and almost always collaborate on songs. “When an idea for a song strikes me, I go to Chamroy. We sit together and figure out the concept and Chamroy pens it down,” Mashangva explained.

Sitting in Chamroy’s dimly lit cottage, Mashangva recalled the musical backdrop of his childhood—a soundtrack he has been trying to recreate through documentation and recording for nearly thirty years. While people in his village farmed, for example, they would call out a rhythmic luishom laa (paddy-planting song). Mashangva quoted one of these songs in Tangkhul:

Why rest elbows on the knees?

Do it well, while planting.

Plant the rice equally well

To be firm and strong.

Let them rest, rest in the bosom

As they need to be.

Mashangva was drawn to music as a young boy, and his father fashioned his first guitar out of a big wedge of wood. But his early engagement with music was restricted to church hymnals and choirs. “The village church used to have a rotary-handled record player, which was our only source of gospel songs,” he said. “The church was where the action was.” Cassettes were a relative luxury, but Mashangva, like many of his peers, started listening to rock music on shortwave radio stations like the BBC and Voice of America, which was broadcast from Rangoon. In the 1980s, when a deluge of pirated music came in from Thailand via Burma, he was introduced to Western musicians such as BB King, Eric Clapton, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bob Marley, and his favourite, Bob Dylan. In a state overrun by insurgency, where many young men and women related to amplified, aggressive rock and distorted heavy metal, Mashangva nurtured a relatively quieter passion. “Singing folk and blues songs became very fulfilling,” he said. Despite having no formal training, Mashangva became proficient at blues guitar and comfortable with the harmonica, flute and tingteila.

Mashangva and his son conjured up Manipur in Jodhpur at the Rajasthan International Folk Festival in 2009. OURVILLAGE FILMS

Mashangva started composing in the 1980s, but couldn’t focus solely on music. He left school, a seven-kilometre walk away in Ukhrul, after completing the tenth standard. He became a craftsman like his father, and began travelling to craft bazaars around the country to sell his bamboo and wooden decorative pieces. (His woodworking skills would come in handy later, when he began restoring and modifying folk instruments.)

In his early thirties, after briefly working for an insurance company, Mashangva decided to devote himself to music full-time. His wife, a schoolteacher whom he married in 1990, supported his decision. In 1987, he and his brother Shan composed ‘Chonkhom Philava,’ which became Mashangva’s first recording. Soon All India Radio Imphal started playing Mashangva’s songs across several frequencies.

Recognition off the air first came after a successful performance during a Naga Students’ Federation conference in Ukhrul, in 1992. The performance launched Mashangva’s career in Manipur and beyond (by 2012 he had performed at more than forty shows around India, and now averages two concerts outside of Manipur a month). In 1999, Mashangva released an album in English and Tangkhul titled Tantivy, which sold an impressive twenty thousand cassettes. Mashangva kept branching out in terms of genre, bringing in new collaborators and playing a more diverse range of shows, including those of a more commercial nature.

In 2000, Mashangva had his first high-profile national performance, on Rock Street Journal magazine’s Great Indian Rock show, where he played ‘Chonkhom Philava.’ The song, also included on his full-length 2007 album Creation, had changed quite a bit since its composition, and continued to do so as Mashangva’s music veered gently away from traditional folk forms to incorporate more blues shuffle rhythms and Western instrumentation. According to Mashangva, the seamless fusion of Naga folk and Western folk and blues in the song’s more recent incarnations, and in his music in general, “took me more than twenty years to figure out.”

Mashangva is not the only one to have made a connection between these genres. As ethnomusicologists have pointed out, the rhythms of agricultural work underscore both the blues, which are rooted in the drudgery of plantation labour in the American South, and the folk songs Mashangva grew up hearing on the terraced rice paddies and jhum (slash-and-burn cultivation) fields of his village. That implicit affinity was not lost upon Mashangva even as a young man.

Mashangva, his fifty-two years showing in his greying beard, recalled how his love of Western blues and folk—“both genres rooted in culture and history, yet universal in their appeal”—started him on his quest to rediscover Tangkhul music. He started humming ‘Those Memories of You,’ a 1987 recording by the country-western artists Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. “We have similar-sounding folk melodies,” he said.

That recognition has defined Mashangva’s music in many ways. Early in his career, it spurred him to the remotest Tangkhul villages of Ukhrul to save their disappearing folk songs and instruments for the future. Armed with no equipment and not much of a plan, he set off for distant hills, determined to find, at the very least, “five old folks who could sing.”


MASHANGVA, who calls himself a “firsthand student of folk songs and traditional instruments,” embarked upon his self-styled research project in the early 1990s. To journey to the past, he began to trek out to villages further and further away from Ukhrul. The entire process was much more difficult than he had anticipated. Initially, he often returned home after several days of trekking without any good material. “The experience was frustrating,” he said. He recalled an early expedition, when he had gone deep into the mountains to locate an old man he had heard about. “I started talking to him but we just couldn’t communicate,” he said. “It was as though we weren’t from the same tribe.”

There are about two hundred old Tangkhul Naga villages within Ukhrul district, and each has a unique dialect. William Pettigrew had standardised a form of the Tangkhul language, but when Mashangva began his project, residents of far-flung villages would still have been hard-pressed to understand each other. The Tangkhul dialects have changed a lot in the past seven decades. Mashangva rattled off a few examples: the old word rateelo (come into) is now razanglu, machaplala (don’t cry) is machapalo, lakapra (lie) is kakapik, yahya (good) is kapha.

The problem was not just the dialects and changing vocabularies. “Even if I could understand what people were saying, it was very difficult to understand what they meant,” Mashangva explained. “When people told me stories, since I had not witnessed the festivals and festive seasons they were describing, I couldn’t comprehend what they said.” At first the songs he heard seemed monotonous, and he couldn’t process the hums, growls, wails, shrieks and howls that seemed sometimes integral to their delivery.

Dahru Veino, a Naga ethnomusicologist, told me that folk music was the Nagas’ primary medium of recording and transmitting the past. As such, “The story is more important than the tunes.” Naga folk music is not merely a means of entertainment, but also a treasury of oral history, replete with epics of war and valour, spirits and gods. There are seasonal songs for sowing and harvesting, and songs about the mountains and the dales. After several early abortive attempts, Mashangva realised that the challenge facing him was how to understand the context and subtext of the songs and their composition.

Mashangva became more patient with his sources, who were, after all, quite old—most in their seventies. He saved money to host some elders at his house, feeding and caring for them one at a time until they were ready to record their music. He found his own teachers among these people, who trained him to play traditional instruments and often sang themselves hoarse for his recordings.

“My fondest memories are the times I spent with Shamphang, from Nungshang village in east Ukhrul, and Akhophing, from Alang village in south Ukhrul,” Mashangva said. “They both taught me how to play tingteila, and how to sing folk vocals. Shimmaingam Shinglai, from Shomrai village, taught me how to play yangkahui. They were all my gurus. As I interacted with them I began to see their worldview… I stopped differentiating between folk songs by their melodies alone and cultivated a better sense of understanding them.”

Mashangva told me he travelled to about two hundred villages. He has hundreds of recordings, which are stored in analogue form, on stacks of cassettes. He considers these recordings his greatest treasure: because of them, he said, “I’m a rich man today.” Most of his sources are now dead, and “the very few who are still alive are frail, infirm and deaf.”

“Shimreiyu LW from Lunghar village passed on to me a variety of thishamlaa (funeral songs),” Mashangva said, and hummed one of them. These songs of the dead are sung annually “to remember our ancestors. As the song is sung, rice-beer is offered to the departed.” He quoted an English version of Shimreiyu’s song that he wrote with Chamroy:

I heard the peekhou (mocking bird) cry.

Oh, my child is struggling

To die near the wooden mortar.

Oh lift him up my dearest.

Oh what did you dream lifting him up?

Oh I dreamt the bird of death.

BESIDES RESURRECTING these songs of death, Mashangva also came across songs about the new year, songs reserved for the construction of traditional houses with their carved ornamentation, songs for feasting and for romance, and to sing babies to sleep. Even though he couldn’t understand all the words as he collected these songs, Mashangva realised that many of the monotonous, repetitive choruses he heard were fragments of longer epics.

Chamroy described to me how, in the past, elders sang marangla—a type of epic history poem—in central village courtyards, seated on a raised platform spread with striped shawls. These songs encapsulated entire clan histories, often stitching together lyrical verses about wars and pre-war rituals, such as the sharpening of dao knives. Preserving these recitations was a sacred activity—no one could remove or alter any words without inviting a curse upon his bloodline. “No jokes and witticism are tolerated,” Chamroy said. “It used to be a very solemn annual event where the eldest of the village is honoured with the opportunity to sing marangla.”

These lilting songs would be interrupted intermittently by loud cries in a call-and-response pattern. When the eldest reciter sang “Ongna swong naswong,” Chamroy said, the rest would express agreement with a growling “Hooo!” These phrases are not translatable, Mashangva told me—they were uttered in “the language of god.” Chamroy explained that the tribe had shamans who were “the custodians of the language of the god, and the masses had restricted access to its meaning. Much like Sanskrit slokas, which used to be the preserve of the Hindu priests.” According to Veino, the ethnomusicologist, invoking the concept of a divine, untranslatable tongue was a way of explaining the use of words in old languages whose meanings may have been lost in the absence of written records.

Other kinds of meaningless words also find their way into other varieties of Tangkhul music and chanting. In an introduction to a booklet of song lyrics he collected, Mashangva describes khamahon, a style of “non-lyrical harmonic chanting” that sounds like “a pulsation of successive chordal voices looped in a sequence,” in the course of which “there may be an occasional burst of loud sustained cry (howling) with tremolo effect which is known as ‘Kakahang.’” These include cries, like “Hoo! Haa!” that are incorporated, for example, in paddy songs, in patterns that are reminiscent of the call-and-response and rondos of American plantation songs and spirituals.

One of Mashangva’s most popular songs, ‘Hopee pee,’ which he incorporated in the medley he performed with Raghu Dixit on The Dewarists, includes this kind of call-and-response. On stage, Mashangva sang “hopee pee,” and Dixit responded “ley ho ley.” Mashangva told me the words mean “let’s get groovy.” I pressed him for a more exact translation. He confessed that he didn’t know if there was a real meaning to the words, but the song was always so electrifying that it made him want to stand up and dance. “How do I know the language of god?” he said.

AS MASHANGVA BEGAN TO BUILD UP his archive of songs, he also began working with traditional instruments—mainly the yangkahui, tingteila and cowbells. According to Veino, besides their rhythmic similarities, the blues and Naga folk music also find common ground tonally. The pentatonic scale (a scale of five notes, with the last a higher repeat of the first), is commonly used in blues music, and is integral to Naga folk. Still, to coherently combine Naga instruments with the guitar and Western scales, Mashangva had to modify them, and create his own customised versions.

At his house in Imphal one afternoon, he softly struck a wooden bench with his hand. “Do you know what chord that sound is?” he asked. I did not. “Imagine you were looking for chords in that sound,” he said, “but somehow the sounds are nowhere close.” He faced the same difficulty when looking for seingachi, cowbells fashioned from the horns of mithun cattle. After much searching, Mashangva collected seingachi that produced the tones of the major chords of A, B, C and D. “The sounds of the horn cannot be altered, therefore I had to find horns with the right sound,” he said, describing how he had sometimes ordered horns from distant villages. “It is important to have chords for one complete scale—such as four in pentatonic scale—to be able to use as percussion in more elaborate and complex songs,” Mashangva explained.

Above: Seingachi, or cowbells, made of cattle horns. Top: Mashangva’s yangkahui flutes made of bamboo. courtesy rewben mashangva

Mashangva has four yangkahui flutes in his collection, which he fashioned himself. The bamboo used for the flute is very rare, and found only near the Myanmar border, he said. The biggest difficulty was to find bamboo with the perfect ratio of diameter to spacing between the internodes (the smooth lengths between two encircling, harder nodes). “The longer the internodes, the better, but since the size of the bamboo’s diameter is directly proportionate to its internodes, most bamboos with long internodes are impossible to play as they do not fit well in the mouth,” Mashangva explained. “The length, diameter and the bamboo variety is of optimum importance as far as the sound is concerned.”

The tingteila is another instrument in Mashangva’s kit. The globular main body of the instrument is wrapped in dried pig bladder, which makes its sound vulnerable to distortion by rises and falls in temperature. Mashangva created a tingteila that can be tuned, like a guitar. He holds occasional workshops to illustrate the use of this instrument, but only uses his tingteila sparingly in concerts. “It can get boring for the audience,” Mashangva said.


LIKE THE INSTRUMENTS he’s worked on, Mashangva has had to reinvent himself over his career as well, always trying to maintain a balance between the preservation of the past and the effective dissemination of its traditions today. Though he has been awarded prizes, such as the National Tribal Award by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs in 2012, for his archiving efforts, Mashangva is more of a rock star than a museum curator. At a concert at Delhi’s Hindu College earlier this year, students relentlessly pursued Mashangva for photographs, while his bandmates Ringo Golmei and Chongtham Vikram, both former members of the legendary Manipuri rock band Phoenix, hovered around, bemused at being ignored. During Mashangva’s performance, six young women were gyrating enthusiastically near the stage. “On three,” one of them yelled, starting a countdown to a shrieking chorus of “We love you!”

Oinam Doren was one of Mashangva’s early fans. “Tantivy … was a stroke of genius,” he told me. “His songs gave me a glimpse of the idyllic Tangkhul village somewhere in the interiors of Ukhrul.” On the album, Mashangva’s Tangkhul lyrics are barely distinguishable from the poetic, loosely delivered, semi-grammatical English ones. Mashangva also uses the repetitive cries characteristic of Tangkhul folk singing. Doren felt that Mashangva’s later songs—which rely more on heavy blues riffs and slicker English lyrics—have “too much of a Western influence for my liking,” but admitted that this influence may have been key in wooing a larger and younger audience to his unique folk blues blend.

Chamroy felt it was more important to “learn to adapt with and adopt the changing reality of the time in a very creative way,” than to resist globalisation at any cost. Mashangva himself put it very simply: “I add modern flavour to the old folk songs, inject new sound by weaving them with blues and blending them with modern instruments ... In young minds, I have introduced the idea that our folk songs could be sung with modern instruments to make them more appealing.”

While Mashangva’s early, more traditional songs propelled him onto the national stage—with performances at events like the Hornbill Festival, the Festival of SAARC Folklore, The Octave, the Roots International Music Festival and the Ziro Music Festival—and to international stages in South Korea, Thailand and Myanmar, he soon realised that “the lifespan of a folk artist was fleeting.” “I became jobless,” he told me, noting that as he began touring more, he realised that “there are hundreds of trained musicians who are much more talented than me,” and that he couldn’t compete with them without becoming more professional. In 2007, Mashangva got a manager, Keith Wallang, whose firm, Springboard Surprises, has managed big-ticket concerts in India by international bands such as Sepultura and Air Supply. “He has helped me financially quite a number of times,” Mashangva said. “I need to be able to support myself and my family financially in order to be able to continue researching and making folk music.”

In 2012, Mashangva, who was usually referred to as a practitioner of the “Naga folk blues,” made a conscious decision to start packaging himself as a “Hao music exponent.” “This was spurred by my desire to constantly reinvent myself,” he told me. This new label, taken from the old term for his people, freed him from the expectations of hewing to a specific genre and has ultimately given him a broader canvas.

That year, Doren’s second film project with Mashangva was released. The Next Story features the musician and Mahangthei, a pastor who has introduced folk music into gospel songs in his church. The production of Doren’s third film with Mashangva, The Lonely Village, is stalled for lack of funding. The film takes a humorous look at how the advent of modernity uproots a Tangkhul village. In it, Mashangva plays the lead role. “The film is about my life story,” he told me.

After years of struggling for mainstream popularity, Mashangva’s career is on the rise. His last album, the 2012 release Our Story, is licensed by Times Music, which pays Mashangva a royalty of twenty percent—“the highest any artist is offered,” he told me. This is also the first of his albums to find such a large distributor. The album includes reworked old tracks alongside brand new ones. Among them is ‘Song of the Hornbill,’ which Chamroy wrote the lyrics to in 2009 as a tribute to Mashangva’s “quest for cultural revivalism.”

“We were discussing how hornbills were slowly becoming extinct because of deforestation and excessive hunting,” Mashangva said, “and realised that there was a parallel with the cultural ethos of the Tangkhuls.” Hornbills are considered sacred among the Nagas. “In olden times our pastoral forefathers used to forecast rain by the altitude of hornbills’ flight—a low flight means plentiful rain, and a high flight means delayed rain,” Mashangva said.

In days when they were more plentiful, Mashangva told me, hornbills usually flew in groups of five or six. “The noise of flapping wings as a group of hornbills flew overhead sounded similar to an airplane’s turbo noise,” Mashangva said. He remembered the last time he witnessed the magnificent flurry of black, white and yellow overhead, when he was a small boy. “I was out in our courtyard when a group of about seven hornbills flew over,” he said. “The noise of that flight was something I have never heard before and never will hear after that day.” In ‘Song of the Hornbill,’ Mashangva sings of “my love,” referring to the lost culture he has sought to restore. Over a quavering harmonica, a sassy, swinging guitar riff, and the rustic sound of a cowbell stressing every other beat, Mashangva’s voice soars, the English words stretched out completely unselfconsciously to suit the music:

Once I left my love in the blue mountains

Memories of her linger like the morning mist

At the foothills of that small village, far, far away

So I’m going back, going back to see her …

I’ll take a flight over those yellow paddy fields

I will find her there filling rice beer for her folks

Or feeding her children in the fields, children in the fields …

My song is all I’ve got to keep me company

When gray snowflakes come to rest in your cornfields in the winter …

Tell me will I ever find you?

Or was it too long time ago?