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'Music for unity'

by Carlo Fonseka

Maya Abeywickrama, the Founder-Co-ordinator of the eleven-year-old National Youth Orchestra of Sri Lanka deserved every bit of the thunderous, spontaneous and sustained applause she received at the end of the National Music Festival this year.

The event organised and presented by the Western Music Unit of the Ministry of Human Resource Development Education and Cultural Affairs took place at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium on October 18.

The programme was entitled 'Music for Unity - 2003'. The memorable music was provided by the National Youth Orchestra (NYO).

The NYO fully merits its name. First, it is a proper orchestra, with a complement of 13 types of instruments - strings, wind and percussion - ranging from violins through trumpets to the tuba.

It is national because it includes members from every part of the country, South and East, West and North - 'Dakuna, nagenahira, batahira, uthurada eka kodiye sevane' - as the opening lines of the popular song that was sung at the festival proclaimed. It is really an orchestra of youth.

On this occasion it included over 2500 schoolchildren, and yes, some had come from Jaffna, Batticaloa and Tissamaharama. To see all of them, boys and girls, neatly, appropriately and uniformly attired, sitting quietly on the tiers of seats in the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium was itself a thing of beauty and a joy to behold.

Music had brought them together and imposed on them a gentle inner discipline. Part of the reason why they were so disciplined and relaxed must surely have to do with the fact that there was no competition at this festival.

Thus the need for exhausting and nerve-racking preparation couldn't have arisen. The kids did what they did only because they enjoyed it. And how well they performed!.


In an influential book called 'Education and the Social Order' first published in 1932, Bertrand Russell went so far as to say that it is undesirable to teach the young to be competitive Why? Because the emotions which competition generates are the emotions of hostility and ruthlessness.

At the National Music Festival there was no competition and social harmony prevailed. I am convinced that aesthetic studies must form a much Iarger part of the curriculum of schoolchildren than it does at present. In importance, aesthetic studies should perhaps supplant competitive sports in our education system.


The accredited purpose of the Western Music Unit of the Ministry of Education is to take Western Music to the rural child, and its founder and Co-ordinator Maya Abeywickrama seems to have pursued this objective with a single-minded commitment.

"Musical Memories of the 20th Century' was how the programme was named. Perhaps the title was intended to emphasize the fact that the participants concerned acquired the memories in the 20th century.

Maya Abeywickrama, who was awarded a Master of Philosophy degree this year for a thesis titled 'Influence of Western Music on Local Music' knows only too well that Beethoven's 5th Symphony, Johann Strauss's Blue Danube Waltz and Dhanno Budunge for example, which were presented during the programme, were not created in the 20th century.

The accredited purpose of the Western Music Unit of the Ministry of Education, founded over a decade ago under the leadership of Maya Abeywickrama, is "to take Western Music to the rural child". And rural children seem to have taken to Western Music like ducks to water.

Some hard boiled nationalists may not approve in principle the idea of the State of Sri Lanka promoting Western Music in rural Sri Lanka. They can be ignored because many children of such nationalists have no hang ups about what is pleasing to their ears, no matter where it originated.

They are citizens of the 21st century, who seem to feel intuitively that to survive and to thrive in the modern world they must learn to live together with others in harmony.


The Festival systematically promoted that very idea by including in its programme Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim children singing together Sinhala, Tamil and English songs and manifestly enjoying them.

In this enterprise, Maya Abeywickrama has been able to win the enthusiastic co-operation of a galaxy of musical talent, among whom were my friend, Chemistry Professor Ajit Abeysekera, Dayan Fernando, A.P. Abeysekera Jr, Priyani Fernando, Aruni Gunawardena and Paul Lavender. They had arranged the music beautifully.

The orchestral training must have been both intensive and extensive. The vocal training has been effective as evidenced by the uniformly high standard of choral singing.

If my account of the National Music Festival of 2003 seems to harp too much on Maya Abeywickrama, it is because I believe that hers was the head, heart and hand that pulled it off.

("The writer is a member of the Western Music Panel of the Arts Council.")


by Anthea Senaratna

(Bishop's College Auditorium, January 23, 2004, 7 pm)

Pradeep Ratnayake is no stranger to music lovers in this country. Having been to three of his earlier performances which I enjoyed thoroughly, I was determined not to miss this sixth concert performed to mark the 54th Anniversary of the Republic Day of India as well as Pradeep's return to Sri Lanka after his post-graduation from the Vishwa Bharati University, Shantiniketan.

The large auditorium at Bishop's was full to capacity and in the well airconditioned surroundings we sat eagerly waiting for the show to begin.

I have always been fascinated by the sitar, which, as we all know, is India's most favoured classical string instrument from time immemorial. Although the classical renditions I had heard before would always be enjoyable, they did sometimes turn out to be a trifle too 'heavy' for my own personal taste.

Now, our own Pradeep has proved that the sitar can not only serve as a classical instrument but that it has the capacity to fuse with folk music, singing and also western jazz. This immensely talented artiste creates compositions embracing the wider ranges of other styles of music - a total contrast to what the sitar has been used for in the past.

The programme consisted of four parts. First the classical Hindustani Raga in true conventional style giving the music of the sitar its original place. Pure notes uncluttered by any other fusions, except the accompaniment of the traditional percussion instruments.

The next items were where the sitar was played against a voice - and what an amazing voice! - for Madhavi Shilpadhipathi sang with such volume and strength which belied her slight build!

The third part - the Flight of the Hawk - where Pradeep is accompanied by a bass guitar - very ably played by Alston Joachim- took off into realms of Jazz blended with a traditional Sri Lankan melody. The last item 'Wind', was a composition where all the musicians worked together to create a lyrical kind of music.

The musicians were all excellent, there was Piyasara Shilpadhipati on the Tammattama, Ravibandu on the Kandyan Drum, Chandralal Amarakoon on the Tabla, Ratnam Ratnadurai on the Ghatam, Sarath Kumara played the flute and of course there was the bass guitarist and the lovely lady singer.

The entire group pulled well together and from the expressions on their faces we could sense their own enjoyment in their playing.

The concert in its entirety was something that we would remember always as an evening of music in its diverse moods.

The sitar in the hands of Pradeep leapt out of its classical mould and took us through haunting, lyrical, exhilarating perceptions that lingered with us long after we had left the auditorium.

We are indeed very fortunate to have a musician such as Pradeep, his talents and dedication to his work certainly deserve more public awareness - both in Sri Lanka and abroad.

It is fantastic that this Sri Lankan musician playing a traditionally Indian instrument should perform on this very special day for India. Pradeep therefore is not merely a musician of repute but also an ambassador who has created a bond between India and Sri Lanka through his talents.

I wish Pradeep and his team every success and look forward to hearing them at many more concerts.

Pradeep to perform in Bangalore

Visharada Pradeep Ratnayake meanwhile has been invited by the Bangalore School of Music, India, to take principal part in their eighth East - West International Music Festival, featuring over 300 artistes.

He performs as soloist in Lalanath de Silva's Sitar Concert with the thirty-five member Amsterdam Chamber Orchestra in February 2004, in Bangalore.

Lalanath de Silva is a Sri Lankan composer with several major works to his credit. He was the Associate Conductor and later Conductor of the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka.

Among his works are several Symphonies, a Christmas Oratorio and the "Requiem for Earth". His works have been performed in Sri Lanka and abroad.

The most recent performance was his short piece for String Orchestra called "Tablesque" - performed by the European Union Chamber Orchestra in 7 summer festival concerts in UK.

De Silva wrote the Sitar Concerto at the end of 1997. As he says, he was inspired to write the work by the performances of Pradeep Ratnayake, the young and brilliant Sitarist from Sri Lanka.

The work was first performed in Colombo in 1998 and later performed again in Mumbai and Colombo as part of the joint celebrations of 50 years of independence of India and Sri Lanka. Pradeep Ratnayake has been the soloist in all performances.

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