‘Our identity lies in these songs’: saving the music of India’s Biate

By Hannah Ellis-PetersenonMar. 13, 2023in Knowledge and Media
Lallura Darnei: ‘It makes me so sad that younger Biate generation are not taking an interest in their own traditions’

Forgotten Songs Collective aims to preserve ancient hill tribe’s music by bringing it to a global audience

It was five years ago, as he sat around a fire lit deep in the forests covering the hills of Dima Hasao in Assam, that a shadow of sadness came into the eyes of Lallura Darnei. Now in his seventies, Darnei was one of the oldest members of the Biate community, an ancient hill tribe living in north-east India. The songs he sang around the flames that night, speaking of great floods and the birds that flap their wings at sunset, dated back so many generations the tribe said they were as old as time.

But, said Darnei, when he died these songs would probably die with him, and with it the history, the knowledge, culture of the Biate, would be gone for ever. The younger generation of the tribe had fallen in love with guitar music and K-pop and had not learned the traditional songs. They could not pick up the ancient melodies and he was the last of the Biate who knew how to play and make the siranda, the tribe’s traditional violin crafted from wood and the dried skin of an iguana.

Sitting across from Darnei as he shared his grief over his disappearing culture were two people who did not belong to the tribe. Piyush Goswami and Akshatha Shetty, a married couple from Bengaluru, had stumbled upon the Biate in a long journey they were taking across India, documenting and living with marginalised and tribal communities and finding ways to bring them greater prosperity.

An aerial view of Finagpui in Assam, north-east India, the area that is the home of the Biate hill tribe

“This was not the first time we realised that these Indigenous cultures are fading away,” said Goswami. “All over, we had seen that these cultures which had thrived and sustained themselves for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years are now facing extinction. What we stand to lose is staggering.”

Shetty described how for tribes such as the Biate “music is a way of life”. “This is not merely just lost songs and dances but the loss of whole cultures and cultural identity,” she said. “It’s how they recorded their observations and their history and was their way of preserving their ancestral knowledge and memories of their ancestors.”

She added: “Also we wanted to ensure Lallura dies a happy man. That he is heard and these beautiful Biate songs are enjoyed by the rest of the world.”

It was a realisation that would form the basis of the Forgotten Songs Collective, a project by Goswami and Shetty to help communities such as the Biate tribe document and revive their Indigenous cultures in India to ensure that, in the face of modernity, technology and religious conversion, they are not erased without a trace.

Biate, the Forgotten Songs

In the past half century, India has lost more than 250 languages and, according to Unesco, the Biate language, in which the tribespeople sing their songs, is one of the hundreds of endangered languages.

After curious agreement by the elders in the Biate tribe, who are the gatekeepers of the songs, Goswami invited in Vinayakâ, an electronic musician and sound designer from Bengaluru, to spend two weeks with the tribe in 2018, recording their music.

Some were songs of love, some for sowing seeds, others were odes to nature or just raucous tunes for nights drinking rice wine around the fire. They played their ancient musical instruments, including flutes, known as theile, they carve from local wood, and gongs that are older than any living member of the tribe. “These are such unique songs,” said Vinayakâ. “The music they make isn’t for audiences, it’s for themselves and for the forest.”

Vinayakâ mixed a track using the Biate recordings, but the project was brought to a standstill for three years when the Covid pandemic hit and visiting the tribe became almost impossible.

The Indian electronic musician and sound designer Vinayakâ, right, and Biate tribal musicians perform at the Magnetic Fields festival. Photograph: Shrey Gupta

However, in December it was brought to life once more when the Biate, as part of the Forgotten Songs Collective, were invited for a residency and performance at Magnetic Fields, India’s best-known electronic music festival, billed alongside global acts such as Four Tet. Half a dozen of the Biate elders travelled to the desert state of Rajasthan, the farthest they had been outside their village.

It was the first time the Biate music had been performed outside their forest community thousands of miles away. At one show they performed the songs traditionally, with a camp fire blazing on stage, and in another they sang and played live beside Vinayakâ, who was sampling and looping their songs on stage.

For Darnei, who was among the Biate elders who sang and played his siranda, it was an overwhelming and moving experience to share the songs with the world. “How will we know we are Biate without these songs?” he said. “Our identity lies in these songs, these expressions of our community and these have been going on for generations. If they are no longer there, what makes us Biate?”

Darnei said the songs had never been taught to him, but had infused every aspect of daily life of the Biate. He spoke mournfully of his efforts in vain to pass on the traditional songs and melodies to his children and grandchildren.

A member of the Biate hill tribe plays a theile, a flute hand-carved out of local wood. Photograph: Handout

“It makes me so sad that younger Biate generation are not taking an interest in their own traditions because they feel like it’s outdated and not cool,” he said. “But my hope is when they see our songs in this contemporary context, even as songs to dance to, they will find a place for this music in modern times.”

Goswami said the festival performance was just the beginning for the project, and the main focus was getting “this generational transfer of knowledge going once again”. They are hoping to bring it back to the Biate community, so it can be performed there to engage the younger members of the tribe. They are also working on efforts to digitally record and archive the songs on a website, and introduce local culture syllabus in the schools, where elders can teach the younger generations about the music and traditions.

“We are so happy to have shared our songs with the world, it gives me hope at last,” said Darnei. “Some people might like them, some might not, that’s up to them. But at least now when people hear these songs they will know we exist.”

First published by The Guardian on 3 January 2023.

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