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Rock the polls

Posted on: June 20, 2013

In the run-up to the Assembly elections in Manipur, the state’s rock bands have been telling people to vote for better governance through their music. (Telegraph, January 29, 2012)
Vote band: A Phoenix performance;

The crowd roars as Alvina Gonson’s strong voice washes across the stage. The lead vocalist of the rock band White Fire taps her high-heeled boots and belts out the song I am afraid of time. It could have been any old rock show in music-loving Manipur. Instead, the performance was at a gathering organised by the newly formed Naga People’s Front (NPF) in Noney in Tamenglong district. And the band was exhorting the crowd to vote against corruption.

About 50km from Noney, the mood is equally rebellious in a studio in Wangkhei in east Imphal. The sounds of the guitar and the drum meld with the voice of vocalist Tolen Thoidingjam. Thoidingjam’s band, The 3 Strings, is on a mission too. “The meaning of democracy has changed, from for the people to kill the people. Wake up everyone, ignite the power of your souls. It’s time for the battle,” he sings.

Indeed, it’s the time for a battle. And musicians are leading the fight as Manipur’s rock bands take to the streets for a better government. For weeks before yesterday’s Assembly election, the bands urged the youth through their songs to vote carefully.

“We have been mere spectators in the polling process. But if we don’t speak up now, we can’t do it ever,” says Raj Kumar Ritan, the 23-year-old guitarist of The 3 Strings.

Alvina Gonson

Music has always been the lifeline of the young in Manipur. But the tenor of the bands — angered by issues such as insurgency and economic blockades — has changed. With more than six lakh unemployed youth in the state, resentment against politicians is rife. Not surprisingly, the youth are turning their music into a weapon.

It all started two months ago when a group of young Manipuris organised a rock concert with the elections in mind. Titled Vote For Change, it featured five rock bands — Phoenix, Brothers, The Wishess, The Dirty Strikes and Fringes. The bands together decided that they’d try and make a difference in the 2012 election.

“The message was simple and clear — let’s not vote for the corrupt and the incompetent,” says Roshan Samom of the event management group Spotless Event, which organised the show in west Imphal. The bands stress that they are not asking for votes for any political party in particular — only urging voters to keep out the corrupt. But there is resentment against the Congress which held power for two terms.

The songs of the bands reflect their concerns. “As I grew, I saw the tear, it hurt me more than I could bear. Now, is the time, no more fright, let’s rise and fight,” The Wishess sing in Evolution. Phoenix, which split in 1995 and has now made a comeback, asks the questions “Can there be a real man? Can anyone bring a new change?” in a song called Stop The Killing.

“Being the senior-most rock artistes in the state, we think we have the responsibility to raise awareness among voters through our songs,” says Phoenix lead vocalist Laishram Sando, 54.

The lyrics strike a chord with the young who’ve undergone similar experiences. When Sonamani Rajkumar, lyricist and vocalist of the group Cleave, was frisked by security forces on his way back home from a rehearsal three months ago, he wrote the songThe Night of the Damn. The words, he says, reflect the “distorted freedom” of Manipur.

“It was frustrating to be challenged in my own land. Music is the only way I could have expressed it,” says Rajkumar. “It’s the only medium we have for venting our anger and resentment,” adds Abow Rajkumar, Cleave’s keyboard player. “Otherwise, we would have taken up the gun,” he says, as he reads a text message about a bomb blast in Imphal.

The names of the bands too reflect their angst. “We want to strike back against atrocities through our songs. So we call ourselves Dirty Strikes,” says bandman Kennedy Heigrujam. The name Fringes articulates a paradox. “Living on the periphery of the Indian Union is a different experience and it has its own social and cultural implications,” says vocalist Haraba Ningthoukhongjam.

The musicians are often found playing at Shallow River, a jamming studio in the heart of Imphal. Another popular spot is Bedrock, a studio in Wangkhei. “This is where we put our stories of pain and distress in rhythm and beat,” says Thounaojam Bishikanta Singh, vocalist of The Wishess. “We let our guitars gently weep,” adds Ningthoukhongjam.

But rock bands in Manipur were not always known to be anti-establishment. They emerged in the 1960s, bolstered by the music of Christian missionaries. But though rock music was hugely popular in the 1980s, many groups disbanded over the years. After a long gap, bands are back with a big bang in Manipur.

“The reason is that they write their own compositions. Also, these days songs don’t just revolve around love and romance but talk about the people of the state,” says R.K. James, an event manager who organises rock concerts across the state.

Perceptions about rock bands have also changed, adds Momocha Laishram, former drummer of Cannibals. “Earlier, rock bands were considered to be a bunch of flamboyant drug addicts. But now, people are ready to listen to rock music and the message behind them.”

And the messages, clearly, are hitting home. For example, Lie Instead, Mr Ruler by The Dirty Strikes revolves around false promises made by politicians. It’s your choice by the band IIIrd Chapter warns against freebies that politicians offer before a poll.

Vote buying figures in the song Democrazy of the band Eastern Dark, which sings in English and Manipuri. “3 pegs of liquor, 1kg of pork, a plate of rice, then slapping your face, with a 500 bucks bill, they flatly bought you, and you still expect democracy to flourish,” it sings in Manipuri.

Social analysts believe the bands’ political voice is a healthy trend. “Change means movement but they should stick to the agenda even after the polls,” says S. Mangi Singh, professor, department of political science, Manipur University.

Politicians too are keenly eyeing the trend, for 28 per cent of the 17,41,581 voters across the state are in the 18-29 age group. The bands’ efforts have already pushed the young to the polling booth. “I always thought voting was a waste of time but these songs have motivated me to vote,” says a 23-year-old student, Bijenti Mutum.

Taken aback by the music bands campaign, political parties have been promising to deliver. “We have given 40,000 jobs to the youth since 2005. We will not disappoint the youth if we get back to power,” says Nongthombam Biren Singh, who is contesting from Heingang Assembly constituency in west Imphal on a Congress ticket.

But the youth of Manipur have heard many such promises. And this time, if the promises are not met, they are going to sing some more.

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