Ishan Bahar with singer son Ricardo and grand daughter Shyanne
Ishan Bahar, a musical legend whose name is indelibly associated with that compellingly musical 60s-70s band known as the Jetliners (Its latest incarnation is said to be still around), has compiled two valuable reference works titled ‘A Heritage of Song’ in two parts.
For those with fading memories, or born too late to have any memories at all of that mesmeric era of Sri Lanka’s Western Pop, these two books (Subtitled The Musical Journeys of Musicians With Sri Lankan Roots) will offer loads of nostalgia and insights.
They would too, surely elicit gasps of: “Hey, I didn’t know there were so many singers, bands and musicians in this country!”
Listed in both books are an incredible 330 show biz personalities, men and women, dating from the 1950s to the first decade of the new millennium. Part I is elegantly black and white while Part II carries both b & w and colour images (the latter will be launched in Melbourne, Australia, later this month).
While some of these names would be familiar – Noeline Honter, Raj Seneviratne, Mignone Fernando, Desmond de Silva, Nimal Jayamanne, Alston Koch, Yolande Bavan, Maxi Rosairo, Sohan Pieris, Corinne Almeida, Eranga and Priyanga, Priyanthi and Raja Jalaldeen, Harold Seneviratne and Debbie Arnolda – many others live in retirement or semi-retirement now, and the present generation would know little or nothing about them but for these two books. This isn’t an all inclusive list. Ishan Bahar spent years contacting former friends, and colleagues, many of whom now live in Australia and elsewhere. Some never replied, or even declined to send information about themselves. Happily, though, most were eager to cooperate, sending him mini biographies and photographs.
The result is an invaluable reference work with a dazzling photo gallery which brings to life vividly a superlative era in our pop music and show business.
Ishan Bahar played a key role in this dazzle as frontman for the Jetliners, one of the top 60-70s bands, along with Mignone Fernando (Nee Ratnam), so much so that ‘Ishan and Mignone with the Jetliners’ became a synonym for first class pop entertainment.
But these two books by this singer-turned archivist have guaranteed a permanent place in our musical history for hundreds of other artistes and bands which would have otherwise been condemned to oblivion.
"His mother, called Mahat, was a singer, too. Ishan’s cousin Naval Lieutenant Shanthi Bahar was the first naval casualty of the civil war when he was killed by a grenade thrown by a female LTTE cadre."
Much of this music was concentrated in Colombo and its suburbs. Colombo was then a sleepy port city with a population of less than half a million where only major junctions hosted traffic lights and traffic jams were a novelty. Other cities such as Kandy hosted these musicians in much smaller numbers.
How did so many musicians find work? There was a cultural dynamism about Colombo – music, films, plays, poetry readings and much else – that belied the relatively small numbers. These singers and bands were in demand at the night clubs, hotel ballrooms, weddings, parties, socials, annual get togethers and Christmas/New Year dances. Singers such as Mignone and Dalrene were pop divas.
Sometimes, tickets had to be booked in advance at venues where the top bands played, and fans lined up to get their autographs.
They catered mainly to English-speaking fans, not all of them necessarily ‘elite’ though the night club crowd, as opposed to today’s, came exclusively from the high and glamorous segment of Colombo society. Some of these singers and bands were featured in Sinhala movies (Delovak Athara, Adare Hithenawa Dekkama, Satha Panaha, Surayangeth Suraya etc.) but they were not household names in the world of Sinhala pop music.
There was little crossover between the two.
"While some of these names would be familiar – Noeline Honter, Raj Seneviratne, Mignone Fernando, Desmond de Silva, Nimal Jayamanne, Alston Koch, Yolande Bavan, Maxi Rosairo, Sohan Pieris, Corinne Almeida, Eranga and Priyanga, Priyanthi and Raja Jalaldeen, Harold Seneviratne and Debbie Arnolda – many others live in retirement or semi-retirement now, and the present generation would know little or nothing about them but for these two books."
The venues had names like the Coconut Grove at Galle Face Hotel, featuring the Jetliners along with other top performers), the Blue Leopard, Mascarilla ( again at Galle Face Hotel), the Silver Fawn, Orchid Room, the Copacabana, Club 388, Fountain Café, Ceylinco ballroom, Little Hut and the Kandy Lake Club. The night club culture was very different then from what it is now, and these musicians were an elite catering to an elite who enjoyed good music in a sophisticated, cosmopolitan world where racial barriers hardly mattered, and music was primarily a pleasing aesthetic experience, where individual sonic definition of each instrument mattered more than a compression of deafening electronics.
Ishan Bahar doesn’t come from a family of professional musicians. But his maternal grandfather, a jailor, was a left-handed violinist. His paternal grandfather was given the title of gate mudaliyar by British Governor Sir Edward Barnes. His father, an English teacher at Zahira College, Colombo, started the country’s first indoor cricket school and captained the Malay cricket team for 27 years. In addition, he was good at tennis and played the piano. The youngest brother, B.J.H. Bahar, was an army major and could sing like Bing Crosby.
His mother, called Mahat, was a singer, too. Ishan’s cousin Naval Lieutenant Shanthi Bahar was the first naval casualty of the civil war when he was killed by a grenade thrown by a female LTTE cadre.
His elder brother as well as both sisters are singers and they have sung together as a family. His son Ricardo Bahar is a professional singer. Shane and Mario, his other sons, engage in other professions, but singing runs in this family. Ishan’s wife Dawn too, is a singer, and so is grandson Mathias Ishan Mario, aged two, whose picture is on the cover of book two of the series.
"Ishan Bahar has really paid a tribute to his fellow musicians by putting together these books. It is a nostalgic musical journey taking us back to the most exciting era of our Western pop music that we are ever likely to see"
Like many of his contemporaries, Ishan Bahar has not really retired. He runs his own advertising agency now and performs whenever possible. Putting together these two books is a major achievement, as they offer a vivid picture of Colombo’s Western pop milieu at its most eclectic, ethnically diverse and brightest, when local pop stars not only ruled the musical roost but turned music into an export item. Performing all over the world, they earned valuable foreign exchange for a cash-strapped country (plus supporting a Sri Lankan recording industry).
Much has happened since Tony Fernando, the Jetliners’ manager, heard Ishan perform at the Fountain Café with Geoff Labrooy in 1961. That music continues to be replayed, but the spirit and even the sounds are different.
That was a time when radio played a big part in the making of musicians, the Sinhala service with its auditioning and the English service with programmes like ‘Breakfast with Nestles.’
The bands themselves had bold, inspired, exotic and sometimes silly names – Claude Selvaratnam and the Esquire Set, the Rhythm Dukes under Rex de Silva, the Fireflies, Ceylon Gems, Soundwaves, The Dizzy Dez Combo, Nitebirds, Helen Menezes Combo, Cass Ziard Quintet, the Spitfires, Amazing Grace, Saybahn & The Tempo, Claude and the Sensations, Cardinal’s Outburst, the all Sindhi band called Dynamites, Ayesha and the Dream Team, Tyronne Pieris and the Cosmic Rays, Shorty and the Tall Boys, The Melody Troubadours, The Red Dragons, Thunderbirds, Banknotes, Speed Jets, Roger & the Webs, The Buggs, Five Sharps and Christine and the Set Up. Many of these bands toured the world, playing at venues ranging from Kabul, Afghanistan, to Pashawar, Pakistan, and Mumbai, India, the Middle East, Hong Kong, Singapore, Papua New Guinea, Western Europe, Australia and even the U.S. The musicians were as diverse. Anton Gunatilleke made his own guitars at age 13 – an acoustic instrument with a biscuit tin, discarded timber and strings from tennis and badminton strings, and an electric guitar using bicycle parts. Trumpeter Eden Pompeus jammed with a trio of Duke Ellington’s sidemen when the ‘Duke’ and his orchestra visited Sri Lanka. Cliff Foenander played with a Hong Kong band and made records under the Liberty label there, including a bestselling version of Sukiyaki, before going to play in the US. Whenever one hears the version by Kyu Sakamoto on one of our nostalgic FM channels, I wonder what happened to Cliff Foenander’s version.
Speed Jets, the country’s first all-girl beat group consisting of Sudharsha, Dharshani ad Manique, achieved great popularity but disbanded at age 18 in 1972 due to parental pressure. The Kandyan-born singing couple Christine and Victor were as well known as Eranga and Priyanga in their heyday. Conrad de Silva of the Spitfires and the Jetliners played a part in the song ‘Dreamworld’ composed by Des Kelly and recorded with the Semitones. It became one of the first Sri Lankan songs to be recorded by the Philips international label (the number of EPs and LPs, as well as cassette tapes of local talent produced in Sri Lanka during this epoch would be another fascinating area of research.
Noeline Honter’s City of Colombo is one such song which seems to have disappeared).
Then there is Nihara Loos, daughter of jazz guitarist Ghazali Amit, and younger artistes such as singer Mariezelle Gunathilake, jazz musician Shobi Perera, and singer and saxophonist Dr. Gananath Dasanayake.
Ishan Bahar has really paid a tribute to his fellow musicians by putting together these books. It is a nostalgic musical journey taking us back to the most exciting era of our Western pop music that we are ever likely to see (This article is open to comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.