Young people revel in being philistines not because their mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles don’t understand them (to be sure, they don’t), but because they want to show that they care, that they understand what their elders want them to.
Some of the greatest art was born out of that kind of philistinism. And some of that philistine art has survived widespread censure. But the philistinism of the past was conditioned by an important fact. That fact was, simply, that young people knew what they were up against and had an underlying motive to please and to enthral.
The young of today are complacent, smug, passionate, and to an extent they at least try to please us. But the art they churn out can hardly be called art. They have the talent and the raw craftsmanship but they don’t have what it takes to convert that into something meaningful, something artistically fulfilling. When was the last time we heard a song which didn’t croon about love, be it imagined, lost, regained, lost again, or lost forever? When was the last time we saw a film which thrived without those Antonioni-inspired profundities that are so symbolically banal that when they actually didn’t mean anything, they are interpreted to mean something?
The problem with these cultural revolutionists is that they try to transform their common experiences into works of art they think we’ll take to. (For the record, of course, we don’t.) They feel so strongly that their experiences are enough, that their sense of daring will magically do the rest of the work. Depending on how you view it, this can be a sign of their laziness or convictions, and if it is the latter, those convictions of theirs aren’t really enough to convince us. Now my point here is that for any art to prosper, in any society, and for the popular to cohabit with the arty, the performer must be aware of and alive to his society. That’s what enriched our purveyors of pop culture: the H. D. Premaratne of Sikuruliya and Apeksha and the man who composed the music for both those movies, Clarence Wijewardena.
The two most discernible and easily identifiable points about a Clarence Wijewardena composition are that, one, it tells a story or at least has a story behind it, and two, it empowered a particular social milieu, middle class and demarcated as the Petit bourgeoisie. Ajith Samaranayake in a tribute to Camillus Perera surmised that this bourgeoisie (or lumpen proletariat) had evolved into a special subclass on their own terms. It was that subclass which provided grist to Clarence’s work, which sought to bring together the sarala gee tradition of Amaradeva and the baila-calypso tradition of Wally Bastian, Desmond Kelly, Neville Fernando, and C. T. Fernando.
Clarence spoke or rather wrote and made others sing about the foibles of ordinary individuals, the Mangos and the Kalu Maamas who found life so mundane that they just had to make it interesting, if not colourful. This was reflected in even the instruments that the Moonstones, his first band, operated on: like the Beatles, they included the sitar alongside the guitar. Elsewhere Khemadasa was doing roughly the same thing, compounding the guitar and the piano with the sitar, the tabla, the violin.
Khemadasa took it upon himself to interpret Western chords and melodies to a discerning local audience. But that discerning audience was also discriminating, and belonged to the crowd which was fixated on the classically romantic. Clarence was not a romantic in any classical sense: his task was to refine, to readapt, and to interpret a form of music (baila and calypso) which had been disparaged by the same milieu that produced it. In doing that he wasn’t limited by the parameters of that genre, of course: neither the 6/8 beat that baila thrived on nor the deft interplay of words reflected in its lyrics. Added to this was another point, as important, as relevant.
The “low key” pop quality of much of Clarence’s work (regardless of whether they were written by him) was not really low key the way baila was. As I noted in my tribute to Anton Jones, baila lyrics celebrated a certain kind of freedom that subsisted on a happy-go-lucky, careless lifestyle. In “Mama Enne Dubayi Rate Indala” M. S. Fernando epitomises this attitude of carelessness rather well. You don’t come across that freewheeling carelessness in Clarence’s work, if at all because while they celebrated a freewheeling lifestyle, that didn’t thrive on a self-indulgent ethic.
His most suggestive, if not provocative, songs – like Mungo Kalu Nande and Mame Kalu Mame – only hint at such an ethic. In this he was probably reflecting the milieu of those who doted on these songs, tempered by a middle class world-view, conservative, at times even puritanical, yet aspiring for more than what they had. They were not the kind of people that moralists would have deplored, but the kind that hinged uncomfortably on such a milieu. Ignored and neglected by nearly every artiste here, they would eventually become Clarence’s biggest audience. That almost all of them hailed from the same locales which nurtured baila – Moratuwa, Negombo, Chilaw – was to be expected. They were overtly enraptured by baila, yet covertly disdainful of its celebration of self-indulgence; consequently, they were relieved at a man who reconciled the best elements of that genre with the qualities which they, as a collective, embodied. I fervently believe that was Clarence’s biggest strength.
It’s a curious interplay of love and hate, of sarcasm and infatuation, which are to be found in many of his songs. But while his early work celebrated this at times contradictory fusion of opposites, his later work, in the seventies and eighties, sought to do away with it. Like most artistes who mellowed, matured, and grew wiser with the years, Clarence seemed here to have wanted to assert life as it was, without that streak of self-indulgence. To me, this is what explains the eventide quality of his later work – Atha Ran Wiman, Piyamba Yanawa Ma Akasaye, Sihina Lovak Dutuwa Mathakayi – eventide because when you listen to them, you feel as though they were composed just so to be sung at twilight, at dusk, when you look back on the day which went by and wanted to be happy at the fact that you achieved something, anything, in that day.
Clarence spoke or rather wrote and made others sing about the foibles of ordinary individuals
In the end he took an entire career to celebrate what we, his greatest admirers, had been celebrating every day. He became alive to that eventide welter of life, in which all our sorrows and defeats and conquests congealed into a dusk which we all went to, forgetting enmities and realising that we were all in it, to win or to lose, together.
In short, the composer got us to look forward to another tomorrow by closing in on today, when earlier he got us to remain transfixed on a seemingly eternal today.
And in the end, his work, his songs, kept us alive not just to today and tomorrow, but to yesterday. The same yesterday he adorned and yes, resurrected. For us.