Deuri Rongpi, a businessman by profession, always had a passion for music but he never thought about formally starting a band. But he was always associated with the local music industry. With the help of his elder brother Bidyasing Rongpi who is a radio artiste, Deuri also managed to get accredited as a radio artiste for All India Radio, Guwahati (Karbi Section). His brother also motivated him to release an audio cassette called ‘Monjir’ in 2004. In addition to that, he also released two music videos called ‘Etletlet’ in 2009 and ‘Riksank’ in 2017.
The inception of the band happened only after he approached Denial Engti to assist him in the arrangement of four folk songs that he had composed based on Karbi folklore. ‘I have written almost fifty songs in total till now,’ says Deuri. While arranging the music, Denial, suggested to add some jazz elements along with others electronic instruments to make it a proper fusion ensemble. Intrigued by this idea, the two went ahead with the idea of forming a full-fledged band with Denial Engti on guitars and arrangement; Dhansing Teron, a government employee, on bamboo flute and Karbi wind instruments – Muri Tongpo/Muri Jangkek; Asok Kemprai on bass guitars; Simanta Barman on Karbi drums – Chengpi/Cheng-Burup and Sandeep Hakmosa on acoustics. ‘Denial is the inspiration behind the formation of our Karbi folk fusion band.’
Six months past formation, their project was almost ready but they still hadn’t thought of a name. This, however, did not stop them from making their first stage appearance at Rongmongve Festival which was held in December, 2015. They only got around to christening the band around the time they received an invitation to perform at an event celebrating World Music Day 2016 in Guwahati. The members decided on ‘Arak’ which meant the core of a tree.
Karbi Folk Elements
The Karbi community has a rich tradition of folk music. ‘According to a myth, the Karbis believe that they gained their knowledge of music only after Rangsina Sarpo (the Divine Musician according to Karbi folklore) came down from heaven to Earth in Telahor at West Karbi Anglong. Henceforth, folk music in the Karbi society has been carried forward from one generation to another by word of mouth.’ Some sources also suggest that the existence of hundred rhyme patterns can be found in Karbi folk music.
However, the band members feel that currently there are not many artistes in the Northeast who are doing their bit to preserve Karbi folk music. Not only that, there are only a select few who know how to make the traditional instruments; the music cannot hope to survive in the long run if the instruments can no longer be found.
Arak makes use of a lot of traditional Karbi instruments which lends to their unique sound. ‘Some instruments which the band uses are Muri-tongpo, similar to a trumpet but made with wood and bamboo and Muri-Jangkek which is like a flute but the process to play it is different from a regular flute. Muri-Jangkek can be made with bamboo, and the size is about 10-12 cm. We also use Chengpi, a Karbi traditional drum made of wood. It is round in shape and the outermost layer is covered with the dried skin of a cow or deer. It is tightly wrapped around the mouth of drum which lends a distinct sound. Chengburup is another music instrument we use. A conical shaped drum, it is usually tied around the waist while playing.’
Their music is very connected to nature and their local culture. ‘Our music is based on the jhum cultivation. With the use of a flute, we try to incorporate the calling of a cuckoo bird alarming people to get to work. We also play drums in three different patterns.’
The Future of Karbi Folk Music
The band’s effort to preserve Karbi folk music has been appreciated by local people. ‘People here love music. They listen to music ranging from heavy metal to experimental, hip hop to folk music.’ The Cultural Department of the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council also organizes the Rangsina Sarpo Film Awards to promote and motivate local art and culture. Then there is the Karbi Youth Festival which is held in the month of February every year. ‘It is a great platform for reviving our folk music among the youth.’
The band hopes that more and more artistes from the region will start playing Karbi folk music and help make it popular among the youth. As for them, they intend to keeping making quality music which incorporates Karbi folk elements. ‘We hope to hit the jam room soon and start with studio sessions for the songs that we have written so far.’
By Mrinal Paul
This article was first published in Eclectic Northeast September 2017 issue