Choral Singing Is A Way Of Life In The Northeast

Choral singing is still hitting the high notes in the Northeast, even though many no longer have the time for choir practice
Moatangit Kichu /
Moatangit Kichu /

Quite like the lanva luI (river), the volces flow In gentle ripples. The singers are a group of young men and women practising vocals in the bustling town of Lamka in Manipur&rsquos Churachandpur district. They come together thrice a week to hone their voices. And the river, the lifeline of the people in the hilly southwest district, echoes with the sound of music.

Elsewhere, too, singers are practising their notes. For instance, in the interiors of Manipur&rsquos Tamenglong district, choral singing is a decades-old tradition, still going strong. The mountainous district, known for its mandarin oranges, is home to the Tamenglong Baptist Church, set up in 1929. Its first choir leader, Luniang, now 87, has spent a lifetime teaching music.

In the Northeast, choral singing is a way of life. From Manipur and Meghalaya to Nagaland, Mizoram, pockets of Assam and beyond, voices come together to create harmony. &ldquoMusic is something that is all around us,&rdquo said Sahu Peseyie, 46, a member of the Union Baptist Church in Kohima. 

A Melodious Way Of&nbspLife

Choral singing largely spread in the region with Christianity and the community singing of hymns. Most churches in the Northeast have choirs comprising local people. For instance, several members of the now-famous Shillong Chamber Choir sang in church before joining the choir. &ldquoThe fact that we have a strong musical, as well as spiritual foundation, enables us to do what we are doing today,&rdquo said William Richmond Basaiawmoit, who represents the choir. 

To a large extent, the Shillong choir turned the lens in other parts of the country on the region&rsquos rich tradition of choral singing after it won a television reality show in 2010. Founded by the late Neil Nongkynrih, the choir has performed across the country and parts of the world, occasionally blending popular Hindi songs with Western music. It underscores the fact that collective singing is not restricted to churches. Often described as intangible cultural heritage, it is an integral part of weddings, funerals and other occasions. &ldquoMusicians have evolved from that confinement of the church. Those who sing gospel are slowly experimenting with other songs and expanding their audience,&rdquo said Imphal-based lyricist and singer Akhu Chingangbam, the founder of the folk-rock band Imphal Talkies and The Howlers. 

Home and Abroad 

Many youngsters trained in local churches and schools, went abroad to study music, and then returned to their homes to&nbspspread it further. Peseyie is among them. He went to the United States in 2001 to do his Master&rsquos in music and concentrated on piano performances. In 2006, he returned to Kohima and joined his local church, taking the lead in the music department.

Music runs in the family his mother learnt the piano from Christian missionaries and then introduced him and his elder sister to the instrument. His sister Vivee studied music at Biola University in Southern California and returned to guide the young back home. Now the dean of the Margaret Shishak School of Music in Dimapur, she started a choir mostly of students in the late 80s and found that she had to merely &ldquofine- tune&rdquo the local talent. The foundations of choir singing have made people scale new heights. Take Jimmy Pamei, 49, who led a music team in his village earlier. A violinist, he completed his Grade 6 from Trinity Guildhall, London, formed a band, composed 40 songs and now runs a music school in Tamenglong. 

Not Just Music 

Musicians stress that practising choral music trains them as singers and helps them emerge as strong human beings.&ldquoWhat I teach is not just music. It is also about discipline,&rdquo said Siamkhansang,who conducts the choir at the Evangelical Baptist Church in Lamka. &ldquoOnce you are in the choir, you must be committed, and time management is equally important.&rdquo

Aizawl resident Ramngaih Awmi Paite, 41, endorses the belief that choir singing teaches more than music. From the lyrics of hymns, singers absorb moral values, while singing together underlines the need for discipline and harmony. Paite, who has been a part of choirs, is keen that her children join choral singing. &ldquoI want them to have the same values I acquired through the choir.&rdquo Many stress that choirs also work as strong support groups. Vungzamuan Valte, a senior Delhi-based bureaucrat from Manipur, recalls the solace that he got from his church choir in Delhi when he lost his wife and son to COVID-19 in 2021. &ldquoThe support was 'unforgettable,'&rdquo he said. 

Strength Of Tradition 

In the heart of Kohima, Children&rsquos Christian School, founded in 1967 by the first woman Naga Parliamentarian, the late Rano Shaiza, continues to focus on the importance of singing and practice. Her son, Azeibu Shaiza, ensures the tradition of singing, which is ingrained as a part of the culture, carries on. The musicians, however, stress that in the hustle of modern-day living, not everybody has the time for extended practice sessions.  &ldquoIt used to be easier to get members. Nowadays, people are busy. Some are still interested, but time is a big factor,&rdquo said Peseyie, who set up a music school in Kohima called the Chieli Music Academy in 2013.&nbspThe spread of technology has brought about changes. &ldquoEarlier, we would give students the music notes so that they could learn their parts and come to sing together. These days, they listen to the original, and they can sing with a few practice sessions,&rdquo said Pamei.

It has its downside, too.&ldquoMembers learn to read notations, study them, practise for hours, and then sing. But now, they depend on YouTube to learn tunes and mostly use their smartphones to practise without any theoretical knowledge of notations,&rdquo said Zothan Mawia, who runs a music school in Aizawl called Mystique. &ldquoSo, the actual learning and understanding of music are lacking,&rdquo said Mawia, who led a choir in the Mizoram Presbyterian Church in Aizawl in the late 80s. 

Choir singing teaches more than music. From the lyrics of hymns, singers absorb moral values, while singing together underlines the need for discipline and harmonyBut since singing is an intrinsic part of the people&rsquos cultural lives, it will always carry on, holds Yaruingam Awungshi, a professor in the Department of African Studies, University of Delhi.

Awungshi, 56, who grew up in Shingkap Village in Manipur's Ukhrul district and left home in 1986 for higher studies, said that the singing tradition he was introduced to as a child keeps him rooted in his culture. His four children, all born in Delhi, follow in their father&rsquos footsteps and take the lead in music in their respective schools and colleges. &ldquoThe music in us will never die,&rdquo he said.

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