When Benjamin reached over for a guitar, the last thing I expected to hear come out of his mouth was a Hank Williams song. You see, Benjamin grew up and learned how to play music in a small town in Nagaland, the region in the northeastern periphery of India that is considered isolated and remote from the rest of the continent. (It requires special permits to visit.) Benjamin sat back slowly strummed the guitar and played some of the most haunting renditions of American country-western songs I have ever heard.
Perhaps my surprise and joy at hearing Benjamin play “Your Cheating Heart” says more about me than it does about him. Of course people on the periphery of India are playing cowboy songs. After all, Nagas have been the Indians who have most enthusiastically embraced Christianity. The cowboy aesthetic, which allows the poor, rural, and lonely access to the cool, is one that fits in perfectly with the Naga community living in the borderlands of India. And really, who doesn’t like Hank Williams?
Missionaries don’t only bring hymns with them; they bring a whole cultural apparatus for musical performance. The harmonium, that instrument that often represents Indian music par excellence, came over with missionaries, as did new tunes and scales. And one can imagine songs designed for Sunday, exciting as they may be, getting old after a while.
After the missionaries came the American soldiers, stationed in Assam and Nagaland during the Second World War, tasked in 1943 with building a new road through India and Burma to supply China as the U.S. worked to constrict Japan on all sides. Over 60% of the American soldiers were African-American, and they interacted closely with local laborers as they trudged their way through the mountainous jungle. In 1944, the blues singer Alberta Hunter made an immensely popular tour with the USO through the region, bringing further excitement for American songs.
As America emerged dominant out of the Second World War’s ruins, it projected two images to the rest of the world. The first: one of Marshall Plan-driven modernism, a we-can-do-this attitude driven by Fordism that looked towards the future. The second (if you will forgive me the dialectical simplification)—this image works in tandem, with and against the first—is the backwards-looking Americana that is seen as preempting the Industrial while still predicting it. Both of these were eagerly exported in the post-war years—indeed, one could not exist without the other. The American cowboy aesthetic is accessible to anyone living on the peripheries of industrialization. (One of my favorite invocations of the spirit is a song by Sierra Leonean S.E. Rogie.) As the global center becomes homogenized, so, too, do the aesthetics of living on the periphery.
The experience of adapting these songs is one that changes them. In their new context, they take on different significance. Words and verses change dramatically. I have recorded six songs using my portable IC Recorder. Three of the songs Benjamin plays here are clear renditions of country-western standards. Two of them I have not been able to identify as based on any American song. The final song is a Maram love song about two lovers who have been separated. These songs employ the Americana idiom of cowboys, poverty, drinking, and loss, but weave them together in a new manner. The songs that are renditions of well-known songs have changed with regard to both their rhythms and harmonies, and with regard to their content.
The words of poet Peter LaFarge invoking the quintessential American cattle (imported, of course) take on different meaning when we hear them with India in mind: “Bull riders on the Brahma bulls, with the snide horns bent to smash and death as an alibi.” These songs show the narrative from the all-too-often-neglected other side. They show a cultural borrowing, adaption, and eventual ownership—but, most importantly, they show a sense of rhythm.
“Will the Circle Be Unbroken” playing in the background.
Eric: When did you learn this song?
Benjamin: When I was a small boy, in the fifth standard, my sister bought a guitar for me. I don’t know how to actually use the guitar, but she always play and she used to sing the same song. But afterwards I came to learn it—I like the music and I like the songs and the wording, meanings, so I started learning like that.
Eric: Do you know where your sister learned how to play guitar?
Benjamin: She was in the school, in the boarding, and she used to sing, like, in the choir, the school choir, so she learned the song from the Nagaland side. First she was staying there in Manipur, in Senapati District and afterwards, after she passed her matric degree she went to Nagaland for teaching in Phek District, and in Meluri, we were staying there together in Meluri in Nagaland. After that I came back to Manipur again and then I came back to Nagaland in Khuzama. Then I learned from there a little bit about guitar.
Eric: Where were you staying there?
Benjamin: Eden Garden run by Jesuit father. It’s about looking after the poorest of the poor in Nagaland. So we are looking after the orphanage students—those who don’t have the parents, like mother or father, either of them or both, we are looking after them freely. I was there for many years—from class six onwards I was there in Nagaland until my matric. And in between I used to play for them music like guitar. What I know a little bit, so I used to sing and I used to teach my students the same songs.
Eric: Did you learn other songs from different places?
Benjamin: The other songs from my own village.
Eric: What village is that?
Benjamin: My village is from Sadim. And the other one is Lizai. Some of our people, they used to sing—some of our friend. When we gathered together—we used to gather and simply we used to sing like that. So I liked the song and I learned the song. I don’t write any new wording. We used to sing continuously, so a little bit I know the songs.
Eric: What would those gatherings be?
Benjamin: Just in the night gathering. Just we make a campfire, we make a fire in the night, and just sit together and sing like that.
Eric: Would it be people of all ages there?
Benjamin: Elder and those like me. Those got married and have four or five son.
Eric: And the songs people would sing, would they be mostly in English or in Nagamese?
Benjamin: Mostly they sing in English and a little my own Maram song. That Maram song is about sweet home and like that. We used to sing sad song, gathering song. Mostly I sing in Maram love song.
Eric: You sang one love song before and it was very tragic, about breaking your heart—are most of your songs like that, or do they have happy endings?
Benjamin: (laughing) It’s like that, it’s like that, most of the song. About, heartbreaking song.
Eric: You told me before that there was someone who came, and older man who came and taught songs?
Benjamin: Yeah, yeah that was in the village. In our own village. We used to gather and the old man used to come and he used to sing these kind of song, so I used to learn how he is singing.
Eric: English songs?
Benjamin: Yeah, he knows how to sing English. Before that he was an ex-army. He joined in the police, in the bang-party. So he know a little bit English and he used to sing like that and we learned like that.
Eric: Do people listen to CDs and records and tapes and MP3s of this type of music or do they only play it on guitars at night?
Benjamin: Of course we listen. Mostly it is country song. We love country song so much. Because you know our village are very poor. Our village are very poor and we are living in the jungle-type. So we love how the village people live, so accordingly we sing in that way.
Eric: But you never change the words? You never write your own son?
Benjamin: No, no.
Eric: And about how many people live in that village?
Benjamin: Actually, I have got two village. The real village is around, almost seventy five houses in that small village. But I live in different village, nearby, I separated my village, and around eight or nine houses are there in my own village. So I stay in a small house, only nine or ten houses are there. I live in the full thick jungle.
Eric: And what is people’s primary occupation?
Benjamin: Only cultivation. They cultivate a field, a paddy field. We don’t buy anything from the market, we grow by ourselves rice, some vegetable. Of course salt and some chili we have to get from market. All the rest we grow by ourselves.
Eric: Are you going back soon?
Benjamin: Yeah, I’m going back and see the village. This time I am going and I will see, I heard that this time the people in our village are trying to bring the electricity because before that there was no electricity. I told my brother at least we have to bring the electricity in our village. So they are trying a lot now.
Eric: I know there are many separatists, communists who want independence for Nagaland—is there that in your region?
Benjamin: Of course we belong to Naga, but we don’t involve in activities, we don’t do anything. Only for the namesake, “Okay Naga movement, Okay we will follow.” Whatever they say we are ready to do that. Because we have no power to say anything against them. Whatever they demand, whatever they say, we have to obey that.
Eric: Could you please play me one more song?
Eric M. Gurevitch is a New York Jew currently residing in Mysore, where he teaches English at a Catholic school and studies Sanskrit texts on Hindu kingship and grammar. One day he hopes to be less confused. He often tweets at @EMGurevitch and occasionally blogs at pilesofbricksinindia.tumblr.com