Before the current young breed of ‘well known’ Nagas musicians, there were legends much bigger and storied. Like Mengulhoulie Mepfuo, or more popularly “Raj.” Veterans and forerunners of rock and metal in Nagaland will know “the Raj.”
Mengulhoulie Mepfuo is an accomplished musician, a veteran rocker and one of those Nagas who were there during the climax of the metal and hard rock scene in the state during the late ‘90s—a time when even terms like “internet” or “Indie music” or “downloads” were not even common. He has been there as the front man for a number of veteran rock groups in Nagaland namely the Alien Minstrels, Hedonic, Heritage and Native Colors, with whom he won the first Hornbill Rock Contest. He is also the same man behind the music studio ‘Native Trax.’
In 2009 he founded Native Trax Society, comprising individuals dedicated to creating a climate of professionalism and pursuing artistic excellence and to create a space of appreciation for the music and culture of Nagaland. Mepfuo is also the man behind the institution of the Music Awards of Nagaland, the only proper platform from the community’s side that honours the achievements of musicians in the state.
In today’s Rhythm of Love Mepfuo, whose career spans over a decade, gets candid with Eastern Mirror as he opens up about music and music in Nagaland.
EASTERN MIRROR: How did you get into music? Talk us through your musical journey.
Mengulhoulie Mepfuo: I actually started quite late. I loved playing the guitar and singing by myself at home but the first time I got up on stage was when I was studying at AEI, Guwahati in 1994. When I got back home, I got a couple of guys together and formed ‘Stargazer’ my first real band actually and we took part and won the 1st All Nagaland Unplugged Contest on New Year’s Eve 1995.
After this I was the front man for various other bands including Alien Minstrels, Hedonic, Heritage and Native Colors in a career spanning over a decade.
EASTERN MIRROR: You were a member of Native Colours, which was also the first winner of the Hornbill Rock Contest. How were things after that?
Mengulhoulie Mepfuo: When we took part in the first Hornbill Rock Contest it was a state level event only whereas it is now an international contest. However, that’s not to say it was easy for us then. We had to compete with around fifty other very good bands. It was a one night event and each band was given 10-15 minutes. We guys from Dimapur were freezing our butts off in the biting cold and it was nearly dawn when we got back home richer by 20K. Now the prize money is 10 lakhs!
Back then, I believe most of the bands including us were playing locally made or borrowed guitars and cheap gadgets. Nowadays these youngsters have the best equipment.
Also, it is much better organized now, especially the last one in Dimapur and the quality of bands taking part is awesome.
Eastern Mirror: What are your fondest musical memories?
Mengulhoulie Mepfuo: I treasure all the memories and time I spent with my friends and various bandmates. We had so much fun practicing and touring different places playing gigs. The high you feel when you’re onstage and the crowds going wild. I just couldn’t pick out just one. I’d have to write a book to get it all down!
EASTERN MIRROR: You are heading the Native Trax Society which is involved in providing platform to artists. As a musician yourself, what are some of the different things you have experienced/observed working with music and for musicians?
Mengulhoulie Mepfuo: Actually, I used to head NTS but I’m now associated in an advisory role but yes, our aim is to provide a platform to showcase the talents of local musicians and to create a climate of professionalism and artistic excellence so as to promote the growth and development of the music industry in Nagaland.
Coming back to the question, working with music as an artist, in the beginning you run around trying to find some gigs and play wherever and whenever you get the chance—often for free. If you’re not good enough, you get booed at; if you’re good, people adore you, and once you achieve a certain amount of fame people start approaching you for shows. You get paid according to how famous you are or how big a crowd you can draw. Of course there are times when we do not get paid what we were promised and that something I believe many other musicians have experienced too.
Our efforts are concentrated on learning and practicing our set list, our stage performance rehearsals and getting our outfits for the show ready.
Working for musicians is a different thing altogether. As event managers, our chief worry here is finding funding for the event. As you are well aware, given the situation in our state we do not have many avenues for sponsorship which is crucial for the success of any event. Most people equate sponsorship requests to appeals for donations! There have even been times when we have sold our personal property to pay for our events.
Then we have to take care of planning and executing the event, publicity, artists etc. its hard work! Often you have to face negative publicity too and that is really discouraging.
EASTERN MIRROR: What was it that made you feel that you should work to promote artists from the state through Native Trax Society?
Mengulhoulie Mepfuo: After more than a decade as an artist, I saw I was going nowhere. Yes, we were well known locally, won some awards and also got to play in some other states but that was about it. I was disillusioned and saw no future in music because the scene was not what it is now. Actually, it was my wife, who by the way, was also a singer and as passionate about music as I am, who inspired me and along with a few friends, we formed Native Trax Society to promote our young upcoming artists and to bring about change in people’s perception of music as a career in Nagaland.
EASTERN MIRROR: Coming back to the music scene in the state, what do you find discouraging?
Mengulhoulie Mepfuo: The lack of greater government support for musicians and the local music industry is what I find most discouraging. As I mentioned earlier, there are practically no corporate funding or sponsoring music events here.
True, we have a Music Task Force that’s supposed to work for the welfare and promotion of local musicians but based on my experiences with them, they always cite budget limitations, the bulk of which is spent on the Hornbill Rock Contest leaving almost nothing for the local musicians. I am not saying that they have done nothing. What I am saying is that a lot more still needs to be done.
We have talented musicians and various available spaces for music performance being run by music-loving local entrepreneurs. We Nagas are music lovers. We have what it takes to build a vibrant and thriving local music industry which could create and sustain so many jobs for people here but this requires the active support of the Government.
EASTERN MIRROR: What inspires you and what makes you want to keep promoting music?
Mengulhoulie Mepfuo: At the Music Awards of Nagaland every year we see so many new artists emerging and we get to hear their music. Their talent and creativity and that of those music industry professionals working behind the scenes helping them produce these awesome works of art is what inspires and keeps driving me.
Our musicians have shown that they are capable and prepared to take part in the global music marketplace. It is very challenging for unknown artists or groups from a little known corner of the world to break into the international industry, but with perseverance and the right mix of supports in place the opportunities are endless and our talented musicians will surely find success. That would be vindication for us that our efforts are not in vain.
EASTERN MIRROR: Are there any artists that you draw inspiration from — if so who and why?
Mengulhoulie Mepfuo: There are so many I just couldn’t name them all but yes Bon Jovi, Mr Big, Iron Maiden, Helloween, Firehouse, Europe, Megadeth, Metallica to name a few. Their songs are priceless works of art that never cease to uplift and amaze me, that’s why (smiles).
I’m a rocker, still am and I tend to lean towards the heavier side but I do listen to all kinds of music and among the current crop I’m inspired by Imagine Dragons and Ed Sheeran’s music.
EASTERN MIRROR: What are a few key lessons you’ve learned from the current music generation?
Mengulhoulie Mepfuo: The current music generation is more dedicated and forward, and bolder than we used to be. Seeing their achievements and success, I’ve learnt that dedication and persistence pays and that we should not hesitate to follow our dreams.
I’d also like to add that the current generation is more creative than we ever were. From them I’ve learnt that we have let our imaginations fly and think out of the box.
EASTERN MIRROR: What do you think is the most important thing Naga artists should do to promote themselves better?
Mengulhoulie Mepfuo: The music scenario has changed a lot in recent years. Today’s generation is tech-savvy and while an artist can be active on social media and promote themselves and build a fan base though these I think it’s best to get a team to help them with PR and other stuff which will leave them with enough time to concentrate solely on their music.
EASTERN MIRROR: What are you up to currently? Any projects line-up?
Mengulhoulie Mepfuo: Currently we are organizing a charity concert for the victims of natural disasters in Nagaland. Actually we were gearing up for the 10th anniversary edition of the Music Awards of Nagaland this year. However, in spite of so many natural disasters all over the state there seemed to be very little concerted effort/ response from the public and that is why we made this sudden decision to organize this concert in association with our friends from Get Gorgeous Society.
This is a spur of the moment thing and we are looking forward to the love and support of our brothers and sisters of Nagaland.