The music festival organised by the Sri Lanka Guitar Association to mark the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution, unfortunately, had a low turnout but ran high on adrenalin.
It may have been fear of rain that kept crowds away, as the venue was the Vihara Maha Devi Park’s open-air theatre. But it turned out to be a warm, humid night, and those who braved their fears and came were treated to a scintillating mix of music and dance for more than four hours, all for free.
Multi-ethnic in nature, the opening dance sequences established a mood of colourful sobriety. Musaeus College dance teacher Thelma Mendis, her daughter Chitrina Mendis and a student gave a graceful demonstration of North Indian Kathak, in which the hands are constantly probing the space around the dancer to regular changes in tempo and rhythm. The hand movements matter more than the footwork.
This was followed by a Tamil version of Kohomba Kankakariya performed by Jeyakumar Thandeepan and Manikkam Vasintha. In contrast to kathak, the feet carry the dancers over larger spaces and while the hands perform the same probing of space, but much faster and to more forceful music.
This was followed by an example of Dr Gamini Haththotuwegama’s street theatre of the 1980s, a short but intense exploration of a dark theme of that era, of extrajudicial killings and unidentified bodies left in the street.
Nishad Handunpathirana and Abishek Cooray gave a fine demonstration of a duet between the north Indian dilruba and the tabla. The dilruba is played cello-like with a horizontal bow; accompanied by the constant drone of a shruti box, the wailing dilruba and the booming tabla joined together to create the ruminating, sometimes melancholic melodies of ragadhari music in a cathartic harmony of eastern string and percussion.
Sri Lanka Guitar Association marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution
Next came the Prasanna Sanjeewa band, a very youthful and talented orchestra with a full rhythm guitar section and two violin sections including a four-girl team and a blend of eastern and western percussion, as well as a delightful piano accordion, to accompany Amarasiri Peiris and other singers who gave their time and talent free of charge to sing that night.
Amarasiri Pieris entertained with two of his favourites – Malak Vunay Ai Numba Mata and Yamu Yamu Yamy Enna Yamu Premiye. This was followed by Lisa Abeyratne who sang the popular Russian folk song Katyusha with its fast-paced tempo, and a Tanzanian folk song by the great South African singer Miriam Makeba. She concluded that highly charged performance with a Sinhala song originally sung by Apsara de Silva. The orchestra ably backed the slower, more familiar rhythms of the Sinhala saragi as well as the frenzied tempo of the Russian and African folk music.
Thushara de Silva sang a solo song of Sinhala rock, a relatively new phenomenon which expands the horizons of Sinhala pop. Next, visharadha Ranjith Abeysinghe sang the late Gunadasa Kapuge’s ‘Bimbarak Senaga’, the song’s eerie flute arpeggios and the addition of two traditional drums to the percussion creating a dramatic shift of mood.
Popular singer Jagath Wickremasinghe followed with two of his hits, including ‘Obath Mamath Sitina Me Lova Thula.’ This item signalled the exit of this delightful orchestra.
Festival organizer and guitar association secretary Mohammad Iqbal, accompanied by his wife playing the flute and panflute, followed with three songs – two originals in Sinhala and one Azerbaijanian folk song. He’s a talented singer and composer of songs, and these songs provided a pleasant acoustic interlude to the evening’s repertoire.
Multi-ethnic in nature, the opening dance sequences established a mood of colourful sobriety
Next came Suresh Priyadharshana who sang a solo with his guitar. What came next took the stage by storm. Sarath Fernando is a son of the late, great baila singer M. S. Fernando (it’s unfair to push him into the baila slot because he constantly experimented and expanded the form until some of his most memorable songs merged with the best of Sinhala sarala gi, but with a melodic character all of his own).
People know Sarath Fernando as a singer of his father’s hits, but he showed this evening that he’s an accomplished exponent of Western genres such as indie rock and reggae (reggae is the Caribbean but by association with international music labels it is now world music). He set the stage ablaze with two Bob Marley songs including ‘Get Up Stand Up’, followed by ‘Pudgalikai Rahasigathai’, high-octane Sinhala original composed for a play. Then came ‘Hada Popiyai,’ one of his father’s evergreen hits with those bell-like guitar riffs so evocative of the Shadows and other great 60s exponents of the electric guitar. As if this wasn’t enough, he and his five-member band concluded with a rousing rendition of Carlos Santana’s ‘Jingo’ which blended gamely into the Gajaga Wannama and other local tunes.
Jingo is an instrumental number (with a little background vocals) where percussion (conga drums) dominate, accompanied by the electronic synthesizer. In this version, Sarath Fernando effortlessly fused electric lead guitar with percussion and in the process showed that he’s a world-class guitarist. Instead of the now ubiquitous pedal, he depends on the now little used tremolo arm (or wah wah) and uses it with consummate skill to evoke 60s and 70s electric guitar sounds. What a pity that this brilliant band doesn’t even have a name – when I asked the keyboardist, he smiled and said: ‘we just had a chat and got together for today.’ These are ‘musicians’ musicians’ who don’t care whether the audience is 10 or 10,000 because they will play for the unbeatable adrenaline rush of playing good music.
That should have been the culminating item because whatever came after this bravura performance seemed a little flat no matter how good it was. Next came Benedict Kasthuriarachchi and the Victor Jara band from Kandy, an acoustic band with electric bass and drums, playing two original songs in Sinhala about Victor Jara and Nelson Mandela.
Rohan de Silva offered mellifluous versions of two great American folk-pop ballads – Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and Pete Seeger’s ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone.’ He was accompanied by Thushara Aluthgama playing the guitar.
Finally, there was Skitzo with their own peculiar versions of Sinhala rock and heavy metal. It’s a three-member band (vocals, bass and electric lead) and their songs about existential despair has a youthful following, with people dancing and applauding.
It was an evening of excellent entertainment, marred only by fear of bad weather and unsuitability of the venue. There is a problem with the acoustics, with only high-pitched sounds coming through and what is sung or played at low pitch sounding garbled. Organisers should take note of that.