In Conversation – Tetseo Sisters

By Deepa Jyoti 

Music is a world within itself. It is a language we understand”- Stevie Wonder.

With the quote in mind, I collected myself, pulled on a chair and dialed the number of Tetseo Sisters, on a warm Sunday afternoon.  Little did I know that I was set for a lovely conversation ahead unlike those mechanical ones that we come across more often?

Tetseo Sisters’ is one name that has been doing earnest rounds in the Indian music scene. The sisters need no introduction for music lovers of North East India but for the uninitiated, the Tetseo Sisters are a quartet of four sisters from Nagaland, India. The sisters are Mütsevelü (Mercy), Azine (Azi),Kuvelü (Kuku)and Alüne Tetseo (Lulu). Their genre is Folk – traditional Naga folk songs in particular. Some of the folksongs they sing have been compiled in the traditional songbook, Li kukre kutiko. There are Li for special events, love songs, children’s songs, laments, war songs and songs that are related to agriculture and its seasonal activities. Here’s what they had to tell.

Tetseo Sisters – Mercy, Azi, Alune and Kuvelu- Hornbill 2013 Photo by Halli Welly

Deepa: Testseo Sisters- undoubtedly one of the most popular bands from North East India! Tell us how does it feel and what it takes to be recognized in the world of music.

Tetseo Sisters  :  It is absolutely a wonderful feeling to be recognized as musicians who play “your kind of music”. That in itself reflects the acceptance and affection of people, not only from our own land or North East India, but from India and the world as a whole. It is a reward to all the perseverance, the hard work and the untiring efforts that have gone into the making of our music.

Deepa : Your music is strikingly different from other bands and it has a way that connects .Tell us more about it and how divine can music be.

Tetseo Sisters :  Our music is different in the sense that we focus a lot on melody and vocals, keeping the instruments to a bare minimum. The traditional instruments we play along with our music, Tati, in particular, add an agreeable euphony to our words. ‘Li’ is a complex mix of harmony with simplicity at its core. It has a participative element which easily cuts across souls of all ages.

Music is a profound and transcendent experience. One need not listen to the words in a song with rapt attention or try to find meanings, for that matter. It is self-explanatory. Perhaps, it is the only religion that people follow without the slightest trace of apprehension. This is how divine music can be.  It is one world, one word.

Deepa: Mercy, Azi, Kuku and Lulu, tell us where you draw inspiration from. Who’s been that one person who acts as a source of unfailing motivation?

Mercy Tetseo: For me , the constant sources of inspiration are my parents, elements of nature, movies, music, people I’ve come across at different points of time in my life, a little smile and the love and appreciation of our fans and people around us.

 Azi Tetseo : My unfailing source of inspiration is my little boy who is a year & a half old.  Just as Wordsworth said, “A child is the father of a man”, he teaches me about life and its limitations. I’ve shared a lot of wonderful experiences with my sisters. We motivate each other.

Kuku Tetseo: Well, for me, my sisters are my source of inspiration and constant motivation. Apart from them, the creative people around the world, fashion, culture and music motivate me to explore the undiscovered.

Lulu Tetseo: Success is what motivates me. I look up to my sisters and family for unceasing inspiration. Besides, I am inspired by the culture of Nagaland, South East Asia, Japanese art and anime.  I absolutely love them!

Deepa: Tell us more about Tetseo Sisters’ first performance and how you have grown ever since, both as individuals and as a band.

Mercy Tetseo :  Our first performance together was for Doordarshan, Kohima in 1994. Azi and I were teenagers, Kuku was still in primary school and Lulu was a toddler! I still vividly remember the day.  Lulu had a miniature Tati, one she could carry. That time around, the age difference was apparent but now we are more like friends.

Tetseo Sisters – A mountain Festival, Writers Fest, Mussoorie 2012

Tetseo Sisters: We have all grown up to be strong and independent individuals. We allow space and privacy to one another. There is a bond of appreciation that runs through and binds us.  As a band, we have become more creative and focused. Each one of us knows our part and we strive to excel in our contribution. Our horizon has expanded and we are being recognized in countries and places we had only dreamt of.  Being sisters we take each other for granted though at times but we also take care of each other. We have definitely grown more confident through our music and we have a good idea of where we want to be as far as our music is concerned.

Deepa :  Which is that one performance till date that you cherish the most?

TetseoSisters: The Handshake Concert, New Delhi, in the year 2010. We cherish this performance most because all four of us were performing together after a long time. Also, this was the year when many other important personal things happened. It was also the year we decided to start recording our first music album, “Li Chapter 1: The Beginning.”

Tetseo Sisters – Women’s Day 2013 Mokokchung, Nagaland

Deepa : You’ve always had a dedicated fan following from North East India, however, like they say, ‘music transcends boundaries’, how does the band endeavor to cut across all linguistic or cultural boundaries and leave a mark in the mainstream music scenario?

Tetseo Sisters : Notwithstanding the fact that our most loyal fans and critics are from the North East, we must however admit that our most wonderful audiences are from the mainland. Language can never be a barrier for music lovers. More often we fight the idea of ‘localizing’ our music. Is it necessary whatsoever?  In fact, we were pleasantly surprised when people from culturally sound places like Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Kashmir, to name a few, appreciated our music immensely during our performances. “We can totally connect to the mood of your songs” is what we are being told by outlanders frequently. So, it is the music that matters after all. We may speak a thousand languages but music knows only one-it knows itself.

Li, for that matter, is easy and pleasing to the ears. As already told, it is simple to the core with minimal instruments complementing it. Too many sounds make music a cacophony. Our music is unique and has a category of its own. We don’t know if we’ll fit into Bollywood but there is an increasing openness to all kinds of music across the country. We have been trying to play at venues as many as we can. We are perfectly happy as of now sharing our music across varied platforms.

Deepa : Describe an ordinary day in the life of The Tetseo Sisters.

Tetseo Sisters:  (chuckles) We are just a bunch of ordinary girls who have been lucky to have extraordinary moments but our daily life is pretty normal. An ordinary day begins with waking up leisurely. Mornings in Kohima are usually crisp and cool. We head to the kitchen for a sumptuous breakfast cooked by our Mom. Then some of us check our emails, others make phone calls, surf the net, read books etc. We chat with our parents, do the household chores and help Mom with her gardening.  On weekends, Azi comes over with our little nephew. He is the cynosure of our eyes! We click pictures with him, play with him and rehearse for our upcoming gigs or go out in the afternoon for hot momos, buy groceries, come back home and prepare dinner. We then sit by the fireplace and have another round of tea and homely talks, have food and retire for the day. So, that’s how ordinary an ordinary day in the life of Tetseo Sisters is.

Deepa:  Since you sing mostly in Chokri dialect, for music lovers from the mainland, we’d love to have an English translation of your hit number, “Oh Rhosi”

Tetseo Sisters : Why not? So here it goes…A literal translation.

“Let’s join our hands. In song and dance.

We’re young. We’re free. This is our time.

Give in your best. And we’ll triumph.”

Oh Rhosi! Rhosi! Rhosi!

Like the Rhosi! Rhosi! Rhosi!

Deepa: What are the projects that you have in the offing-both in India and International arena?

Tetseo Sisters: Well, there is “Li Chapter 2” coming soon. We’d be releasing more music videos on YouTube. Watch out for the “Spring Song”. There are a good number of collaborations coming up as well. We are headed to Pune for the “Cultures of Peace: Festival of North East” in the last week of Jan 2014. We then proceed to Bangalore for the Storm Festival; our show is scheduled on 2nd Feb 14. We have a lot of shows scheduled all over India in this calendar.

Deepa :A throw in the wild- Well, if not “Tetseo Sisters’, what would they have been?

Tetseo Sisters: We never planned to form a band. We just loved performing music and then we became a group that stayed together. We have always had music in our lives and have been known as singers. That’s essentially what we are – students, musicians and artists. Some of us love to write and we blog, write poetry and songs. We all are hardcore fashion enthusiasts, so we like to act as fashion stylists. One of us is a mother and her priorities are shaping up differently. It’s an unending list of prospects ranging from designing, jewellery making to photography and cultural research and social causes. Lulu is heading to college soon. We plan to be musicians while making the time to do other stuff and explore the world.

Tetseo Sisters in Pune, @Cultures of Peace

Deepa: Now that you’re being looked upon by hundreds who wish to go your way, what would be your earnest advice to them?

Tetseo Sisters: Always be true to yourself. Whatever we are today has only been possible because we believed in ourselves. One must learn to be firm and positive through thick and thin. Grabbing opportunities is important but what’s more important is to create opportunities for oneself. Analyze your strengths and weakness and work on them. Do not be consumed by the overwhelming love and admiration that you will at times receive from people around you but be graceful enough to give it back. There’s no formula for success but you can’t go wrong if you follow your heart. Go ahead! Be the best that you can be in your chosen field.

All said and written, I discovered Tetseo Sisters were very much like their music – Rooted and Unadulterated!

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