The Tetseo Sisters is a band of four musician siblings from the Naga Heritage Village in Kohima, Nagaland. The four sisters—Mütsevelü (Mercy), Azine Vezivolü (Azi), Kuvelü (Kuku) and Alüne Tetseo (Lulu)—specialise in folk songs of their home state. Their instruments are also inspired from their culture—they generally play traditional Naga one-stringed instrument, the Tati/Heka Libuh. The sisters recently performed at Mix The City Soundfest, organised by British Council in Delhi last month.

In a conversation with Guardian 20, the girls talk about their musical journey. Azi says, “We started our journey as school students doing something different and new. That grew into a love for the stage and the music we were discovering turned more personal and life-defining. We eventually fine-tuned it to a signature act as we began performing at bigger events at both national and international platforms. We continue to learn and grow as performers.”

The Tetseo Sisters who started performing music at a young age share with us their experience of playing folk music at a time when gospel, rock and pop were ruling the scene. Azi recalls, “We were aged between 4-14 when all four of us started performing together but we were all used to the stage by the time we were 4-6 years old. Those days, very few people were getting paid to perform music; and discovering a love for performing music on stage and to get paid for it was such a revelation. Musically, gospel, rock and pop were really happening. There were many live acts but a folk group was not part of the scene at all. For folk songs, people would get groups from a village or put together a temporary group for one event.”

About how folk music today is getting accepted by the mainstream, Azi says, “Nowadays, everyone is doing some form of folk-influenced or folk-fusion songs and that is really cool and inspiring. There are also more professional cultural troupes/folk acts doing the rounds—at least in the Northeast. Whenever we meet strangers, they say they are very proud of what we are doing and that we inspire them—that’s the highlight of our journey. Music festivals are trending and we are still getting paid to do what we love but with more competition and more acceptance at the same time. Back then, we were the only female act—now there are quite a few but in folk-fusion genre… we might still be the only ones countrywide.”

The band members also have an interesting range of musical instruments at their disposal. Mercy says, “Our instruments are simple and unique. We have been experimenting right from the start of our journey. Very few people knew how to play the tati—the one-stringed Naga instrument. We have learned to play it more creatively to highlight the sound of it and harmonise the duo tones with multiple tati instruments. Playing a melodious harmony with the tati, bamhum, and adding khrokhro (gourd and cowrie shaker)  beats,  bamboo-shakers and so on, have been fun. We hope to be able to add more folk and fusion instruments/elements with time. But we haven’t planned that far ahead. We have been and will continue to take it one day at a time. We also add guitar, violin, cello, piano and percussion to some of our songs.”

The band is known for its songs in the Chokri dialect of the Chakhesang Naga tribe of Nagaland. And language plays an important role in terms of the audience connect. Lulu says, “We have always maintained and known from experience that when it comes to enjoying music, the language of the song doesn’t really matter. It is the melody and the feel/theme that can take you places—both high and low. In spite of choosing to sing in a very offbeat dialect—an almost endangered one at that—it is a blessing for us to sing our songs in Chokri. It is an icebreaker, it creates curiosity and we get to tell stories. The main thing is the melody of our music itself that helps us connect with our listeners.”

Speaking about the idea behind folk songs or Li as they call it, Kuku says, “We are where we are today thanks to the songs that we learned from our parents. Our folk songs are special. Coming from a culture with oral traditions, our songs are not just songs. They are our history books in many ways and teach us much about our people—the things that were important. They reveal the ethos and attitudes and document the times gone by. It is a journey documenting who we were and who we can be. And as we work on newer songs, we reflect on the times we live in and can start off on the story we want to tell and leave behind. At the same time, save them to share with the coming generations.”

Who inspires the Tetseo Sisters. Kuku says, “We are inspired by the world and people around us—the people we love, admire and look up to, books, movies, nature, seasons, other artistes, life experiences and our travels. We are not easily influenced, but we are pretty simple if slightly eccentric young people celebrating life every day.”

While folk music is a rather difficult genre to master for musicians, it has always remained a rich source of entertainment for the listeners, both young and old. Azi says, “Nowadays, everyone is into some form of folk influenced or folk fusion songs/designs/art, and that is really cool and inspiring. Young people are taking huge pride in their roots and culture. They are also identifying with minorities and people who are different. There is a culture of exploration and acceptance. A lot of popular culture has borrowed from folk—fashion, beauty and also music. Even Bollywood has been trending with all things folksy. There is a growing popularity of folk music at music events and fests in India too. Folk’s cool!”

The Sisters have worked with several renowned artistes and have been a part of many big music festivals including the NH7 Weekender. Azi says, “We have been fortunate to have worked on a handful collaborative efforts with some amazing musicians and artistes, and we look forward to many more such opportunities and projects. We learn a lot every time we work with other artistes—we get introduced to new sounds, techniques, diverse musical traditions and the cultures from where they come from. Our minds get enriched and our ears get keener. On such collaborative forums, there can be meaningful exchanges on an artistic level as well as the sharing of experiences and knowledge on a personal and cultural level.”

When it comes to performing live, the band puts a lot of thought into every aspect of the show, from the overall theme to the setlist. Kuku says, “Subjectivity plays a huge role but we usually have a setlist drawn up to match the occasion or theme—keeping our audience in mind, or client requests, if any. We have our own formula in place. And yet, always remain open to any demands of the situation to improvise. Sometimes, everything is going great and we go with the flow and just be spontaneous. We can mostly read each other on stage and it’s a fun chilled out zone where we communicate as we perform.”

In the future, the Sisters want to expand their musical horizons further. Lulu says, “We have been working on new music for a while now and it’s nearing completion. So you can expect our single very soon. There is satire, more love songs, dark tales, sad songs and some happy ones too. We are exploring other genres and other Naga dialects as well.”