Sad to say, I’ve never heard of jazz-rock musician Prasanna Abeysekara till I read the appreciation written by Ravi Nagahawatte. It’s acutely embarrassing since I’ve been a fan of those genres all my life.
Prasanna’s sister Sunila Abeysekara had considerable singing talent and she provided background vocals for some of Premasiri Khemadasa’s most inspired film songs in the 1070s and 80s. She could have had a very successful career as a singer but chose, for reasons best known to herself, to become a feminist and social activist. It’s in these spheres that she gained recognition. Her contribution to music would be forgotten today unless one chanced to see her name in the credits of a Dharmasiri Bandaranaike film.
Her brother Prasanna, it would seem, was even less interested in publicity. Jazz and rock music in Sri Lanka are sub-cultures confined mostly to Colombo. Rock music is still regarded by many as drug-induced cacophonic excess while most people would be clueless about jazz. It’s doesn’t sound as terrible as rock, but what’s it all about?
Prasanna a musician with discerning taste (a rare breed) hated drunken party songs. Such people have lean pockets but hearts and minds living to the clockwork rhythm of quality music; something money can’t buy.
Prasanna is quoted as telling Ravi Nagahawatte that music records were scarce back then, when he was a school boy. This was true enough, especially when it came to rock music and jazz. In the Sinhala music stream, 45rpm and 33 rpm EPs and LP vinyl records were numerous enough by the 70s. As for imported Western music, pop predominated. As a lifelong hunter of discarded records in friends’ houses and pavements, I have come across number of Beatles, ABBA, Boney M, The Carpenters or the Osmonds (Western pop) and Country and Western, too, but little of jazz, rock and blues.
I have unfortunately never heard of Cancer, the rock n’ roll band formed by Prasanna back in 1978. I think that was the year when there was a mega music show at the Galle Face Green, featuring both Sinhala and Western pop, with Karunaratne Abeysekara and Vijay Corea alternating as comperes. There were several rock bands but I can’t remember any rock n’ roll. This history, largely undocumented (unless one has the time comb through newspaper archives) is full of unsung ghosts, and only the luckiest got any regular mention. Others just played and died. There is no proper record of the Colombo rock and jazz scene even in Dr. Sunil Ariyaratne’s otherwise well-documented work on the history of Sinhalese pop music. Did Prasanna and his bands ever produce a vinyl record? Maybe there’s a fungus-grown, scratched EP in a dusty suitcase somewhere.
There is no proper record of the Colombo rock and jazz scene even in Dr. Sunil Ariyaratne’s otherwise well-documented work on the history of Sinhalese pop music. Did Prasanna and his bands ever produce a vinyl record?
I follow the Colombo jazz scene from the fringes. This may be from a feeling that, socially and culturally, I don’t belong to that crowd, centered around Dehiwela and Mt. Lavinia. Love of jazz and rock goes back to school days, and an obscure call of the wild because I had neither family nor friends who listened to that. The only person I knew with such tastes was Pani from Piliyandala, a head turner as he walked home after work with his long hair and bell bottoms. He had a state-of-the art quadraphonic record player at home, and a prize LP collection brought down from England. That was my first real person-to-person contact with rock music – Grand Funk Railroad, the Rolling Stones, Santana – though I can’t remember listening to any jazz with him.
But all these people, though they didn’t know each other, are connected somehow. Good music was the invisible magnetic thread which connected them. It’s sad when such people go unsung. Prasanna sounds like a musician with discerning taste (a rare breed) who hated the frenzy of the drunken party crowd with their endless call for baila and party songs. Such people have lean pockets but hearts and minds filled with the sheer exuberance of living to the clockwork rhythm of quality music, day and night. It’s something which money just can’t buy.