You’ve either seen him perform, or you haven’t. If you have, there’s no way you could forget him. A tumultuous fusion of fire, calm, innocence, rebellion, spirituality and chaos - Pabalu Wijegoonawardane is quite the ‘silent force’ to contend with.
Having recently released a new album, his third Dance Drama currently a work in progress, and having just returned after completing a Fulbright Scholarship in the USA, we can now begin to unravel the mystery behind this Music Man.
“My earliest musical influence was my Amma - Swarna Mihiripenna, as it was she who nurtured my talents and encouraged me to pursue them. I come from a family of artistes and performers, so it didn’t come as much of a surprise that I followed suit. I guess you could say it’s in my genes,” he said modestly.
Pabalu’s musical background ranges from leading the St. Joseph’s College Hewisi Band, to being a member of multiple rock, fusion and percussion bands. His academic pursuits too display a similar variety, having obtained Diplomas in multiple fields, including Tabla, Kathak, Kathakali, Chennda and Thimila, awarded from Universities both in India and at home, and a degree in Mudranatya and Nartana Praveena Upadhi from the Deepasikha National Theatre, Sri Lanka.
Having recently returned from the Fulbright Commission’s ‘Visiting Scholar Award’, which is affiliated to the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and its Ethnomusicology Department, where he researched on ‘Comparative study on world percussion and their metaphysical aspects,’ he tells us a bit more about his experience there. Whilst in the US, he focused mostly on Native American, African, Cuban and Brazilian traditions. Although his research title highlighted percussion, his main intent was to study all about the ritualistic traditions of these different cultures, as somewhere down the line, drums always tend to appear on the scene, he points out.
“I was in San Francisco researching African Voodoo rituals and drums, when I visited the homes of one of the leading performers to see how the rituals were conducted and observe some of the classes. It’s so crazy because most of the classes have more than 50 dance students and 20 drummers practising daily. It took some time for me to adjust to this overwhelming experience and actually focus on my work, as I kept getting distracted. The most amazing person I met there was a Shaman who had a few degrees in various subjects that had nothing to do with the arts, and even a PhD in Bio Engineering! He was a chief or king of his tribe which belonged to the Black Mamba tribe in Africa. The more I researched their culture and rituals, the more I learnt about all the suffering they had to go through, and even an imposition of a tax on the playing of drums,” he said intensely.
He had the chance to play with a very talented Brazilian drummer, Mario Palais as well, who happened to be an official endorser of the Remo Music Company. They had exchanged many ideas and “it was quite amazing to witness how two human beings from opposite ends of the world, not sharing similar backgrounds, can just meet, and speak the same language, through music,” related Pabalu.
“Brazilian dance is not just about shaking your body. Their ritualistic performances have a rich and beautiful spectrum of varied styles. Of the two main Afro-Brazilian religious traditions being Umbanda and Candomble, I was mostly exposed to the Umbanda tradition. So much so, that I even played Lankan drums for some of their ritualistic performances. Although I must say that the energy field you step into, and the metaphysical experience that I had, had no labels such as Brazilian or Sri Lankan. I felt that it was all a manifestation of the same higher energy forms that we get in contact with, irrespective of whether it’s a Sri Lankan Thovil or Afro-Brazilian healing ritual. There may be many rivers, but when they meet the ocean, they all taste the same,” he reminisced.
Another project in the pipeline is the making of the third of his Dance Dramas, “The Monkey King- Journey to the West,” which follows his hit debut production Iris, produced when he was just 23, and Maha Ravana when he was 27. “Producing Dance Dramas is for me, like fulfilling a basic need. I don’t know why, but maybe because this sort of initiative is kind of the ultimate creative output, as I not only handle the direction, but also the music and choreography. It quenches all my creative needs as it were,” he said while laughing.
“This time, I’d like to do something very different from my usual style of themes. I am planning to do a production based on one of the four great novels in Chinese literature, originally published anonymously in the 1590s during the Ming Dynasty. However, the production is still in its early stages, so I welcome any dancers and martial art specialists to feel free to sign up,” he added.
His most recent work locally, was the release of an audio album, which was a personal production, requested for by M-Entertainment, titled “Sounds of the Silent Odyssey.” The style of music was “Organic Ambient,” essentially used therapeutically, for relaxation and theatre workshops. “This type of music takes you on a journey within, as it mostly goes well with the thinking, and lifestyles of the new age. Sarani Perera, my brother from Thriloka, helped me a lot in this project. There are 10 tracks in this CD, and each track has a detailed description in the Booklet, so the listener has a guide whilst travelling through the music. Cindy Lynn, a PhD holder in Metaphysical Sciences wrote the descriptions for each track, thus making the project more meaningful,” elaborated Pabalu.
Furthermore, in relation to Thriloka, the trendsetter fusion band he’s a part of, “I think the future is quite good for our type of music now. It was pretty hard in the beginning, but as more and more people get exposed to the world of culture, the more demand there will be for fusion music. The day has not come as yet, but it will come in time,” said Pabalu confidently.
As for how the local music scene can be developed and taken forward, “Firstly, we need to return to where we stopped, and start all over again, instead of just swallowing up anything and everything the West and India decide to feed us. As I see it, the only solution is to rediscover our roots, and get well rooted in who we are. The more deep rooted a tree is, the better chance it can reach the sky. If not, even the slightest wind could uproot it. Uprooted is what we are now,” he philosophised.
“We need to emphasise the necessity and importance of local arts, from the time we’re in school itself. Yes, of course kids need Maths, but they also need to develop a taste for the arts. Why is it that the arts are given such ‘step-motherly’ treatment, especially, as this is the sole subject that can create a link between a child and his soul. Don’t you think this is important? Don’t you think we are in dire need of a spiritually stronger future generation to save this mother planet? In fact, the arts are the only universal language that can cross any boundary via the equator,” he concluded wistfully.