Li and Libuh: Folk Music of the Chokri Naga Tribe

in Overview
Published on: 02 August 2018


Imnasenla is documentary film maker with journalism and production experience in press, radio and television. She holds a Ph.D in Mass Communication and Journalism. She is based in Kohima, Nagaland.


Nagaland, the land of festivals is a vibrant state in the northeastern part of India. The state is known for its love for music and has indigenous musical instruments. The oral tradition is kept alive through folk media with a vast repository of tales and songs. Naga folk songs are both romantic and historical, with songs narrating entire stories of famous ancestors and incidents. There are also seasonal songs that describe various agrarian activities practiced through the year.


The Chokri people of the Chakhesang Naga tribe use a few rhythmic instruments that aptly accompany their songs. Chokri is a major Naga dialect spoken by the Chakhesang tribe of Nagaland. Li is the song of the people. Li is the Chokri word for folk song. It is the common underlying element of all activities of the Nagas in general and the Chokri Chakhesangs in particular. While Li is known as the folk song, folk music is dominated by a single-stringed Naga instrument known as the libuh or heka libuh. Li has various forms of expression. For instance, Tati is one such expression of the Li.


According to oral history passed down from our ancestors, a young man went to meet the parents of the woman he loved but felt uncomfortable. He wanted to express his admiration in a special way and so he thought of using a certain musical instrument with which he could sing Li and court the woman. Using his creativity he invented the libuh by tightening a fabric string to a caved bottle gourd. He strummed on the string with his fingernail and composed songs to  woo the woman to be his wife and that is how the libuh originated.


Gradually, singers with knowledge of the libuh used it to accompany folk songs. The instrument, measuring about 3-4 feet in length, is made of a dried caved-out bottle gourd. This bottle gourd is covered with thin film and attached to one end of a pole. The pole is made of a special kind of bamboo known as Ruki and Dithuh also. A string is tied between the two ends of the pole over the film covered bottle gourd. It resembles the Indian ektara and is plucked to make a sound, which provides rhythm and guides the pitch for a singer. Two characteristic sounds can be achieved. It can be played by a single person or by a group of people in unison creating a harmony.


The Chakhesang Cultural Organisation (CCO) is an organisation which is formed to preserve and promote the folk culture of the Chakhesang tribe in Nagaland. The organisation has been able to compile about 350 varieties of Li (folksongs). The Lis are sung during festivities, celebrations, different stages of agricultural activities and mourning.


Sawhou Li is a grieving song sung during the death of a person. When the soul of a comrade departs, it is sung with words of condolence and mourning. During such times, the libuh is not used. Lamentations, recalling the qualities of and praising the departed soul, are sung as the spirit is believed to be still present prior to burial of the dead body. Sawhou Li is thus about mourning and grieving. So Li differs according to activities and seasons. No two Li are the same. 


Pusazo Venyo, a core member of the Chakhesang Cultural Research Institute (CCRI), stresses on the importance of differentiation between the Li (folksong), Libuh (instrument) and the Tati (a form of expression of the Li). He cites that the origins of the Li, Libuh and the Tati are traced to the Chokri (Chakhesang Naga) people. According to Venyo, the culture of using the Libuh instrument has not been observed outside the Tenyimia tribes in Nagaland, which includes the Chakhesang tribe.


On researching about the origins of Li, it has been found to stem from the various expressions of communication in folk media. Friends compose Li, singing praises upon each other. Li has six different parts—Retsu, Lishwu, Lireh, Liso, Vathre, Libo. The western tune has only 4 parts—soprano, alto, tenor and bass. So in singing the Li, experts in libuh instrument use it to accompany solo singing, duets and group songs.


In olden days, the libuh was made from bottle gourd. A flask made from bottle gourd is known as He-buh and is used as a container for rice beer. The instrument derived its name from this as the instrument that produces tunes, i.e., Li-buh.


Straight bamboo species, which do not grow crooked, are selected for the pole of the libuh. A species known as Kuvwu, which are hardy, straight, and does not have holes, is usually used. Another species, Ruki is also used. Sometimes Ruki develops cracks, so Kuvwu is preferred for the purpose. Other than these materials, wood from a straight tree is also used. Animal bladder is fitted to the caved bottle gourd and a bamboo sheath too is used.


The sound produced from the animal bladder is affected by the weather. It remains tight in dry weather and loosens as the weather changes. So often instead a metal sheet is used. It is stamped carefully and sunken into the gourd so that it does not have any holes as these would cause a loss of sound. With sunken stamps it produces a good sound. Although bamboo sheath has good acoustic property, it is not durable.


Very few options were available during olden times. As metal strings were not available, strings woven from barks of selected plants and even strong cotton threads were used. Sticky rice starch was used to condition the strings. Alternately, barks of selected plants, which are durable, were also used. Nowadays, metal strings have replaced all other materials.


Kuvesho Tetseo is a renowned person in the music and culture of the Chokri Chakhesang Nagas. He opines that the Li is a unique expression of the Chokri people and Libuh must be preserved for the generations to come, as it represents their indigenous identity. He explains how the singing of the Li and its expression in the form of Tati accompanied by the Libuh instrument have been used by the people, telling the stories of the people and expressing the joys and sorrows, hopes and aspirations of the vastly agrarian society. The Li is used for every occasion:  there are sad songs, happy songs, peppy numbers, melancholic ones, dirges, hymns and love odes. Li was a way of life and used to be sung by everyone but unfortunately it has now dwindled down to a few experts and has become a dying practice.


According to Tetseo, one of the ways to promote the use of the Libuh is by giving it a better aesthetic appearance, using durable materials for mass production. He feels the Libuh can be given a place of its own in today’s world of several musical instruments, which can then be adopted in devotional and other presentation arenas. Thus, this art of the ancestors can be preserved and passed on to future generations.


Venyo explains that the Libuh was originally made of bottle gourd. However, it was vulnerable to cracking in case of accidental falls. So a more robust material from mithun (bison) and alternatively cow horn replaced the bottle gourd, which came to be known as the Heka Libuh.


Elders like Tetseo and Venyo are concerned about the preservation and promotion of such indigenous instruments like the Libuh. They fear that indigenous Li-songs accompanied by instruments such as Libuh, might gradually lose popularity among the new generation. They feel that it is not about the ability to sing songs of other people only, with advancement in knowledge and skills, but Li can be developed and used in worship as well.


The Chakhesang Cultural organization, which Venyo represents, strongly objects to people who misuse Li integrating it with other genres. Venyo said CCO opposes such people and groups who have modified many Li using their imagination and the organisation does not recognise such work. Though their performances might entertain others and create a fresh sense of the genre among the new generation, their songs are not genuine, he said.


Venyo reiterates that the original expression of the Li should be preserved as far as possible and suggests that beauty of the voice should not be kept hidden as vocal expression is very vital in expressing human emotions and sets one’s culture apart.  


Not only in celebrations, fun and gaiety, the elders also seriously feel the need to blend Li in devotional practices, so as to encourage young people to keep the Li alive.


Concerns are also made about making the Libuh instrument sturdy and durable. The fear of embarrassment from Libuh falling and breaking apart during performances is something that artists face. In order to avoid such instances, efforts are being made to replace the original material with modern fibre material, which can be developed for the purpose. Such an adaptation of the original indigenous instrument can help preserve the folk songs and folk tunes of the Chakhesang tribe.


Another constraint the elders and cultural organisations face to preserve and promote Li are funds and support from the government. Venyo reiterates that many are willing to work given a little remuneration or even construct their own office building. Though the CCO has many resource persons to impart Li training and manufacture Libuh, due to lack of resources they cannot do so. Without an office building, the organisation strives to promote Li from a very remote village called Chetheba in Phek district of Nagaland.


A practical problem with Libuh is that it is difficult to source the materials at short notice. If farmers fail to meet the bulk requirements, assembling of the instruments will be difficult. With technical knowledge, light fibre materials with good finishing can replace bottle gourd. In order to go for mass production, the traditional way of making Libuh can be replaced with materials, which are sturdy and durable. However, while making such changes the originality of the instrument should be kept in mind.


The elders feel that it is important to preserve the culture and tradition of the forefathers in the form and teach the young people. Libuh can be developed to find a place of its own, among other instruments. The Chakhesangs and Nagas as a whole, have few indigenous musical instruments. This particular single-stringed musical instrument is close to the vocal tone of human utterance. It perfectly blends to the two parts, the high and the low of Li. So Libuh holds a place of vital importance. It may not be very convenient to accompany western songs because Libuh uniquely produces only two pitches.


Among the few things we have, this instrument, if preserved, can become an important indigenous identity marker. Tetseo opines that through the Li and Libuh, people can maintain links to our ancestors and our land. So it is important to preserve them.