‘The main idea of working with other artists is that it helps me express my anger and anxiety better’ – says Imphal Talkies frontman Akhu Chingangbam about his collaborative Imphal Music Project.
Akhu Chingangbam is a singer-songwriter who fronts Imphal Talkies. He has been a part of the band since its inception in 2008 and since then, has been performing as consistently as he possibly can. “It’s difficult for me to get gigs because only some universities and colleges agree to host our gigs. I’ve tried to hold concerts at many places but they inevitably get cancelled for some reason or the other,” Chingangbam complains. The reason may be because Chingangbam writes songs that deal with his Imphal and his Manipur. The Manipur that he knows has been under the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act, an act which literally gives the armed forces the ability to get away with murder.
The music he writes is, therefore, a reflection of this environment. If you’ve lived in an oppressed hole all your life, you may dream about palaces but you won’t be able to describe life anywhere else, and with Chingangbam, this rings true. His music is categorised as ‘protest music’ and his songs are ‘protest songs’ but the environment he’s lived in allows it to be no other way. With the first Imphal Talkies album, Chingangbam’s songwriting covered a number of subjects like the AFSPA and the effect it has on his psyche. His song ‘Qutub Minar’ was a lyrical poem that explores the journey a man takes with the tower on his back and explains why he would choose to do so, obliquely referencing the injustice that the disenfranchised face at the hands of those in power. The song also formed the backbone for his collaboration with Asian Dub Foundation on the second season of The Dewarists (read more about the episode here) and suddenly, a lot more people were aware of the kind of songs he was writing.
Check out Imphal Talkies and Asian Dub Foundation’s version of ‘Qutub Minar’ below.
“The main idea of working with other artists is that it helps me express my anger and anxiety better. It gives me the chance to connect with a wider audience as well, and I think that is what drives me to do it.” This is the concept that drives Chingangbam’s new venture, the Imphal Music Project. The Imphal Music Project is “a life-long project” that will see Chingangbam collaborating with various artists from India and abroad to create songs that will reach out to more and more people across borders and socio-political spectra. The project came about after he collaborated with Asian Dub Foundation, though he had wanted to do it a while before that. “I was in Thailand when I thought of putting together this project. It was in May 2012, I think. Rahul Ram (of Indian Ocean) wanted to visit me in Imphal and we never used to get time to put this together, so it took a while for the project to start off,” explains Chingangbam. The first collaboration on the project features Rahul Ram and Guru Rewben Mashangva, a Manipuri musician of Naga descent, who has been writing and performing for years.
Apart from these three musicians, the project also involved Imphal-based multi-instrumentalist Hem Gurumayum, and Sunil Loitongbam, a sound engineer and guitarist who has been working with Imphal Talkies ever since its inception. This quintet form the core of collaborators working on the first episode of the Imphal Music Project.
We spoke to Chingangbam and found out more about the project and what he plans to do with it in the future.
NH7: What is the Imphal Music Project?
Akhu Chingangbam: The Imphal Music Project aims to provide a platform for Imphal based folk musicians/artists to collaborate with artists/musicians outside Manipur. This is something I have been wanting to do for a while. I believe this project will help grow Imphal based musicians and mostly will help people realise the political turmoil around this town, as we will be doing songs related to socio-political issues of the region.
I have also talked to film director Oinam Doren, who made the National Award-winning film Songs of Mashangva, to document whatever we do in the studio.
Note: The artists featured on the Imphal Music Project are by no means a random choice. Chingangbam explained that his choice of Guru Rewben Mashangva would make a difference because there were constant conflicts between both the ethnic groups they represent (Chingangbam is a Meitei and Mashangva is a member of the Naga community in Manipur), and this collaboration would be a good way to represent the fact that there is no disunity between the groups, except when exploited by people trying to take advantage of the situation by furthering political and ethnic tensions.
What was the nature of the song that you wrote with Guru Rewben Mashangva and Rahul Ram? What themes did it explore lyrically?
The song is called ‘Nonglei’ (‘The Storm’). The song throws up many questions about losing our culture, heritage and also addresses issues around ethnic conflicts and the Loktak lake, which is the biggest fresh water lake in North-East region. The project also features Hem Gurumayum, an Imphal-based guitarist and Sunil Loitongbam who is a drummer and guitarist.
When I had collaborated with ADF, they had chosen the song they wanted to work on. With Rahul Ram and Guru Rewben, we all sat down and then decided that this song would be the most relevant for our purpose. It was very much a collective decision and we took a while before we decided on it.
How was it sharing the writing process with two collaborators you’ve known for a while?
I wrote the song way back in 2003, but it is still relevant in these days. Guru Rewben came up with few lines based on the theme of the song in his own style. The Tangkhul folk tune really gets along well with the song. Rahul came up with his own idea of a chorus, sang in Meiteilon (the language of the Meitei people of Manipur) for the first time, and also played bass on the track. It was really fun working on the song with these legends and hosting Rahul Ram in Imphal. I had a lot of fun showing him around Imphal.
How are you planning to release the music born from this collaboration?
We are planning to release the song online, but are yet to really think about it as we want it to reach out to a vast audience worldwide.
What are you planning to do with Imphal Talkies in the future? Will this song be a part of any Imphal Talkies releases?
Imphal Talkies are now recording their second album. The album is titled When The Home Is Burning and, yes, this song will feature on the second album, but I’m not sure of the other tracks which will stem from the project.
The next episode of the Imphal Music Project will feature Kolkata guitarist Sumit Bhattacharya of Summit Attempt and Dhaka-based singer-songwriter Rushnaf Wadud.
The song ‘Nonglei’ has not been released yet, but a teaser for the song has been released. Listen to it below.
More from The Imphal Music Project soon. Read this column by Akhu Chingangbam to get a better idea of what it means to him, in his own words.
Photos by Deepak Shijagurumayum.