Akhu Launches The Imphal Music Project
The Imphal Talkies frontman collaborates with Rahul Ram and Guru Rewben Mashangva on a song, to
release band’s second album in March this year
It’s no surprise that it was at a protest march outside the Vice Chancellor’s office at Delhi University in 2011 that Manipuri singer RonidÂ Chingangbam, better known as Akhu, met Indian Ocean’s Rahul Ram. TheÂ musicians showed up in support of teachers rallying against the semester system. “Rahul was without a guitar and asked if he could borrow mine. I had seenÂ Indian Ocean perform, but this was the first time I met him personally,” recalls Akhu. While the ManipuriÂ singer sang “I See Blood In Your Hands,” a diatribe against the Indian government, Rahul sang hisÂ adaptation of Gorakh Pandey’s poem, “Hille Le.”
The two soon got talking and Ram asked the then student-musician, who was working on his thesis, whetherÂ he had recorded his songs. “I told him I hadn’t and then one day, he invited me to Indian Ocean’sÂ jamming studio in Delhi and recorded one of my tracks,” he says referring to “I See Blood In Your Hands.” Later that year, they recorded an English version of “Eche” [sister in Manipuri], Akhu’s tribute to Manipuri activist IromÂ Sharmila and her decade-long fight against the Armed Forces [Special Powers] Act [AFSPA, 1958], with the Indian Ocean band member stepping in on bass and vocals for the track.
This week, the two Delhi-based musicians were in Manipur to launch Akhu’s jamÂ series, The Imphal Music Project. The first session will feature Akhu’s folk rock band,Â Imphal Talkies and Ram along with NagaÂ folk artist Guru Rewben Mashangva on a song titled “Nonglei.” “The project is something I have wantedÂ to do for a while but didn’t have sufficient funds for. It’s a platform for artists to come together and share their views on life and politics in their region through music, to make collaborations happenÂ between Imphal-based musicians and musicians from outside the violence-driven town,” he says.
On “Nonglei,” Ram sings in Meitei-lon [Manipuri] and English, while Mashangva and Akhu sing inÂ Tangkhul tui (Naga) and Meitei-lon. “The song talks about Manipur, which is currently filledÂ with communal conflicts. That’s why I have Rewben”¦ he belongs to the Tangkhul community whileÂ I belong to Meitei-lon and the two have hated each other since time immemorial. So Rewben and I puttingÂ this song together and singing in each other’s language is a slap in the face for all those communalÂ propagandists,” says Akhu, adding, “This song breaks all barriers like where I belong and whatÂ language I speak.”
As an artist known for his anti-establishment lyrics, Akhu knows too well what it means to raise yourÂ voice. Recently, he was dropped off the roster from a government-funded festival in Guwahati. “I thinkÂ they checked up Â on me one night and found some of my stuff not to their liking. Later, they called to say, ”˜You can’t be there cause people don’t know you’,” says the artist. Akhu is picky about his performanceÂ venues and has turned down requests from pubs on many occasions. “I don’t want toÂ perform in pubs and bars. I don’t feel good performing my kind of music there, where people don’tÂ come to think about stuff. I mean, singing songs about Irom Sharmila in front of drunk people doesn’tÂ make sense to me”¦ it’s very personal,” he says. At a pub in Pune, Akhu recalls an audience memberÂ walking up to him after a performance. “He said, ”˜You should thank god we didn’t beat you up, ’cause hereÂ you are talking against the country and we are clapping to your songs’.”
Though the lack of gigging venues impacts his band’s income, AkhuÂ hopes to release their second album, tentatively titled When The Home Is Burning by March this year.Â In 2009, Akhu released Imphal Talkies’s debut album,Â Tiddim RoadÂ with the help of the scholarship money heÂ received for his PhD.Â “Living my life as a musician is becoming very hard because I do need money. In fact, I’m spending moreÂ money on my music than I can make,” he says. “I have 28 songs to record, but I don’t have enoughÂ money to record all of them, so I’m picking out 10 songs for the album.”
Like most of his work until date, When The Home Is Burning will also comment on communal clashes in the northÂ east, Irom Sharmila’s fast and the AFSPA. “I don’tÂ believe in art for art’s sake. I want to deal with music that’s not just there to entertain listeners, butÂ is much more than that,” he says. The title track on his upcoming album talks about hypocrisy of activists in north east India. “We have so many activists and academics around,Â but I’m against those who like philosophizing and using sugary language when our house is literallyÂ burning,” he says.Â He doesn’t mind his “political artist” tag. “For me, even saying that I don’t want to be political is aÂ political statement. Look at musicians in the country, there are so many bands but no one comes upÂ to say a thing about what’s happening around.” It was only since he moved to Delhi, 12 years ago, thatÂ Akhu realized what was wrong about his growing up days in Imphal, where protests on streets, routineÂ frisking by the police and having a gun pointed at your face were commonplace. “Now, when I look backÂ at my childhood days, I know that it wasn’t a normal childhood,” he says.
With The Imphal Music Project, he hopes to provide aÂ platform for artists to express themselves. “Imphal is politically disturbed and I always had this feelingÂ that we didn’t have enough political music. There’s no electricity and it’s so hard to record an album. There’s noÂ freedom of expression”¦ forget musicians, even the press here can’t express themselves,” he says. “ItÂ really bothers me that there is so much happening around us and we aren’t saying anything about itÂ musically.”Â In the past, Akhu has sung songs condemning theÂ Tamil killings in Sri Lanka and the situation in Kashmir. He has even written poetry based on conflicts in Dantewada. “I want the project to be based in Imphal, but at the same time, it will reflectÂ the day-to-day struggles of Imphal and other parts of the world through collaborations with artists from other parts of the world.” The next sessionÂ of The Imphal Music Project will feature Mumbai based guitarist Sumit Bhattacharya (from Mumbai/Kolkata blues fusion band Summit Attempt)Â and Dhaka-based singer-songwriter Rushaf Wadud (from Chittagong folk/alternative rock band Blunderware). “It’s not a monthly series since weÂ have budgetary constraints, but the next session will take place in April this year,” confirms Akhu.
To know more about The Imphal Music Project, click hereÂ