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East - West and half born Sinhala “Jesu daruwa”

by Kusal Perera

I t was a lazy evening ebbing into a wet Saturday night, after a Friday poya holiday. This was a Sri Lankan evening, down what was better known as “Flower Road” during a “long weekend”. The acoustically elegant but not so modern hall of the Colombo Ladies College, was quietly but hurriedly accommodating the culturally affluent in urban Colombo. This year the crowd was somewhat different though, to that in previous years.

[Nanda Malini - Tharuda Nidana] A tribute to Nanda Malini and to one of her famous songs

The reason perhaps was that the “Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka” (SOSL) in its 52nd Season was to provide music to two versatile and respected musical personalities of the exclusively Sinhala world. That for the first time too, such an “experimental” blending of Sinhala songs were to be made with chamber music of a large symphony orchestra that has for decades been proud to play classical music of the best celebrity composers in the West.

As Professor Ajith Abeysekera who worked out the chemistry of this new blend of Western orchestral music and the not so classical, popular Sinhala song told a few days before the event, they (SOSL) were “......not really trying to do fusion. That is not the idea. We haven’t done anything to make them sound Western, but we make use of orchestral colour with entirely western instruments. It’s very interesting.”

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[Sa parasangaya 2006-pic: Anuradha Ratnaweera]

True to his words, there were no improvisations to melodies and no change of style and pitch in signing. The two artistes, Visharadha Nanda Malini and Sangeethvedi Victor Ratnayake simply stood in front of two mikes and sang 06 of their best songs each, as they had been singing for the last 30 or 40 years. They did well. They sang their best. Yet there was something amiss. Was it the “orchestral colour” that Prof Abeysekera said they were adding that went missing ?

The “orchestral colour” the Symphony orchestra had when they played 02 Western Classical operas, in contrast to their musical backing of the 02 singers, was what missed out in the show. There seemed some restraint in musicians playing their musical score for what was arranged for the songs. The musical mood was “cautious ” in their accompaniment of the two singers.

This feeling of alienation of a sort was clearly audible, in all songs sung, except in the one that had a Church choir influence. Music opened up in its symphonical style for the song “Jesu swamy daruwane...” when Nanda sang her heart out on that. This is one song that broke off from the orthodoxy of the now established Sinhala music form reaching out to a choir style melody. That then made a rare link between the singer and the orchestral players. With all other songs sung that Saturday night, obviously they felt a distance to the style, melody and the
quality of voice of these 02 very “Sinhala” singers.

That had to be expected, although most in the audience seemed not to. Yet it was an experience to feel the difference. The Western classical music as we hear and enjoy them now, has a long history of many centuries, evolving from the time of the Greek empire. Shut to public performances during the Roman era, it sustained the group or “large gathering” character of playing many instruments at churches, funerals and at places of religious worth. This form of “concert” music then evolved into philharmonic or symphony music through the European “Renaissance” to the modern world.

Through its evolution, it has gained much with written music for large orchestras with different instrument families. Growing in a liturgical social context that had the advantage of “printing” much before other societies outside Europe, Western classical music flourished in a disciplined design as decided by composers.

Writing music before it is played out, composers searched for very many variations that saw intricately complex relationships between its emotional content and the intellectual means by which it is achieved. This complexity in emotions and intellect is the forte in Western classical music where “soprano” voices have gained a prestigious presence as capable of delivering both emotion and intellect.

The ability to stand up in singing for such musical composing, was what went missing with the two singers who are schooled in a completely different musical tradition. Schooling in the borrowed North Indian “Hindustani” (Utthara Bharatheeya) music here in Sri Lanka is not even a century old. Then “Ceylon” looked towards North Indian classical music as one that was opposed to British rule. The Sinhala elite looked towards a musical tradition that was anti British in colour.

Thaniwennata~ Victor Ratnayake

This Hindustani music that satisfied the politics of the pre independence Ceylonese too has a long and strong history of growth, starting as devotional appeals to God Krishna. It had its influence from early Persian folk music and later from the Arabian traditions with the Moghul empire. The long path of evolution of Hindustani music is esoteric and is based on “ragas”, each said to be devoted to a different emotional state.

So is the other South Indian tradition of Carnatic music. That too is very religious from its origin and has very much less influence from Persian and Arabic traditions. Yet these two neighbouring music traditions that Sinhala song and music derives their theoretical base, grew into perfection through rituals and intellectual discourse. They therefore needed extremely devoted and committed learning and training.

Music and art become living cultural traditions through long evolutionary exercises in society and then become part of social life in them. A society that lives with such endemic traditions horning its skills with every generation for centuries and not decades, develops an intellectual component that in art forms takes on high aesthetic values. This is common in both Western classical music and in Indian “raghadhari” music in two different planes of intellectual
entertainment.

Yet the Sinhala society in its entire history, greatly influenced by Theravada Buddhism had no such cultural base.

The Sinhala culture lacked any music tradition and its folk forms were extremely mediocre and primitive to even assimilate a strong music tradition. There was also no “palace culture” of Sinhala music and dance that could have at least provided a niche for such acceptance and nurturing of Hindustani music. Therefore in Sri Lanka, the modern day Sinhala music begins as purely an intervention from the outside world from the 16 century when with the Portuguese and the Dutch, their “Baila and Kaffringa” entered into coastal social layers and much later in early 20 century the Hindustani music was brought in that then turned into an academic exercise in its later years.

The first singers and musicians therefore came from backgrounds that were not Sinhala and when they were Sinhala, they were from a church training. The first few who ventured out to secure learning and training in Hindustani music too were from such church backgrounds. That was in late 1940's and they became pioneers who experimented with a new Sinhala musical tradition. That was more in the realm of lyrics as aptly seen in the difference between Saranagupta Amarasignhe – Deva Suriyasena type of songs and Ananda Samarakoon - Sunil Shanta variant. It was their simple Sinhala lyrics that compelled them to try out melodies to carry their lyrics from early 1940's into the 50's.

There were few others too who were also seeking out a Sinhala identity in music and what was tried out by all of them was developing a popular Sinhala song, different to those early Sinhala songs with a Dravidian flavour. What they lacked was not only a strong culture, but also a strong entertainment market that could sustain them. An entertainment industry that was absent in the “welfare State” economy the early Ceylon carried after independence. Except for the old “Radio Ceylon” they only had a cheap fledgling cinema that was not very much open for experimental songs and music. The possibility of training and developing professional Sinhala musicians as classical exponents of that art form, had very little or no scope within post independent Sri Lanka.

Ustad Vilayat Khan (1928-2004), performing in London in 1993

This therefore diluted early efforts in establishing “Shanthi-nikethan” type musical schools. Horana “Shripali” that was graced by Rabindranath Tagore at its birth, gradually turned into an ordinary school in the area. The State sponsored “Haywood” as an aesthetic training institute that can boast of popular Sinhala artistes like Victor Ratnayake, Sanath Nandasiri, Amara Ranatunge, late Gunadasa Kapuge to name a few, was not in any way a substitute for classical music teaching of high order. It could mostly turn out Music Teachers for primary and secondary government schools of the day. Very creative classical exponents of the art in the calibre of Pundit Ravi Shankar,Ustad Vilayat Khan, Ustad Ali Akbar, Hari Prasad Chaurasia, wasn't therefore Sri Lanka's pride and fortune.

This has not changed to the better, even after the economy was opened up 03 decades ago. In modern societies that do not promote democracy and thus can not afford a healthy “night life”, the possibility of establishing strong cultures of performing art including music within an entertainment market, is one that does not happen. The absence of “night life” not only deprives an entertainment market, it deprives the society of healthy discourse too.

An indispensable necessity in developing critical intellectual interventions that in turn catalyse intellectual growth and development of art and culture. Sinhala music is one that has therefore not attained the classical perfection of its borrowed musical traditions even after many decades of continued indulgence. This is reason why Sinhala music has not been able to produce Ravi Shankars and Ali Rakkhas who could perform with awe as oriental musical giants alongside Western musicians.

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[Italian opera star Andrea Bocelli (L) performs on stage with the Abruzzo Symphony Orchestra at the Colosseum in Rome on May 25, 2009 during a charity concert to an audience of just 380 to help rebuild the conservatory in earthquake-stricken L'Aquila-Getty Images]

This perhaps was what lacked at the Ladies' College auditorium that night. While a standing ovation accepted the effort of the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka, a question that remained glum and dumb was whether a Western classical symphony that had grown with complex relationships between emotional content and intellectual aesthetics could effectively be the musical facilitator for yet to be born Sinhala classics that had stopped with light pop songs. Again the answer would only be theoretical and not practical in a society that has little wherewithal to meet such challenge.

Andrea Bocelli - Besame Mucho (2006)

6 Comments

KUSAL, Although I don't have much knowledge about Opera's or gospel music I appreciate change from war and politics to music.

Anyway it is good to introduce world famous opera singer Andrea Bocelli to SL music lovers.He is blind singer but his voice is superb.

Anyway this song Besame Mucho is originally sung by mexican singer way back in 40's and written by a girl, 16years old in late 30's.She wrote about "lot of Kisses" but she had no experience about the subject of kissing at that time.

Posted by: Aruna | September 7, 2009 10:40 AM

Mr Kusal Perera seems to be one of the few affluent in Srilanka,who enjoy Western Orchestral music in preference to other forms of popular music both in Sinhala and Tamil.Good luck to him.
Any fool would know that SriLanka being a poor rural nation for thousands of years was insulated from the West except a few intermittant use of its ports in certain parts of the Island by foreign traders.SriLanka did not experience String Instruments until the Portugese arrived, Sinhalese and Tamils who were converted to Christianity by force or bribery by the foreingers gradually gained exposure to string instruments and related melodies through the Church.Therefore they definitely had the edge in Western Style singing, specially religious songs.

During the entire occupational period, the majority of Sinhalese were quarantined from proper education also,by the foreigners,especially the British, by denying them any avenue to experience and learn Western music.

So it is quite logical that majority Sinhalese were lacking in abilty to play and sing in western style.However to state that Sinhalese do not have a cultural affinity with music is absurd. I know that Sinhala people had their own style of singing that were used on different occasions as the case with any old race.

Introduction of free education and Sinhala and Tamil media education opened up tremendous opportunities for the rural population to get an education and improve their living standards. This provided the opportunity for the general public to enrich themselves with music as well.Now Srilanka musicians can sing and entertain crowds even in Western countries.

To say that Sinhala singers especially well respected ones such as one the writer has mentioned are not capable of singing with the Srilankan orchestra is an insult to millions of people who enjoy Sinhala music.

I am happy to sit down with a good red and listen to a Srilankan song from a Sinhala,Tamil or Burgher singer than listening to Western orchestras.

Posted by: Praveen | September 7, 2009 06:42 PM

The tradition of music knows no boundaries, colour, creed or race and can be a great healer in theatres of painful and protracted conflict. The Beatles took up the Bangladesh poverty issue; Bob Geldorf that of many African countries and Bono of all developing countries and succeeded in securing many write-offs for poor countries from world lending institutions. This article refers to Western Music paying tribute to two great local celebrated vocalists. In recent times great Western Musicians took many steps to show their esteem to their counter-parts in other countries. Western Music and the indigenous have tried to establish they are not at cross purposes or in competition but indeed otherwise. That immortal violinist Yehudi Menuhin recorded several duets with Indian Sitar Maestro Ravi Shankar to be followed with the Beatles.That divine Swahili song “Malaika” – that was to become very popular in Sri Lanka - brought in the great Carribean-American voice of Harry Belafonte with the sweet voice of the late Miriam Makeba “The Voice and Soul of South Africa) (Nelson Mandela’s description) When race relations plunged in the USA due to a few killings across the racial barrier Michael Jackson persuaded Paul McCartney to record the hit “Ebony and Ivory” that did much to calm the atmosphere. The Hollywood actress and singer Barbara Streisand brought fusion to great heights when she recorded a series of songs including White Xmas with Il Divo – the Latin tenors that brought in a let in the fierce competition between the Spanish and the English world of pop music. I note the organisers of this event insist fusion is not their objective. In the recent death of Senator Edward Kennedy dominated by White and Afro-Americans Placido Domingo being asked to sing “Ave Maria” as a final tribute assuaged the feelings of the large Latino population in the USA that they have an important role to play in the American Dream. The Chinese Cellist Yo Yo Ma being given the honours in the same occasion - as he was when President Obama’s inauguration is to honour the significant Chinese-Korean-Japanese and other mongloid population in the USA. That doyen of guitarists Les Paul, who died recently, did much to harmonise friendship between Mexico and the USA with such great songs in praise of Mexico as “Vaya Con Dios” and “Amukiriki.” It will be nice if we can see a group of top Sinhala stars visiting the North-East and vice-versa. Better still if stars from both sides do duets. I happened to see a lovely bail piece by
Desmond de Silva and AE Manoharan on video which should be shown more on national TV because it goes far to build Sinhala-Tamil rapport. If music succeeds where over a half a century of politics failed I am sure the whole nation will applaud - and perhaps sing. At any rate, there is no harm in trying.

ISS

Posted by: Ilaya Seran Senguttuvan | September 7, 2009 08:30 PM

l am the UNIQUE SL SPANISH CULTURE scholar. A LOVEly song well sung. Can anyone write a SINHALA lyric of BESAME ? I will sing it BILINGUAL.

PALITHA DE SILVA, LONDON & SPAIN to visit SL in winter.

'PEACE AMBASSADOR' UPF.

Posted by: DR. D. PALITHA DE SILVA | September 8, 2009 01:08 PM

The tradition of music knows no boundaries, colour, creed or race and can be a great healer in theatres of painful and protracted conflict. The Beatles took up the Bangladesh poverty issue; Bob Geldorf, that of many African countries; Bono of many developing countries and succeeded in securing many write-offs for poor countries from world lending institutions. This article refers to Western Music paying tribute to two great local celebrated vocalists. Western usicians in many theatres have come out to pay their respect to native music. That immortal violinist Yehudi Menuhin recorded several duets with Sitar Maestro Ravi Shankar. Beatles later with Ravi Shankar. That divine Swahili song “Malaika” – that was to become very popular in Sri Lanka - brought in the great Carribean-American voice of Harry Belafonte with the lilting voice of the late Miriam Makeba “The Voice and Soul of South Africa" (Nelson Mandela’s description) When race relations plunged in the USA due to some racially-inspired Michael Jackson persuaded Paul McCartney to record the hit “Ebony and Ivory” that did much to calm the atmosphere. The Hollywood actress and singer Barbara Streisand brought this tradition to new heights when she recorded a series of songs, including White Xmas, with Il Divo – the Latin tenors who caused a let in the fierce competition between the Spanish and the English world of pop music. In the recent death of Senator Edward Kennedy dominated by White and Afro-Americans Placido Domingo being asked to sing “Ave Maria” as a final tribute assuaged the feelings of the large Latino population in the USA that they have an important role to play in the American Dream. The Chinese Cellist Yo Yo Ma being given the honours in the same occasion - as he was when President Obama’s inauguration - is to honour the significant Chinese-Korean-Japanese mongloid population in the USA. That doyen of guitarists Les Paul, who died recently, did much to harmonise friendship between Mexico and the Spanish-speaking world and the USA with such great songs as “Vaya Con Dios” and “Amukiriki.” It will be nice if we can see a group of top Sinhala stars visiting the North-East and vice-versa. A few months ago I saw an attractive video where Desmond de Silva and A.E. Manoharan did a baila duet recalling the old days when Sinhalese and Tamil unity was the accepted norm. It is time this lovely song is broadcast to the entire nation and regularly. It looks like a certain winner. If music succeeds, where over a half a century of politics failed, I am sure the whole nation will applaud. At any rate, there is no harm in trying.

ISS

Posted by: Ilaya Seran Senguttuvan | September 11, 2009 06:08 AM

"Then “Ceylon” looked towards North Indian classical music as one that was opposed to British rule. The Sinhala elite looked towards a musical tradition that was anti British in colour." Kusal Perera.

What does this mean?That Hindustani music was more anti imperialist than other/
Karl

Posted by: karl | September 12, 2009 06:26 PM

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