‘Sofiyum’ means ‘breeze’ in the Lepcha language. The band started in the year 2011 after vocalist Mickma Tsh Lepcha and his friends got together to record a song. ‘All of us wanted to experiment with music and push boundaries, and we hit common ground with Sofiyum.’
The current line-up includes Mickma (vocals/tungbuk/puntong), Ongyal Tsh (vocals/guitar), Leeyong Lepcha (guitar), Rathap Lepcha (drums), Phursong Lepcha (vocals/percussion), Choki Lamu Lepcha (vocal/percussion) and Chyuzong Lepcha (bass).
The idea to start a Lepcha folk-fusion band started because they felt the language was becoming endangered as many from their own community were not speaking the language anymore. It was their way to help revive the culture through folk music. ‘Our music is derived from the sounds of nature since the Lepchas are nature worshippers. Lepcha folk music is actually passed down the generations orally.’ Although currently there are not many artistes who are promoting Lepcha folk music, the band is certain that there will always be people who will come forward to do so in the years to come. ‘Our own folk music has been pushed to a corner. But I wouldn’t say that there is a threat of it disappearing completely though, because folk music brings forth a feeling of identity and as long as people feel connected to their roots, folk music will always be upheld by someone,’ shared Mickma.
The band uses a lot of ethnic instruments which lends to the unique sound. They use the Tungbuk, which is like a mandolin with three nylon strings; the Puntong, a four hole flute which is perhaps the earliest instruments of the Lepchas; and the Ranger which is a drum made by stretching leather over a hollowed tree trunk. They also use a few ethnic percussion instruments like the Po-patek, Po-Pasong, Blingthop, made from bamboo (Po) and wood, and Longthyol which is made with riverside stones. ‘Their origin is not exactly known but they all imitate nature sounds so it is safe to believe that they were derived from it.’
The band’s influences range from hard rock, glam, blues to their very own folk music. As for the inspiration, they chime that it is an amalgamation of what each member is inspired by and brings to the table.
Since the band’s first major gig in 2012 at a World Music Day event in Shillong, the band has gone on to perform at Ziro Festival of Music and Songs and Dances of Northeast, 2016. ‘Although our songs are in our native tongue, and most youths today do not speak or understand the language, they are still fond of the music. Music, as we have all heard time and again, is a universal language and I can safely say that we have been able to communicate to the youth and make people aware of the importance of our roots most satisfactorily. We get immense support not only from the Lepcha youth but from people of our sister communities from across the region,’ revealed Mickma.
The recent surge in popularity is a ray of hope for the band members. ‘We do hope that young and talented musicians come forward and carry on what we have been doing because upholding and promoting our culture is a collective effort.’
The band has had a fair share of setbacks including unavailability of proper practice pads, financial crises and having to manage with poor equipment. They have had to practice in cramped dark rooms without proper sound. But never once did they lose motivation or inspiration. They have continued to make quality music that they believe in and that is why music lovers across the region have appreciated their efforts. ‘The response and love that we have got so far from our listeners has been overwhelming.’
The band is currently focused on putting together a full-length album. ‘We have cancelled our immediate commitments. We do have a few local shows, but apart from that, we spend most of our time in the studio.’
By Mrinal Paul
This feature was first published in Eclectic Northeast (July 2017) issue