The Significance of the Libuh in the Indigenous Music of Nagaland

in Article
Published on: 02 August 2018

Toshinaro Imchen

Toshinaro is a research scholar in Nagaland University, Lumami. She serves as Assistant Professor in Sazole College, Jotsoma, Nagaland.


Since time immemorial, Nagas have been known to love music and it has remained an integral part of every occasion. It is believed that Naga ancestors often communicated with one another by singing in different tunes and expressions. Though Naga history lacks written records, oral history passed down from generation to generation has proved that songs were used as a medium of communication.


Nagas are known for their rich culture and tradition, which encompass every area of Naga life. Nagaland is proudly known as the ‘Land of Festivals’, as tribal festivals of the 16 tribes in Nagaland are celebrated throughout the year. Any festival is incomplete without folk songs and dances. Folk songs and dances accompanied by fitting instruments are performed during every festival. Festivals are celebrated with pomp and gaiety with expressions of rich cultural folk songs and dances with different significance and relevance. Often folk songs and dances are accompanied by indigenous musical instruments in the form of drums, bamboo flute and single-stringed instruments.


Ancient Nagas and their folk songs


Nagas were known to be animist before the advent of Christianity. Naga ancestors were aware of an almighty deity and revered the forces of nature, by worshipping them with songs and dances. Wood sculptors or any artisan who wished to cut wood from the forest would first perform a ritual before the forest and sing a song, requesting Mother Nature to allow them to cut the wood for their work. They would request Mother Nature to allow the woodcutter to have the wood so that he could sculpt the wood and beautify the village or town. Such was the impact of folk songs in the ancient lives of the Nagas.


However, after the advent of Christianity in the 18th century, Nagas shunned worshipping nature and animism. Calling out Mother Nature through the medium of songs was avoided. However, folk songs have been modified according to the gospel songs of the Christians. Earlier, folk songs were sung in honour of ‘Lijaba’ meaning God in Ao/Naga tribe. But now they are sung in honour of Jesus Christ. Though the lyrics have changed the tunes and significance remains the same.


Challenges: Indigenous folk songs and instruments in Nagaland


There are many challenges being faced by the Nagas to preserve and protect the indigenous folk songs and instruments of the Nagas today. The Naga youth are not immune to the influence of Western culture. Western music has had a profound impact on the lives of the Naga youth. Modernisation has brought rapid development to the music industry in the state. Naga youths are more attracted to Western music than the traditional folk songs and instruments.


The government having realised the growing interest in music among the youth has even started a Music Task Force to promote young singers and help them grow in their singing careers. Many schools and music schools offer courses on Western music and instruments. However, not much has been done to promote indigenous folk songs and music in the state.


Realising the importance of preserving the rich culture of the Nagas, many social organisations have initated various programmes to encourage young people. However, not many are showing interest in learning the age-old heritage of the ancestors. Though youngsters are frequently involved in practicing folk songs and dances during cultural programmes and festivals, not many of them have taken it up professionally. Schools, colleges and Universities are also some places where cultural programmes are organised to promote cultural values and harmony among the students. Such programmes encourage young people to uphold one’s tradition and culture and to practice this in their daily lives.


Transition from traditional folk to modern folk


In spite the influence of Western rock and pop music amongst the Naga youth, the Tetseo Sisters, who have fused Naga traditional music with modern music, stand out among the musicians in Nagaland. Their Li (folk song) is accompanied by Libuh (one-stringed musical instrument), which is very popular among the natives in Nagaland. Their folk fusion is composed keeping in mind the interest of the young listeners.


Their mother Mrs. Setsulu Tetseo, who is the woman behind the success of the Tetseo sisters, said that initially she had a hard time persuading her young daughters to learn folk songs. ‘Folk songs are very hard to learn and my children didn’t like it. I lured them with pocket money to learn the folk songs and that’s how I was able to teach them to sing and play the Libuh,’ she said.


Today, the Tetseo sisters are not only popular in Nagaland but they are known all over the world. Their father, Mr Kuvesho Tetseo designs and produces the Libuh (one-stringed instrument) and their parents’ contribution is significantly reflected in their performances. Belonging to the Chokri-Chakesang tribe, the sisters are the ambassadors of Libuh as it is synonymous with their folk songs. In any given situation or any song, even those that are in Hindi and English, the Tetseo sisters have the edge of using the Libuh to accompany the tunes and lyrics.


Future of Libuh and folk songs


Though not much have been done to preserve and promote the folk songs and instruments, the efforts made by the Tetseo sisters are commendable. Fusing folk song into modern fusion is something, which the sisters can capitalise upon. But there are also some cultural organisations who oppose their fusion of music, by saying that it will diminish the essence of traditional folk songs. They say that it will confuse the true identity of the Nagas among the younger generation. But some young people argue that such innovations will attract them to folk music and instruments.


‘Such are the musical talents among the young Nagas, that we can even modify the indigenous instruments if only we are given due opportunities and resources,’ said Sashiakum T.Imchen- a music enthusiast at Kohima.




The question of preserving the traditional folk songs and instruments becomes all the more imperative today when there is a threat of this music diminishing or even becoming extinct. The age-old folk songs and indigenous instruments of the Nagas have been preserved from generation to generation. The need for major focus on its preservation and promotion has been emphasised on various  platforms.


In the past few years the state government has even started organising a ten-day annual cultural festival, the ‘Hornbill Festival’ in the state capital every December. A rich plethora of cultural activities in the form of folk songs and dances accompanied by various musical instruments is witnessed during the festival. Such initiatives by the government can encourage young people to love and preserve their folk songs and dances.


However, the Music Task Force, which is initiated by the state government, should promote indigenous folk songs and instruments among the young talented Nagas. Such initiatives will go a long way in its preservation and promotion.