World renowned Sri Lankan jazz legend walks down memory lane By thalif deen NEW YORK – Yolande Bavan, one of Sri Lanka’s renowned jazz vocalists and screen-and-stage actress, recently re-enacted her entire professional life in a mini off-Broadway play – described as a “workshop presentation”—and appropriately titled “Have Sari. Will Travel”! The narrative takes her–beginning [...]

Sunday Times 2

Yolande: I’m nostalgic for my homeland


World renowned Sri Lankan jazz legend walks down memory lane
By thalif deen

Yolande recently re-enacted her entire professional life in a mini off-Broadway “workshop presentation”—titled “Have Sari. Will Travel”

NEW YORK – Yolande Bavan, one of Sri Lanka’s renowned jazz vocalists and screen-and-stage actress, recently re-enacted her entire professional life in a mini off-Broadway play – described as a “workshop presentation”—and appropriately titled “Have Sari. Will Travel”!
The narrative takes her–beginning at age 16–to Australia, Japan, Britain, Canada and finally to the United States, where she achieved the rare distinction of being the first Sri Lankan to play lead roles at a venue which is the ultimate dream of all aspiring American artistes: the Great White Way called Broadway.

Described as a globe-trotting, barrier-breaking jazz singer, Yolande was a protégé of Billie Holiday, one of the legendary figures in the world of jazz, and either shared billing or rubbed shoulders with A-list celebrities, including Sammy Davis Jr., Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin.

Perhaps her biggest break came in 1962 when she was picked–on the recommendation of Sarah Vaughan–to join one of the most famous vocal jazz groups of that time: Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.

She replaced Annie Ross, and played in some of the major music halls and jazz festivals in the US, including the 1962 Newport Jazz Festival, which celebrated its 63rd anniversary this month. The group, later renamed Lambert, Hendricks and Bavan, won scores of awards in a single year, including the Grammy Award for Best Performance by a Vocal Group in 1962.

Described as “visually stunning on stage,” the group comprised a black American, a white American and an Asian woman in a sari—and may well have been a prime example of ethnic and gender diversity in today’s “politically correct” world.

In an interview with the Sunday Times last week, Yolande said the jazz trio was “the thing that put me on the World Stage BIG Time. We continued to win all the awards and I worked 340 days a year, flying all over the place. It also made New York my home.”

Yolande performing in The Real Ambassadors at Jazz at Lincoln Center in April 2014.

She said a memorable meeting with Billie Holiday (“The Lady Sings the Blues”), and the subsequent friendship in the early 1950s, “was perhaps the greatest highlight for me as a person and a possible singer, since she coached me and took so much interest in me. She has deeply affected the way I sing.”

“I still remember what she once told me: “If I had a daughter, I would like her to be like you,” Billie Holiday told Yolande. “And that was one of the memorable moments of my life.”

Yolande’s theatrical track record has been remarkably superlative —as she zoomed across from 136 Greenlands Road in the then-sleepy neighborhood of Havelock Town to the neon lit theatres and playhouses on Broadway and off-Broadway.

She was at the Lincoln Center on Broadway in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” and she was one of the leads in Federico Garcia Lorcas’ “House of Bernarda Alba,” opposite Felicia Rashad.

The role of LUNA was written for her in Walt Disney’s “Snow White” at Radio city Music Hall. She was in Bombay Dreams at the Broadway Theatre, and played the lead in Truman Capote/Harold Arlen’s gorgeous musical “House of Flowers” at the off-Broadway playhouse, the Lucille Lortel Theater.

Marquez, a Spanish-speaking, internationally-known Colombian novelist and short-story writer, was actually allowed into the US just to see a matinee performance and met with the entire cast, who were mostly Latinos. As Yolande, would recount, Marquez thought she was Spanish and was totally surprised when she told him she wasn’t.

Marquez, who won the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature, was not allowed into the US, said Yolande, because he regularly played chess with Fidel Castro, a longtime political nemesis of successive US administrations, at the height of the Cold War.

Yolande’s talent has ranged from jazz and Shakespeare to rock musicals and Hollywood movies. “When I got the part of Lady Macbeth, you should have seen the animosity. There was no one in the production with a brown skin except me. I survived.”

The New York Times drama critic Clive Barnes wrote that Yolande “was an interestingly restrained Lady Macbeth, her envy and fury held down by a will that eventually breaks leading to madness and death.”

In England, she played before the Royal Court Theatre, the Old Vic and the Oxford Playhouse.
Off-stage, she has been one of the best Sri Lankan honorary envoys, promoting her home country in the US. And despite her lofty Western theatrical credentials, she still relishes her spicy rice-and-curry meal, and is a frequent visitor to virtually all the Sri Lankan restaurants in New York City.

Yolande, 75, also starred in several Hollywood movies, including “The 13th Warrior” (1999), “The Brave One” (2007) and “The Accidental Husband” (2008).But, unlike on Broadway, she wasn’t the first Sri Lankan in Hollywood because that distinction went to Maureen Hingert, 80, who was elected Miss Ceylon in 1955 and was one of the runners up in the 1955 Miss Universe contest in Long Beach, California.

Maureen, who hailed from St Lawrence Road Bambalapitya, appeared in several movies, including “The King and I”, “Fort Bowie”, “Gun Fever”, “Pillars of the Sky”, “Dangerous Search” and “Gunman from Laredo”. She also took the stage name Jana Devi.Maureen and Yolande had one thing in common: they both attended Holy Family Convent in Bambalapitya, with Yolande also having later attended Good Shepherd Convent in Kotahena and St Paul’s Milagiriya.

The recent workshop presentation was probably a curtain-raiser to a future full-fledged production of Yolande’s life story—perhaps on or off-Broadway. Deepa Purohit, who wrote the script for “Have Sari. Will Travel!” which was produced by Rising Circle, told the Sunday Times a proposed production is a work in progress: “I am still writing to prepare it for a possible production ideally down the line in the next year or so.”

With Billie Holiday at the Lyttleton Club, London

She said Yolande’s story is really interesting and “the reason I’m drawn to it is because, number one, when she was doing readings and things for me, she was in her 70s playing all the mom roles in my plays. She started to tell me about her life and I was like, who’s going to tell her story?”

“She’s been around some really famous people – she was a protege of Billie Holiday’s, she knew Sarah Vaughan and Joe Williams, these big people – and in the jazz circles some people know her name but beyond that not really, and in the Sri Lankan world, definitely, she’s gone back and given concerts and things and I thought, I’m going to tell her story. But it’s not going to be a bio-play, it’s gonna be something cooler.”

Deepa said all these women who were in school with Yolande were getting married, cooking curries and having kids, and that wasn’t her. “So there’s a real trailblazer aspect to her and her story and I stand on her shoulders. So many of us do. And there are lots of people like her but this story is unheard,” she added.

As she went down memory lane, Yolande said the first highlight in her career was winning the Royal Academy of Music examinations when she was 4 and until 9 when her parents divorced, thereby putting an end to her ambition to be a concert pianist, like her mother who had been her teacher from the time she was 3 years old.

“I realise how blessed I was lying in my mum’s womb being awash with Chopin, Liszt, and Schumann,” said Yolande, whose maiden name is Wolff and took on the stage name of Bavan when she was in London.

Winning the Amateur Hour programme (at the then Radio Ceylon), produced by two Australians, Clifford Dodd and Graham Evans, she entered as a singer not as a pianist– and won—resulting in Graham Evans giving Yolande her own Radio Show at age 15, called “Swingtime”
Graham Evans then sponsored her trip to Australia where “I did not know a soul until Peter Wille introduced me to Australia’s leading jazz musician Graeme Bell who decided to manage me–and that was at age 16 when my real singing career began.”

“Going to England, meeting jazz luminaries, singing at age 21, I was cast as the lead in a BBC TV play for which I got really good reviews, and then my acting career took off doing theatre and TV with Waris Hussein casting me as Cleopatra in Bernard Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra” at the Duchess Theatre in the West End, and playing Hippolyta in Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Royal Court, with a star studded cast, and directed by Tony Richardson.”

Since her days with the jazz trio, “everything has changed, and change is the only sure thing in Life. Music has changed and continues to change but I can’t think of it in terms of regression. It will always return to its roots and gather more information which then propels it forward with the times, and the expansion of each musician’s personal experiences and awareness, but the blues will always be.”

She said she has lived in New York for 54 years—“and almost every day I am nostalgic for my homeland. I feel privileged to have been born there, and wish that I could return every year for three weeks. However, I would have no place to stay. My sisters live in England; one of them has a flat in Colombo and they go around Christmas and return early April to avoid the English winter. I really yearn to be able to do that.”

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