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2nd January 2000

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Music of the century

Will it be the 'evergreens' that survive in the new millennium, asks Feizal Samath

About 10 years ago, while attending a conference in the Indian city of Goa on the west coast, I was surprised to hear a Goan band playing a well-known Sri Lankan Baila song.

The music was so enthralling, particularly because it reminded me of home that I got together with some of my Indian colleagues there and sang some sing-a-long songs on the beach of a Goan hotel.

Recently - about three years back while living in Bombay for a while - I was again surprised when some colleagues of my wife, who worked in a newspaper there, sang, jived and danced to the strains of "Malu, Malu ... Suranganee ..." during a house party.

Indeed, like the influences from other communities here, Goans have had a big hand in Sri Lankan (then Ceylonese) music over the years with many bands coming overseas to play for our colonial British masters.

Again that probably was due to the advent of Portuguese rule both in India and Sri Lanka. It was the Portuguese who introduced Kaffringa music and Baila is an offshoot of that musical generation.

This however is not the story of Goan or Portuguese music in Sri Lanka but a look at music over the years, the different phases of music and what kind of musical preferences are in store for Sri Lanka's western music industry in the new millennium.

It is also a peek at how local bands and artistes playing a mix of pop, jazz, rock, country and classics have evolved over the years.

The Sunday Times spoke to a mix of musicians and listeners from the 1940s, 1950s, 1970s and 1990s generation and surprisingly there appeared to be some consensus over the kind of evergreen music that would emerge in the next century and in the immediate future, 20 to 30 years down the road from now.

Many - I am talking of a cross section of people from the 1940s to the 1990s generations - say their evergreen songs are more likely to be the music of John Lennon or the Beatles, Elvis Presley or even Simon & Garfunkel - the 1970s duo that tugged at the hearts of many Americans, and many others in the world, with hits like Mrs. Robinson and Bridge over Troubled Waters.

Now I may not be 100 percent accurate on this score but one gets this impression particularly from youngsters like journalist Wathsala Mendis whose preference, in the years to come, may not be the teenybopper music of Boyzone or Back Street Boys.

"I would probably prefer the music of John Lennon or maybe Bette Midler (a 1970s/1980s musician)," she said.

Miss Mendis, however, said her current preference was light rock bands like Goo Goo Dolls and noted that these would be also be her eternal favourites.

The musician-father of a teenager said that his daughter while being a devout Back Street Boys fan also enjoyed the music of Simon & Garfunkel. "She is not influenced by the music that I play because my family have their own preferences. But I was surprised that in this day and age, she also enjoyed the music of Simon & Garfunkel," said Anton Gunatillake, one of Sri Lanka's veteran musicians.

There is another theory about the now music - that of the Spice Girls or Back Street Boys or you name it. All youngsters may not agree but some teenagers believe this music is a passing fad - it stays on your mind for a couple of months and then you move on to other music or newer songs by the same bands. This may not be the stuff that evergreen, pop classics or eternal favourites are made of.

So who knows, folks, when my generation - that is those born in the 1950s and the 1960s - if we live for another 30-40 years, may still have television stations, radio channels or local musicians playing on-and-off the music of Elvis, John Denver, Bob Dylan, Bon Jovi or Simon & Garfunkel.

That's one part of this story - the other part is about the evolution of local bands and musicians over the past 50 years and where these veterans see the local western industry placing itself in the new century.

Recalls Clare Croner, perhaps among the oldest of surviving musicians today like pianist Jimmy Manual:

"I remember the days before independence when we used to play different kinds of music catering to the English, the Scots, the Irish and the Welsh and each community was very particular about their music. For instance the English wanted only English music."

Croner, who played with the Mario Mandriks band or orchestra and later formed his own combo (a small jazz or dance band), said that those were the days when music was very sentimental, sing-a-long with a lot of rugby songs.

"There is a distinct difference from the 1940s and 1950s music that we played - it was light, enjoyable, the lyrics could be understood and not too noisy, unlike the music of today. Musicians were also more competent and could cater to a wide range of tastes and respond to any request from the crowd," Croner, who at 73 years, still plays in the Oberoi hotel lobby as a pianist and also with his own combo.

Peter Prins, another grand old musician who has his own combo named after him, believes wind instruments are on the way out with synchronisers and digital music taking over present-day musical preferences.

"There are very few wind instruments around today in bands. The trombone and clarinet have certainly gone out of vogue while the saxophone and trumpet are still being popularized by only a few musicians these days like Sam the Man or Harold Seneviratne," said Prins

Synchronised or computerized music is a negative phase of the now generation, believes Prins noting that one doesn't need to be a genuine musician or a musical genius to play now music.

"You can always play at a hotel lobby with programmed music or backing tracks, some of which may even have been programmed by someone else. It is not original music," he said.

Prins, like many other musicians The Sunday Times spoke to, reckons the music industry has also gone through a difficult phase in the past 10 to 20 years.

There are few western bands around. Even if there were many bands, there is little work to be shared by those in the industry particularly due to recession and the ethnic conflict, which have affected the hotel industry badly.

Hotels or clubs that normally hired bands in the 1960s or the 1970s now preferred duos or trios, which is another international phenomena, followed here for economic reasons.

Hotels and clubs, with a few exceptions, say bands cost them more in terms of hiring a group and also providing them meals. "A full combo is completely out of the question in the present day context. A band is an option we may use but duos or trios are certainly within our budget as it is affordable," said a local hotel manager.

Yet there are still a few hotels which prefer bands like the Cosmic Rays or Summerset - to name a few - who are featured in hotel lobbies. But overall the accent is now on duos and trios music.

In fact many musicians have left bands and set themselves up as one-man bands, duos or trios like Anton Gunatillake, the former leader of Jade, whose trio "Familiar Faces", plays at city hotels and outstation resorts.

Tyronne Peiris, leader of the Cosmic Rays who started his musical career in the 1970s, reckons that when his generation of musicians fades away from the scene, there may not be western bands around.

"This is something I hope would not happen - but the worrying thought is that western bands in Sri Lanka would be extinct in another 30 years time with only duos and trios and DJ music being the done thing," he said.

"At various dances that we play, the Cosmic Rays have to cater to different generations. The over 30s prefer the waltz, jazz or rumba while the under 30s want something fast like rap, rock, reggae or disco," he said.

Most musical veterans agree that the now music is meaningless and a concoction of boom ... boom ... boom ... sounds, but they also agree that if that is what this generation wants, they should have it.

"It is unfair for us to sit back and say our generation of music was the best while our parents say their generation of music is the best. Our kids would scoff at that and say the music they are tuned into is the best. In essence it is what a generation lives through that influences one's musical preferences," said a 1960s pianist.

Guitarist Gunatillake (Familiar Faces) said his musical influences came during the 1960s era of rock and roll, the Beatles, the Shadows and the Ventures, Beatle boots and jeans.

"My peers in the music scene then used to talk about musicians like Papa Menezes and Mario Mandricks (both of whom were of Goan descent) or Tony Felize. That was the era of ballroom dancing and musicians of my vintage cut our teeth during that era," he said.

The generation after that, recalled Gunatillake, were the Harold Seneviratnes, Sam the Mans, Peter Prins', Sayban Samats, Sohan Weerasinghes and so on. It was the era of accoustic guitars, wind instruments, double bass, pianos and drums.

It was the Jetliners, now defunct after many years in Hong Kong that revolutionized the electric guitar concept in Sri Lanka in the 1960s along with Savage and Raj Seneviratne.

Then came the Spitfires, and Fireflies until Woodstock - the famous rock festival in the late 1960s - saw the advent of the underground generation, drugs, hippies, long hair and jeans that became vogue amongst teenagers in Colombo.

Kumar Navaratnam was probably the rock icon for Colombo's rockers and in that generation we have musicians like Nimal Gunawardene, no more the jeans rocker but a highly-respected advertising industry guru and Jehan Rajapakse of that vintage who is in the Rajapakse clan of specialist opticians.

That was also the flower generation and protest songs like Bob Dylan's Blowing in the Wind or Joan Baez's lyrics criticizing US involvement in the Vietnam conflict.

"Where have all the flowers gone" by US singer Pete Seeger was another favourite amongst Sri Lankan fans but these songs, did not mean anything here other than being good sentimental songs with good music.

"We used to sing these songs but the words had no meaning here because they were all to do with protests against wars and conflict that were happening elsewhere and didn't relate to Sri Lanka. They were of course beautiful songs, and eternal favourites for other reasons," said Gunatillake.

While pop music is regarded as the music of the young generation - in whichever era -specialized music like jazz, rock and country has its nice little niche markets in Sri Lanka.

Among these perhaps jazz is the most vibrant where regular jam sessions are held monthly by a band of dedicated enthusiasts spearheaded by music journalist Mahes Perera. The recent increase in the number of foreign jazz bands playing at various hotel concerts and at local jam sessions is evidence that jazz in Sri Lanka will be alive at least well into the next century.

Rock music also has its flag bearers like Tilak Dias, Prassanna Abeysekera and many others. The rock scene has been kept alive by regular concerts by bands like Rattlesnake and others and chances are that this form of music would also be popular in the new century.

Perhaps country or folk music of American origin is one of the most misunderstood forms of music in Sri Lanka. Many among the present generation may not realize that singers like Jim Reeves, Elvis Presley, Simon & Garfunkel or even the Eagles sang songs which are a mix of rock and folk but mostly of country origin.

The flag of country and folk music is carried locally by organizations like the Country Music Foundation and bands and artistes like Cosmic Rays, Husni Suresh & DK (who are probably the best known Sri Lanka folk singers of the century gone by), Thilan Wijesinghe, Red Sands, Mariazelle, Michael Sansoni and the Hezonites (who perform in the hills of Kandy) and many others.

I am a country music buff myself, and I can assure that - going by the growing sales of country music cassettes and CDs at local music shops - this is another music form that would remain in Sri Lanka throughout the next century.

So as we welcome the new century, those of my generation and before could rest assured that the evergreen songs of these generations would probably continue as evergreens, pop classics or whatever in the next millennium too.

On the other hand a disappointing feature would be that four-piece and six-piece bands would become extinct.

A final word - musicians are very touchy if their names are not mentioned when talking of generations gone by. If I have missed out on some of the veterans in the business, then my apologies. It was unintentional and maybe my memories are limited. This article is dedicated to all musicians, not a few.

But before I complete reflecting on the thoughts of music of the future, present and a bygone era, a parting comment made by a senior musician seems to be a valid thought for the future.

"I think with the influx of digital music and this music being available in one's homes and personal computers, there may be a time when people would want to come to hotel lobbies or clubs to listen to real accoustic sounds, and who knows guitars and drums may be in vogue again."

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