Pradeep seated in his listening room
Night is when all sorts of dangers lurk. But there are safe havens. The Reader’s Digest once ran a series of anecdotes called ‘Home is where the harm is.’ But home is definitely a safe haven at night despite venerable plumbing, wiring and masonry. There is much to do at home for someone who hasn’t cut the umbilical cord with nostalgia. As for possibilities outside, old friend Pradeep Wickremasinghe’s house in Nugegoda tops the list because of a shared interest, and he is very good company within that context, full of anecdotes and a starry-eyed belief that everything will hold until the cows, bats, cats, mice and crows come home.
The best time to visit him is after nine p.m. By then, he has left behind all worldly cares and is busy in his own enviable private paradise – a large room packed with record players, boxes filled with records, and assorted audio equipment in various stages of resurrection or oblivion.
Remember Lena Zavaroni belting it out: ‘Put another nickel in/Turn on the nickelodeon/All I want is having you/And music, music, music!’
Anyone who has listened to the SLBC English Service’s children’s programme will know that tune by heart.
What is referred to as a Nickelodeon in the song is actually a jukebox, a coin-operated music-making machine once common in bars, hotels and restaurants across the US.
There were quite a few around in Colombo five or six decades ago (What a pity that our museums neglect this type of modern industrial archaeology). Pradeep has in this crowded room what are probably the only surviving nickelodeon jukeboxes in Sri Lanka – two of them, and he’s forever about to get one of them going.
If he can find the time. He is always trying to get something going in that museum-cum-workshop – usually a turn table, because its records, records and records (both shellac and vinyl) which have become the obsessive driving force of his life.
His spotlessly clean music room, which is a shrine to a pantheon of singers with their images hanging from walls, and where the bulk of his record collection is kept, is in a different part of the house.
Selecting records out of his precious treasure box of 78 rpm records, Pradeep plays now them on his 1960s Philips portable record player, making me feel like royalty. This compact player’s two rectangular three-watt speakers emit sound with startling depth and clarity. It is the kind of sound quality only to be had from high-end products nowadays. But this machine was a typical middle-class delight back then, not a rich man’s toy.
"All these songs have been re-issued in newer formats, and with new music. But give your music lover/connoisseur the choice of a container full of shiny CDs and a single, scratched 78 rpm of the original, it isn’t hard to predict what they’ll go for (Unless it’s a businessperson who’ll sell the CDs and then start hunting for the real thing with the money)."
The arm with its reversible needle (Switch sides, and you can listen to 78 rpm) began sounding scratchy. Pradeep solved the problem within a minute by twisting the arm left and right, the way a practiced physio might relieve the chronic pain of a pulled muscle with a practiced hand. While working, he tells me anecdotes about those who enter this room full of pride and prejudice – from Police big shots to ministers and businessmen – and they all leave meek and humbled.
This friendship goes back more than twenty years when I met him at the Piyathilake’s Uyana Record Bar at Lauries’ Road, Bambalapitiya. Piyathilake, bearded and always dressed in long-sleeved light hued shirts and dark pants, with his neatly combed hair caressing the back of his shirt collar, always looked dapper. Sadly, he is no more. But the place still exists, run more as an antique and fancy item shop by Piyathilake’s brother though the racks at the entrance are still filled with CDs. Back in the 90s, it was a haven for music lovers, with CDs and cassettes vying for space with compact discs.
Musicians, actors and TV personalities dropped in. I remember meeting actor W. Jayasiri and Percy Abeysekara (Flag bearer for the national cricket
It was an eclectic place where I discovered for the first time, in cassette tape format, the songs of Tracy Chapman. When asked for his opinion about something new to you, he’d characteristically purse his lips and raise up his eyebrows --- in other words, high
Piyathilake was lazy about recording selections. It took months and sometimes never happened. For selections, you went to Torana, where I used to see the same music-mad technician with his closed eyes and earphones deep into recording trances for more than two decades.
Much earlier, there was Tharanga record bar just a walk away, where the pretty sales girl with her short dress attracted us schoolboys as much as
There was U. G. Danny selling records on the pavement at the corner where Lauries Road started, and Raja (Jambuwa) with his fancy brimmed hat and cowboy moustache sat with his assorted items, including books and vinyl records, near the Majestic bakery and hotel. If Piyathilake was dapper, Raja was debonair. He looked as handsome as some of the film and pop stars on those record covers. I hear he’s now running a grocery shop somewhere in Colombo and intend to go and look for him.
Regretfully, I never got acquainted with Danny as Raja was my source for LPs. They and others like them were swept away under the previous regime’s ‘city beautification’ drive, taking much colour away from that poly-cultural milieu which gave its own unique character to the Bambalapitiya junction. Pradeep tells me that Dannie passed away, but had this snap taken by an unknown photographer.
"There was a tradition of listening to records at home. My parents had an Akai turntable with a small selection of Sinhala, Hindi and English LPs. "
Pradeep remembers Danny aiya telling him that the post card snap would be safer with him, and bartering it for a snack and tea at Pilawoo’s restaurant. History has proved him right. He now shows me several rare LPs of South Indian devotional songs bought from Danny aiya’s stock.
There was a tradition of listening to records at home. My parents had an Akai turntable with a small selection of Sinhala, Hindi and English LPs. But I got really hooked on vinyl records because of Pradeep. Over the years, the collection grew, but there were very few 78 rpms or Sinhala LPs or EPs (45 or 33 1/3 rpm) because these were already beginning to be pricey.
Power can be of many kinds. An executioner wields enormous power over his captives. A messiah too, is in a similar position but in a more elevated manner. In a totally different mood, someone like Pradeep too, wields enormous power – actually, much more than any executioner or messiah.
There are many of both kinds in this country, but I don’t know of anyone else who has such a stock of Sinhala gramophone records and vinyls. That is mesmeric power indeed, of a very benevolent, Midsummer night’s Dream kind. Though this is now our winter, the music produces a summer’s breezy charm.
Remember how a world-class opera singer was booed at the Galle Face Green because she sang ‘Danno Budunge’ in an operatic voice?
There were quite a few around in Colombo five or six decades ago
What a pity that our museums neglect this type of modern industrial archaeology
His spotlessly clean music room is a shrine to a pantheon of singers
Player’s rectangular three-watt speakers emit sound with startling depth and clarity.
As I listen to Hubert Rajapkse voice now on a venerable 78 rpm record, it becomes obvious how ignorant people can be. People booed because they are familiar with more recent versions of the song, sung at a lower pitch. Rajapakse sings this high. He’s a really good tenor. One can pitch this song with a minor third or a perfect fifth, and there is a huge difference between the two.
The name of the song is given as “Dharma Budunge” (Ode to the Sacred City) on this HMV (His Master’s Voice) 78 rpm No. 13103. Next, Pradeep plays a familiar film hit – “Me Mosam Manda Sulanga Hama” by H. R. Jothipala and Angeline de Lanarolle (HMV light Green Label, number WN 750), lyrics by Karunaratne Abeysekara and music by P. L. A. Somapala.
Next, we jump to the ‘pitthala band era’ (As derided by purists) and the last 78 rpm film song record to be produced in the country, from the film Gita in 1970. It is a duet – “Dakina Dasune” by H. R. Jothipala and Sujatha Aththanayake (Light green label HG 787). This isn’t stereo, but I’m stunned by the brilliance of the sound – Jothi’s effortless nuancing of Karunaratne Abeysekara’s precision lyrics which manage very well the literary tight rope act of taking song writing down to the popular cinema hall level (Jothi was very much the ‘peechan’ singer at the time, loved by the gallery) while keeping the sentiment as fine as it can get.
Add to this Sujatha’s razor sharp vocal rendering, and exuberant instrumentation which includes piano accordion and electric guitar, and I can understand why there are people who beg, plead with or threaten Pradeep to sell them these records. Just to sit there listening is a life-enhancing experience.
But he won’t sell, not these. He’s very much in control of the situation and enjoying himself. This is true power.
I wonder what he’s going to pull out of his coat next – a rabbit, a pigeon, or the Pink Panther? Now we hear the breathless ice skating vocals of J. A. Milton Perera – ‘Agadha Sagaraye’ (light green label HG 756) from the film Dheevarayo. Lyrics again by Karu aiya, and music by that often underestimated wizard Roksami who, if he worked for Indian cinema, would have been a national hero and a millionaire.
"But he won’t sell, not these. He’s very much in control of the situation and enjoying himself. This is true power"
Milton’s voice is hard to define – is it high or low? Is it tenor or barin tone? Sometimes, it’s close to bass. Sometimes, it’s more like Soprano. Whatever it is, it’s always sharp, sharper and throatier than Jothi’s (no offence meant). One can argue that Jothi had a greater range. There is a silky sensuousness to his voice, like Mohammad Rafi’s, ideal for playback singing. Milton too was a very successfully playback singer, but there was more to his voice than that – a quality which appealed to an inner sense beyond sensuality, talking from the other end to the more civilized side of the beast. This is clearly so even when Milton sings in a ‘party mood’ as in the song ‘Sobha Alankara Muhune’. There is too, a sense of intimacy as if he’s telling you lovely little secrets. Interestingly, while Jothi has one or two imitators who can sound like him, there is no one who can even get close to Milton’s voice except his own son.
But a singer’s popularity isn’t just a matter of his voice. Skinny, malnourished-looking Milton was no match for the chubby, handsome, cheery Jothi with his matinee
All these songs have been re-issued in newer formats, and with new music. But give your music lover/connoisseur the choice of a container full of shiny CDs and a single, scratched 78 rpm of the original, it isn’t hard to predict what they’ll go for (Unless it’s a businessperson who’ll sell the CDs and then start hunting for the real thing with the money).
But it’s getting late, and time to get some sleep, though it looks as if the night is just starting for Pradeep. More exciting musical discoveries at a later date.