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The Hornbill National Rock Contest had some upcoming metal superstars lock horns, in its third year

Lalitha Suhasini Jan 19, 2009
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Three fire engines of the Kohima fire brigade are called in to hose the Kohima Local Ground to keep the dust down. If you’ve been in Nagaland long enough you’ll realise how difficult it is to shake off the dust: It’s in your hair, clothes, shoes; it’s everywhere. Five days from now a lot of dust will rise at the local ground transforming one of the biggest football fields in the North East to the venue for the country’s toughest rock competition ”“ the Hornbill National Rock Contest. About 200 armed policemen patrol the local ground in the evening and over another 100 cops are posted on duty in the areas around the ground. Three massive hangars, that look like giant fire balloons that will take off any minute, have been erected on the ground – a stage area, the backstage and a VIP seating area. But it’s the galleries and the space beyond the barricades in front of the stage, which will witness mass hysteria ”“ teenagers stripping off their shirts even as temperatures hit single digits, a thousand horns going up in the air as a band plays on and crowd surfers, who almost topple over the barricades.

The three-year-old Hornbill National Rock Contest is probably one of the biggest platforms for rock in the country. The four-day event is an annual affair held every December draws an audience that jumps from 7,000 to 10,000 on the day of the finals when monster metal acts that can beat the pulp out of bands from across the country, battle it out for the biggest prize money ever rewarded at a rock show (this year it was a whopping Rs 5,00,000) plus gear worth several thousands. Sixteen-year-old Alo Dendy, a student of Model School, who turns up for the show without fail every year, sums up the show swaying on his feet happily, “Hornbill’s just for zutho (local rice beer) and rockin’.” Dendy hasn’t had a chance to go up on stage yet but assures us with a wide grin that he’s a punk guitarist.


Point a compass in any direction here and you’re bound to bump into a musician ”“ a drug inspector who does country, a 16-year-old student who plays his riffs with unbelievable finesse and a deputy secretary in the legislative assembly who’ll belt out Deep Purple giving most teenagers a serious complex. Reason enough for Nagaland CM Neiphiu Rio to set up the Music Task Force in 2006, making his state the only one in the country to include a specialised government-run department for contemporary music.

The CM’s secretary L Kire, like most Nagas, took to music in school and started playing the guitar “seriously” only eight years ago. “It’s a huge stress-buster,” says Kire, “When you pick up the guitar and start strumming, you forget all the troubles at work.” Kire now has a band called Kasba that includes fellow politicians: Kavito Chishi, the bassist is a project director at the department of rural development for non conventional energy, drummer Toshi Amer is a drug inspector in the health and family welfare department, guitarist Alun Hangsing is a deputy secretary also in the health and family welfare department, guitarist Lima Ozukum is an executive engineer in the department of roads and bridges, and bassist Benjong Ai is a technical assistant with the school education department. They all share a love for the blues, country and jazz. The name Kasba comes from Kohima Amateur Snooker and Billiards Association ”“ a band of childhood friends who were “separated at college” and came back together because they were all posted at the same place. With three guitarists and vocalists, Kasba will go up on stage for the first time at the Hornbill festival, a day before the rock contest kicks off. They’ve lined up some Stevie Ray Vaughan and CCR for the evening but are a little nervous. “We hope all those lights on stage don’t blind us. We won’t be able to see the frets,” says Kire. Ozukum slaps him on the back and tells him that he doesn’t need to see the frets. “Just close your eyes and play man,” he says. Everybody in the band is looking around for a man named Gugs.

Gukhato Chisi or Gugs, is the man who is at the wheel as the head of the Music Task Force ”“ a school of rock of sorts that handpicks contestants for the Hornbill National Rock Contest, driving the music scene with his quiet energy and unorthodox views into absolutely uncharted territory. When Gugs spots Kasba, there’s a round of hugs and backslapping before he ushers the middle-aged men onto stage, and comes around backstage again to settle down with a steaming cup of coffee.

“Worldwide, music is an industry but here it’s just a hobby in spite of having a huge talent pool. It isn’t an option if you want to make a livelihood. So we want to combine all our resources ”“ sound engineers, technicians and event managers ”“ to promote music as an industry,” he says. Already 10 promising artists have been sent to various institutes to train in their respective fields and a group of 35 new recruits is the target this year.

This year, Gugs kicked off the first ever Nagaland Music Safari across all 11 districts of the State. Kohima and Dimapur from the South, Mokukchung and Wokha from Central Nagaland have been the music hubs but Peren, on the border of Assam and Nagaland and Phek, in the South are catching up, explains Gugs. “It was like a build up to the National Rock Contest,” he adds. Gugs travelled across the state auditioning a staggering number of artists – 106 bands, 661 musicians and 178 soloists to pick 11 bands, 22 soloists and 71 musicians. Of these, 5 bands made it to the rock contest ”“ Diatribe, which won the National Safari, Dementia, the first runners up, Original Fire Factor or OFF, Eximious and Melodrama.


On day 1 of the qualifiers (December 4) Dementia’s 19-year-old lead vocalist Akihto Kinimi is on the edge as he looks up at the stage where a soundcheck is in progress. “I have a sore throat,” he croaks and his brow knots up. The band’s 18-year-old drummer Lanu Longkumer has an exam the next day. But the four-piece band, all fire-bellied metal heads deliver a tight, all-original set in the evening. “This is our first time at the Hornbill Rock Contest and we want to tell you that it’s possible to enjoy music without sex, drugs and violence,” roars Kinimi who’s buttoned up in a traditional Naga jacket. His voice is hoarse but he pulls it off with the audience howling loudly for more. Sixteen-year-old guitarist Moa Longkumer is wearing a T-shirt that says Naga Identity. They tell us later that they’re proud of where they come from and wish more bands would go back to their roots. Dementia, which is treading the road laid down by older bands such as Divine Connection, has all the makings of the next white metal or gospel band but Kihimi denies it. He feels his band is just another metal band that focuses on social causes.

There’s a lot going for you if you’re a gospel-singing artist out here, where the church is a formidable force. The church supports these artists all along their careers right from funding their training in music at a preferred institute to lining up gigs. Divine Connection’s 29-year-old lead vocalist Obed Kath would also rather not call itself a gospel band but a secular, groove-metal act. Although Kath agrees that his band has received moral support from the church. “Divine Connection wants to penetrate the sector of music lovers who believe that metal is all about alcohol and drugs and bring them out of the dark,” says Kath.

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Ironically, it’s the Sunday schools at the local parishes where most musicians develop their skills, including bands and artists who do death, thrash or even melodic metal and are publicly blackmarked by the church. On the opinion page of The Nagaland Post dated December 6, 2008, a day after the qualifying rounds of the Hornbill Rock Contest, Reverend Vichalielie Perheilie, founder, Christian Democratic Party, remarks in a piece titled ”˜Nagas annoying God’: “Nagas are adapting, practising and filling our land with the lifestyles of the unbelievers of various states and countries ”“ the practices that are abomination before our Almighty God”¦ if the Nagas are drifting away from God more and more then who knows after the Hornbill festival, a time for vulture festival may come where vultures will tear apart the dead bodies. Therefore one thing which I want to beseech State government (sic) is ”“ instead of Hornbill festival arrange a spritual awakening festival.”

Diatribe, the three-year-old melodic metal band leads the pack of rebels in Kohima and is scheduled to go on stage on Day 2 (December 5). Diatribe switches places with Dementia because they needed time to practise a brand new song and Dementia’s drummer had an exam to write. The band has gained respect from several other contemporaries including Dementia and OFF and there’s a sense of brotherhood backstage whenever the band’s bald-headed lead vocalist Temsu Akong aka Kahlong walks in. Kahlong, a college dropout with piercing eyes writes as bravely as he speaks. “The church should start thinking differently. I’m fortunate to have been out of here for so long and when I see things happening here it’s sad ”“ the tensions because of the insurgency, the corruption,” he says. All members of Diatribe face severe opposition from their families. Kahlong is the only one from a reasonably well-off background and except for the band’s immensely talented 29-year-old lead guitarist Yanger Longkumer, who is a data entry operator, the rest are fulltime musicians. Unemployed, as far as their families are concerned. “I respect my dad the most. He’s a staunch Christian,” says Kahlong whose father works as an additional director in the state’s department of treasury, “He doesn’t speak much but I know he expects me to sing gospel with him in the church. My mum keeps asking me why I don’t use my vocals differently to sing and why I growl. My parents have given up but I believe that I’ll be someone.”

We’re driving to Lere where Diatribe drummer Temsu Kichu, 28 lives, forty minutes away from the local ground in Kahlong’s black and silver Bolero. The drummer’s place serves as a jam pad except when the neighbours kids need to catch up on their studies. The band has been practising hard to push ”˜Diatribe,’ a new, raging number into their qualifying performance. The reed-thin ponytailed drummer Kichu is shy but will allow himself moments of madness off stage. Like the time he scares curious kids, who wander into his room with fingers in their ears, by smashing his cymbals hard and rolling with laughter. The eight-year-old drum kit, a gift from his dad, is on its last legs. The Zildjian cymbals are in splinters and one piece flies into the dustbin as he flogs them relentlessly. Between puffs of smokes, paan and lethal gooseberry pickle that’s pounded with king chilli, the band destroys any semblance of calm in the Lere neighbourhood.

Then comes the new song, ”˜Diatribe.’ “Sick of bribes/This rift in tribes/I can’t describe/I scream my diatribe,” growls Kahlong. The drum section is a sticky spot and the band keeps breaking to decide on the repeats and the time signature. With two hours left for showtime, the band decides to call it a day and unwind. In the evening, Diatribe decides they’re not ready to make the new song public yet, but goes onto deliver a powerful performance.

For two days, 19 bands take to the stage. Dementia, Diatribe, and Melodrama (the Kohima band is a wild, riotous bunch of class XII students to watch out for) from Nagaland stand out. These bands are the future of Indian metal, waiting to explode out of their homegrown heroes shell. The Verbs from Shillong, Arms of Silence from Aizwal and OFF from Kohima are striking because they have rabid metalheads going home satiated on their own brand of rock & roll and reggae. Mumbai band Medusa which started out as an industrial band and switched over to electronica has a huge fan following here. It’s the band’s second run at Hornbill, and they kick off an all-originals set with ”˜Who’s Your Daddy’ and wind up with ”˜I Become I.’ Their performance is easy and trippy, dampened by two technical glitches with the sampler, both at start and finish. The glitches are so glaring that they stop ”˜I Become I’ halfway into the track and start it all over again. But to their credit, the crowd is sporting and loves the trio. Death metal act Alien Gods from Itanagar deliver complete carnage on stage, and we’re ready to bet heavily that they’d make it to the finals.

On the third day of the Hornbill Rock Contest, the band members pace around backstage like caged beasts or gather around chulas in the evening with shawls wrapped around them. The countdown begins to the finals, and the results will be announced after Delhi heroes and headlining act Parikrama wrap up their show. This is the band’s third time in Nagaland having played at the Mokukchung festival in September 2008 and Dimapur earlier this year, and fans from across the State pack into the local ground. “I’ve been waiting for Parikrama to come down here. I’ve only read about them in magazines and seen them on VH1 and Channel [V],” says Vziketo Y Yeptho, 22 who works in Unitex Inc, the city’s oldest music store. While the galleries (with the cheapest tickets at Rs 30) still have room to breathe, the main area is crammed. The band’s sound takes a while to fire up but the audience is already wrapped up in a heated Parikrama mania. By the time they hit ”˜Fear of the Dark,’ their fifth number on stage, Parikrama is in their element. Towards the end, though, they’re onto Floyd, which pretty much does them in. Guitarist Sonam Sherpa shines through the performance but Nitin Malik’s vocals aren’t in form. But by no means is it a half-hearted indulgence ”“ Parikrama is uninhibited from start to finish, even through the dud section.

As audiences make their guesses and bands send up a prayer, the names of the finalists are announced ”“ Dementia and Arms of Silence have surprisingly not made it. Alien Gods, Diatribe, Eximious, Maestro, Melodrama, Northwind, OFF, 24×7 and the Verbs will go in for the kill on the last day. I am placing my bets on Diatribe to bring home the Hornbill title. Joint Family from Delhi (in 2006) and the Hobos from Kolkata (in 2007) were the previous winners of the rock contest, and the local music communities are eager for one of their own to walk away with the big win.

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On D Day, we catch up with the Shillong band, the Verbs, which is scheduled to open the show and lead singer Donald Warjri is not so pleased. The last song that the band rehearses, to my surprise, is Gloria Gaynor’s ”˜I Will Survive.’ Warjri doesn’t let in whether or not the track will be a part of the final performance. “It all depends on the audience. We sometimes change our set list on the stage at the last minute, so it’s quite crazy,” he says. We walk around the deserted Phool Bari market street close to the local ground. Sunday is shutter down day across most of Nagaland, and the most activity that you’d see is cops parading the streets with rifles. “I hope there’s enough crowd when we begin. There’s no fun without the crowd. I’d hate it to be a lukewarm start,” says Warjri, frowning. Like any performer, the Verbs love to show their audience a good time and swing with them. Warjri’s fears are put to rest in the evening and the metal-hungry beings incredibly warm upto the Verbs, who open the show with AC/DC moving on effortlessly to guitarist Victor Miller’s favourite axeman Hendrix. It’s a tribute to drummer Mitch Mitchell who passed away earlier the previous month and a condom balloon goes up as Warjri announces ”˜Manic Depression.’ The sound is tight, there haven’t been any hiccups and the audience has been roaring its approval. The band closes with a frantically-paced original called ”˜Yeah It’s Over.’

The next band up is the five-piece Maestro from Haflong, Assam ”“ another tight spitfire act inspired by Rage Against the Machine. They open with ”˜Freedom’ moving onto originals such ”˜Real Thing’ with clean riffs but lacking in energy. Two-year-old local band (from Kohima) Eximious is up next with big energy originals such as ”˜What I Want’ and ”˜Don’t Care.’ Eximious had walked away with the ”˜Best Guitarist’ and ”˜Best Bassist’ titles at the Nagaland Safari earlier in 2008. It’s turning out to be a fierce combat already, three acts into the show and some of these acts are first-timers at the Hornbill National Rock Contest. Like the next act OFF that fuses jazz, blues and rap into rock in an instantly appealing sound. Some fans sport hand-painted OFF bandannas ”“ the band is too new and “too poor” to have its own merchandise out but is probably one of the fastest rising act out here. The dreadlocked vocalist Lui Tzudir jumps around stage in circles as guitarist Temjen Jamir lays down some really innovative chops on ”˜Who Do You Wanna Be,’

an original about finding yourself. ”˜No Way,’ a Marley-inspired original is another hit with the crowds. OFF holds the burning promise of turning into one of the best-loved bands in the country if they manage to stay around together.

And something tells me that no force can pull Diatribe apart. All hands go up in the air when it’s announced that Diatribe is up on stage next. Kahlong tests his fans when he walks onto stage, draw out the loudest roars and shrieks, as his girl Keditsu looks on proudly. They open with ”˜Diatribe,’ the original they wrote four days ago. The savage energy that every member of Diatribe brings to the performance tears the stage apart, erasing all memory of previous performances on the same stage. Diatribe is bold, brave and willing to bare its soul in front of its fans which is probably what brings them closer. Kahlong has an electric stage presence, running about, kneeling at the head of the stage, turning his back to the audience to have a private dialogue with the drummer ”“ he’s all over the place at once.  The galleries are packed today and nobody’s sitting when Diatribe is on. It’s impossible to sit down to frenzied originals such as ”˜Hardships’ or even a Diatribe cover for that matter. But today Diatribe does only originals. The crowd bows and beseeches the Kohima band to go on after they close with a track called ”˜Go Away’ with a sense of urgency on the keys and ominous notes that have them completely wired till the end.

Diatribe makes way for Pune-based Naga band 24×7. The band which is influenced by acts such as Korn and Slipknot opens with a Godsmack cover ”˜Awake’ and goes onto deliver a competent performance but Diatribe has a heady after-effect.

Melodrama, the Dimapur band of class XII kids manages to get the local ground to shudder and quake with its energy again. With originals such as ”˜The Devil,’ the thrash metal band is another absolute favourite with the audience. The guitarist headbangs so hard on stage, it’s a surprise that he can carry on with his performance. There’s so much heat generated on stage, literally, that moisture is dripping off the roof of the hangar.

Alien Gods, the last act for the day tighten the screws on the judging process and even as the judges are seated backstage half way into their performance, they know it’s going to be a tough call. The Itanagar-band does Slayer’s ”˜Raining Blood,’ Dissection’s ”˜Maha Kali’ and originals such as ”˜Lunar Blackened Blood’ bringing the Hornbill National Rock Contest to a bloodcurdling finish.

Shillong band, the Verbs takes home the grand prize of five lakhs. Diatribe is disappointed and fans are surprised that they’ve only turned out to be the first runners-up winning a cash prize of one and a half lakhs. We’re told that the winning bands had a margin of only one or one-and-a-half points over each other, and maybe that’s a consolation for Diatribe as well. Eximious, also from Kohima are the second runners-up bagging one lakh. “Maybe giving away the first prize to bands from the outside helps tourism,” jokes Keditsu, without humour but Kahlong shakes off the disappointment easily. “I’m heading down to Mumbai soon to meet some people, make some contacts,” he says.

As we drive down from Kohima to Dimapur, the dirt roads raise less dust than the far-out metal bands back at the ground. Suddenly, it sounds like our van has been pelted with sharp stones. The driver guesses that the miscreant aimed at the vehicle from atop a hill that we just passed but has no way of establishing this because the roads are mostly unlit and he doesn’t want to stop to find out. He begins regaling adventures of his encounters with troublemakers on the road in the dead of the night. He once hit and run three armed men, who blocked his path with a thick rope. “They just want to take control of your vehicle. So you don’t stop to think or talk. It’s a straight drive until destination point,” he says. A driver friend who once stopped ended up with his head spliced into two by sword-brandishing militants.

Although the week when the Hornbill festival is held is the safest time of the year that celebrates rock and perhaps even life. Rock, too, isn’t an easy road anywhere in the world and here in the North East it’s a route better not taken. But like OFF’s 26-year-old lead vocalist Lui Tzudir says, “Out here, you have to be a rebel to make rock music.”

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