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Cultural orthodoxy and popular Sinhala music - part 2

Continued from the Leader page of 09.08.07

This is an English version of the Convocation Address delivered in the afternoon session of the First Convocation of the University of Visual and Performing Arts, Colombo, held at the BMICH, on August 04, 2007.

It is a clear reflection of the thinking behind the steps taken by the authorities, for, what they claimed to be, ‘the development of Sinhala music.’ This was to confine Sinhala music to an exclusively Indian base.

This policy was once again very specifically stated by M.J. Perera in an Administrative Report on Broadcasting for


Dr. Tissa Abeysekara

 the year 1954, submitted by him in his capacity as Director General of Radio Ceylon.

“It was generally agreed that Sinhalese music is in need of greater development and that more students should be encouraged to go to North India for serious study.

For this purpose it was suggested that the Ministry of Education should offer scholarships annually for the study of It was also agreed that while North Indian Classical Music should be the foundation on which Sinhalese music should be built. The folk music of Ceylon should also be used in its development”.

Please note the emphasis on ‘North Indian Classical music’ and the secondary importance given to Sinhala folk music.

In the same Report, certain statistics are given and these are important not because they reflect the scant respect given to our folk tradition, but for the premium status accorded to Indian music.

In chapter ii, section (b) under the sub-head ‘Sinhalese Service’, of this administrative report a breakdown of the time allocations for music, spoken word and religious programmes are given. Of a total of 29 hours and 50 minutes per week allocated to music, only 01 hour and 20 minutes or 2.5% was allocated to Sinhala folk music.

There is also another piece of anecdotal though convincing evidence of this restrictive music policy and the compulsive manner in which it was applied at the Radio Station, in a progress report submitted by the then Controller of Music of the Sinhala Service, Dunstan de Silva.

In this Report dated May 28, 1956, the Controller of Music, a graduate of the Bhatkande University, and an extremely gifted musician, exclusively in the North Indian classical mode, states with an obvious sense of accomplishment, that: “Since my appointment in June 1954 as Music Assistant and Head of Music Unit, I started a campaign against artistes singing westernised music and completely annihilated it.”

Now, ‘annihilated’ is a strong word, an emotion-laden expression one rarely comes across in official or administrative documents.

But Dunstan de Silva, couldn’t have been more correct. It was indeed a campaign of annihilation, and in the process what was annihilated was not only ‘westernised music’ whatever that odd phrase means, but the freedom of musical expression itself. What is meant here as ‘westernised music’ I could only guess.

Here I must shift to another narrative. The contemporary phase in Sinhala music begins with the songs of Ananda Samarakoon.

One of the first Sri Lankans to make the pilgrimage to Shanthiniketan after Tagore’s visit here in 1934 created a wave of enthusiasm for his music, theatre and poetry, Samarakoon was not a great singer. But his voice had an honesty and an open throated vitality which charmed the local listener.

Its appeal lay in a kind of plaintive folky-ness like in the American Country singers. But above all, his melodies grew out of the language in which they were rendered, and here too Samarakoon’s lyrics were couched in the picturesque idiom of Sinhala folk poetry.

For the first time, Sinhala language found a songwriter who could harmonize the syllable and the note.

But what was more important here was that Samarakoon, not perhaps by conscious design, liberated the Sinhala song from the rigid melodic mode of the Hindustani light song rooted in the inflective phonetics of the Urdu language.

Then came Sunil Shantha, an absolute genius as a melody maker, and whose voice in its range and vocal sophistication is yet to be bettered in this country.

Tutored though in the North Indian classical tradition at Bhatkande, where he had a uniformly brilliant career coming first in both vocal and instrumental in the Masters final, Sunil Shantha, in his singing, deliberately avoided the decorative elements of the Hindustani raag, because he claimed they belonged to the Urdu language, and would cause syllabic distortions when applied to Sinhala.

The clean melodic contours of his songs were meant to harmonize with the Elu, an idiom in Sinhala writing which avoids Sanskritised poetic diction.

Sunil Shantha’s mission was to create a music essentially Sinhala in its total sound, and in this he would have drawn inspiration from the Tagorean experiment; Rabindra Sangeeth was built on the rhythms and cadences of the Bengali language.

If the Tagorean exercise was part of the Bengali Renaissance, Sunil Shantha himself was working in the high noon of the post war cultural reawakening in Sri Lanka. His songs, and to a lesser extent, those of his predecessor Samarakoon, swept the country.

The musical structures of these songs, free of the complex and aleatory movements of Oriental melody, allowed them to be played on western musical instruments, especially the piano; western hotel bands picked them up on brass, and in such versions they were generously embellished with chordwork, harmony and counterpoint, staples of the western musical system.

Sunil Shantha never went for such orchestrations, though he made liberal use of the piano mostly for rhythm, and in a few rare instances embellished his songs with vocal harmonies purely as choral back up.

However, a new generation came up on the Sinhala music scene. They had grown up during the war years and in the immediate aftermath, when western bands composed mainly of emigres from Central Europe were playing at dances and frequently in the open air for WW II veterans on transit home from the Eastern Command.

PLA Somapala and BS Perera, were two Sinhala musicians, brought up on the Samarakoon-Sunil Shantha wave, and they used the open melodic structures of this style, to indulge in heavy western-style orchestrations for their recordings.

On contract to HMV and Columbia, the two most popular labels of gramophone music at the time, these two musicians began a new trend. Sinhala songs of the late forties thro’ to the late fifties were dressed in lush orchestral arrangements with plenty brass.

In this, BS Perera was the more competent one; he had studied western music, and he was also heavily influenced by the Latin-American sound.

Whilst Somapala kept his melodies to the simple structures he had inherited from Samarakoon and Sunil Shantha, whilst lashing them with rich brass, BS, borrowed freely from the Latin rhythms for his infectious tunes.

Through their songs emerged a new generation of singers; Chitra, CT Fernando, Kanthi Wakwella, Vincent de Paul Peries, to name the most popular of them, and they, like the pioneer Sunil Shantha sang without the murkhis, gamaks and meends of the Indian tradition.

This was because the melodies and the arrangements prevented any improvisatory flourishes in the rendering. These songs became hugely popular and cut across all social, cultural and ethnic levels.

They had the simplicity of folk songs, and the lyrics were sentimental and romantic and they facilitated community singing. Remember, “Isurumuniya”, “Lalitha Kala”, “Barabage”, “Selalihini Kovul”, “Dura Pena Thani Thala”, and “Siripade Samanala Kanda?

It was a golden twilight, and we sang these songs with gusto, in school, whenever or wherever we gathered on happy occasions, played them on reedy mouth organs, and they have lingered through the years to be picked up by each one of three generations since then. Anyone who hasn’t sung any one of these songs at some moment in his or her life, please stand up!

It was then that ‘Ratanjankar’ struck. I am using the learned Professor’s name more as a metaphor, for his name is associated in my mind forever with the sad story of contemporary popular music in this country, though subsequent investigations have revealed that he was merely an instrument in the hands of a band of powerful Pothe Guras. And here let me dip into a memory.

The year was 1954 and I was in the Senior Prep. Class. One morning we were herded into the music room to listen to a distinguished visitor.

He was Maestro Lionel Edirisinghe, Head of the Government School of Music and the first Sri Lankan to qualify as a Sangeeth Visharada from the Bhatkande University of Music in Lucknow.

He was an imposing figure, tall and fair of complexion, his flowing white Indian costume making him look like some mystic sadhu, or so he seemed on that day to a bunch of nervous school kids in their middle teens.

“Could you sing something” the maestro said, and it seemed more like a command. Ms. Abeygunasekara, our much harassed music teacher looked quite tense as she began playing the simple introduction to Sunil Shantha’s “Olu Pipeela”. Immediately the maestro raised his hands.

“No. Not that one please”. The note of displeasure was clear in his voice. *”Sing something else.” And down went the music teacher’s trembling hands on the keyboard; she struck the first chords of “Siripade Samanala

Kanda”.

“Stop, stop.” The maestro raised his voice and he seemed angry. “You are singing rubbish.” And for the next ten minutes we listened, frightened and confused, to the Head of the Government School of Music, that these songs we have learnt to sing were cheap songs; bad music; they should not be allowed in schools.

I cannot speak for the entire Class of ‘54, but in my case the confusion stayed with me. I wanted to find why these beautiful songs of my childhood were bad. That was until I came across, Dunstan de Silva’s progress report about his campaign against “westernised singing”.

I remembered vaguely, Maestro Lionel Edirisinghe trying to explain to us that those songs we attempted to sing on that day were “westernised songs which are preventing the development of a decent music in this country”.

So this is what was considered “westernised music” and why Dunstan de Silva decided it was his sacred duty as the Controller Music, of Radio Ceylon, to ‘annihilate’ it. Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra, was brainwashing a whole generation of undergrads in the Hantane hills on the same lines.

This was also what M.J. Perera, on the instructions of the Advisory Committee on Sinhala Programmes, was doing with meticulous administrative skill. To establish a Station Orchestra, limited to only Indian instruments, the restrictions placed on the use of harmony and counterpoint in the arrangements, were all part of the “campaign to annihilate westernised music”. The exercise of auditioning artistes by Professor Ratanjankar, was to legitimise the entire process.

This strange policy of musical spring cleaning continued for well over two decades. All the significant experiments in Sinhala music during this period were done outside the official space of the Government School of Music, Radio Ceylon/SLBC, and the Government Secondary Schools where music was made part of the curriculum.

A strong establishment developed round this policy, inhibiting the growth of a modern music culture in the vernacular. Only two adjustments to the syllabi in music at an official level could be noted.

In 1955 after prolonged agitation by W.B. Makuloluwa, the teaching of Sinhala Folk Music was allowed in the Government School of Music. This resulted in a refreshing change in the flavour and style of popular Sinhala music.

Here it was Amaradeva, who set the standard with his inspired compositions for Madhuwanthie, the memorable Radio programme he produced in creative collaboration with Mahagama Sekara.

(However, I do not wish to bring Amaradeva into this narrative. He is unique and has to be judged by the high musical values he works by and he exists beyond this narrative) This trend continued in the songs of Piyasiri Wijeratne, W.F. Wimalasiri, H.M. Abeypala and then in the immensely popular singing of Ivor Dennis and Sunil Edirisinghe, where one could detect the strains of Sinhala folk elements for the first time since Samarakoon and Sunil Shantha. Later came the stars, T.M. Jayaratne, Rohana Beddege, and Neela Wickremasinghe.

In 1975 or thereabouts, the students at the School of Music began to be taught the theory and techniques of Western Music. Even though this was limited to lectures and to a very basic introductory exercise, a whole generation of young composers emerged who began using western musical elements in their work for films and commercial recordings.

Rohana Weerasinghe, Mervyn Perera, Sarath Dassanayake, Victor Ratnayake, and Gunadasa Kapuge were the first of these. However, their work is inconsistent and occasionally there are serious lapses in technique, due to their lack of proper training in modern music.

Their primary source for learning modern orchestration seems to be the music of Bollywood which is at best, second hand. It is here that despite certain reservations I have personally, I wish to pay my tribute to Premasiri Khemadasa for his pioneering work. His exercises in western musical forms both where orchestration and vocal expressions are concerned, despite serious flaws, have been seminal.

His daring forays into uncharted regions in fusion, would never have been possible within the confines of our official musical establishment which remains unchanged basically since the days of the ‘Ratanjankar’ edict.

The freedom to create, without restriction is available only outside the narrow confines of the Sri Lankan musical establishment, which continue to exist in ‘splendid’ isolation.

Fortunately, the space for such free activity has widened enormously with the coming of new technologies and market mechanisms that have changed the ecology of the music industry.

But it is here exactly that the pitfalls are, and the Sinhala music scene has been made vulnerable to such hazards, entirely due to the narrow orthodoxy that had prevailed here.

The indiscriminate use of electronically generated sounds, and the incompetent orchestrations which assault our ears today, are a direct result of the younger generation of musical aspirants not having the necessary professional and institutional training and guidance, vital to survive in the field today, Those who graduate from the School of Music have to spend years before they could adjust themselves to the professional demands of modern music.

They learn on their own, and they get sucked into the vortex of the mushrooming music industry, in a ‘semi literate’ condition.

Music education in this country has to be reviewed all over again. Teaching music cannot be done by confining the student to a particular tradition.

The two most exciting musicians in the local scene today, Harsha Makalanda and Pradeep Ratnayake are those who broke free of the tradtions they were brought up in, to become the wonderfully innovative artistes they are.

Makalanda was Sri Lanka’s finest jazz pianist before he began drawing from the Sinhala folk tradition to begin composing. Pradeep, grew up in the straitjacket of the Raag, where he mastered the Sitar, and then broke free to play jazz with Ravi Shankar’s sacred instrument.

The creative act in any medium demands a condition beyond all tradition. First we learn the basic principles of any art form, and there is no issue of tradition there. That comes later.

The Sinhala music establishment is yet to accept this. It looks down upon the immensely gifted musicians, Bhathiya and Santush. It is yet to appreciate what Khemadasa has done, and are uneasy with the likes of Pradeep Ratnayake.

It had already destroyed such pioneering talents as Sunil Shantha, BS Perera, and CT Fernando. These are performers and composers thrown up by the uprush of public preference, and that comes from a complex interplay of social conditions. No one has the right to discriminate against them from up above.

Here it touches upon a basic principle which is beyond the issue of musical preference. It is related to human rights. Now that the field of music in this country has come under the purview of an institution with university status, let us begin all over again.

If we are to develop music in this country, let the institution teach the basics and provide the aspirants with facilities and the freedom to experiment with all forms; let them choose and let them create. Tradition will grow out of that. It cannot be carpentered.

Concluded

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