Musical Tunes as Names: The continuation of an age-old tradition

A Khasi man, Sherman, carrying his son in a manner unique to the Khasis.

In the small village of Khrang, located in the Khadarshnong Laitkroh Block of East Khasi Hills district, a group of young Khasi boys sit around a bonfire. The temperature is below three degree Celsius and they are keeping themselves warm. Piercing the silence of the hills, a shrill whistled tune reaches the group. One of the boys looks disappointedly at his friends and announces in Khasi, “Oh! Mother is calling me for dinner.”

The tradition of having a musical tune as a name – known as jingrwaiiawbei—along with a proper Christian or Khasi name is a practice followed by only a few villages in the Khadarshnong Laitkroh Block in entire Meghalaya.  Every Khasi child born in these villages has a unique musical name composed by the mother while cradling her new-born in her arms.

“It often occurs that many people in a Khasi village have the same name because of our traditional naming system. But the unique musical tune assigned to the person helps us distinguish between them,” says Primus Plus Khonjrit, the Village Headman of Khrang.

He explains, “The eldest son of different families might be referred by the same colloquial name BaDa, and the youngest son, Ba Du. But it’s the whistle which will help identify the individuals in their day- to-day life in the village and agricultural farms.”

The staff notation of a musical name.

The staff notation of a musical name.

The people of Nongbah Mawshuit, a remote village near Khrang in the deep ravines of the East Khasi Hills, claim that the tradition of musical names originated from their village hundreds of years ago.

“It’s in our village that the practice began, and nearby villages like Khrang and Khongtong took it from us,” believes Lucas Khongji, the Village Secretary of Nongbah Mawshuit.

A number of Khasi folktales are associated with the identity-tunes and one of them narrates how a Khasi man, when chased by a group of outsiders, climbed a tree and took shelter on top of it. His attackers were lurking below waiting for him, while he whistled certain musical tunes from above. The goons were totally oblivious to the fact that what he was humming were actually the names of his friends and he was calling out to them to rescue him. Hearing the musical call, his friends arrived in no time and saved his life.

This unique practice of having musical tunes as names is much more than a mere example of just another peculiar feature of tribal culture. Without any kind of musical notations underpinning the tunes, this rich oral tradition has survived the onslaught of time and pervasive intrusions into an indigenous culture, and is still very much alive in the villages of Khadarshnong Block.