As they work in cooperative groups — preparing the terraced fields, planting saplings, or harvesting the grain and carrying it up impossibly steep slopes — the rice cultivators of Phek sing. The seasons change, and so does the music, transforming the mundane into the hypnotic. The love that they sing of is also a metaphor for the need for the other – the friend, the family, the community, to build a polyphony of voices. Stories of love, stories of the field, stories of song, stories in song. Up down and sideways is a musical portrait of a community of rice cultivators and their memories of love and loss, created from working together on the fields.
In 2011, as we were travelling across India as part of our larger project looking at music and labour, we reached the village of Phek in Nagaland. It was the harvest season, and almost all of the 5000 residents in the village were working on their fields. What struck us was how they used the exhaustion, the monotony, and the incredibly hard nature of the work and turned it into a shared experience of rhythm and music.
Why do people sing when they work? Why have communities around the world relied on music to transform their experience of the everyday? The answers to such questions are not as satisfying as one would expect. What began as a research project very soon turned into an artistic enquiry and we felt the answer needed to be experienced rather than understood.
“Nehi mozo hanü dizo le” or “Without you, I am nothing” This declaration of love begins many of the Li songs of Phek. In these words is reflected the philosophy of Li; the fact that its base polyphonic structure cannot be created with a lone voice. On the field, people often come together in farming collectives called müle (“you work in my field, I work in yours’’), who work and sing together over many seasons.
The film follows a cycle of paddy cultivation. Kho-ki-pa-lü, up, down and sideways, is the way that the polyphonic music is described in Chokri, the local language. This idea of polyphony – as a conversation between interlocking voices – exists in the music and in the way people work together, but also in the creative choices that we have made: drawing narrative strands from all around the community, and finding visual metaphors for polyphony, in the sound of the cicadas, in patterns of terraced fields, in dancing shadows.
In January 2016, a 20-member group from Phek travelled to Mumbai and performed at Living Traditions Festival at the National Centre for Performing Arts. The concert was organised in collaboration with the Archives and Research Centre (ARCE) for Ethnomusicology in Gurgaon.
ARCE has also been instrumental in helping us create a community archive in Phek which will store audio and video recordings made by us as well as by members of the community.