The Sunday TimesPlus

27th April 1997



The Man Behind the Voice:

Arun Dias Bandaranaike

Meet the man behind the voice that you hear coming at you from radio, TV and stage. Sonorous, mellifluous, funny, mischievous, anything you want it to be. Of course there's a lot more behind all that. A man who loves his music, he is also a multi talented musician playing piano, trumpet and double bass. Afdhel Aziz talked to him about jazz, radio, the Internet and the freedom principle.....

ArunYou get interviewed on average at least once a year - does it bug you sometimes?

Well, the Sinhalese press is going particularly overboard at the moment, because of this Sinhala TV show I am doing. They already interviewed me four or five times this year and the last time they asked me when did I last get angry ?! I said I don’t really know, I don’t keep a logbook of these things.

What are you reading at the moment ?

I read a lot of magazines like Newsweek, Time, MacUser, Downbeat and other music magazines. But I am also fascinated by biographies and autobiographies at the moment. I have just finished reading Nelson Mandela’s book and it is a fascinating read, full of candour and truth in the way he presents himself. At the moment I am also reading the biography of W.E.B. Dubois.

The black leader .......You are very interested in black culture as a whole aren’t you ?

Yes I am. It dates back to my uncle who used to have spirituals and music on record by the likes of Mary Anderson, Paul Robeson. The particular fascination I have for it now is because I see parallels with our own culture - in how to deal with outside influences for instance . Do you go under and give in , or do you become rebellious - or do you learn to cope with them? It’s all to do with levels of assimilation.

What else do you do in your spare time?

I spend a lot of time on the Internet - but while there are a few sites I check regularly I don’t really consider myself a “surfer”. I like the Impulse Records site, and also the Wire magazine site. Here let me give you the address”. I use email to keep in touch with a lot of people, like Yolande Bawan for instance. I’m trying to get her to come down for some concerts , maybe for the SAARC region.

What are your pet hates while compering ?

I hate it when things are disorganised. When microphones are inaudible or turned up so loud that they scream . Or when no one knows the sequence of events.

How about all those commercials you do - do you think your voice is overused?

I feel so - especially when I have the television set on in the background and I hear my voice again and again, with an identical delivery . I’ve even recommended at times to the production people who do the commercials that I change my approach - I mean, I can sound like a cat or an animal if I want to for instance, I am blessed with that facility. But no they all want the same thing - low down and booming. It does irritate me at times, and I must say I sympathise with those who hear it all the time.

You’ve been in the radio business for over fifteen years now - what are the changes you’ve seen ?

A lot of changes for the worse . Mainly the fact that programming as an art form has suffered. Now it’s all just entertainment pushed at you . During my growing up years radio was big , there were so many different levels to it. Radio for the intellect, for dance , for contemplation. It was done as an expression of craft not as haphazardly as it is done now.

You need large amounts of professional expertise - the problem is that a lot of businessmen run radio nowadays , but just because they have the money doesn’t mean that they have the talent to programme. Radio drama for instance is dead in this country, while in Britain programmes like “The Archers” are still thriving .

Why ?

Because people think that TV is better for that kind of thing . You need more talent and creativity for radio than TV . National Radio(Public Service) has the responsibility to create in the population a knowledge and awareness of the different types of music out there. But they have failed miserably - especially in the context of today.

No ‘enlightening’ programming ( as you might find on Radio 3 or Radio 1 in UK) featuring Talvin Singh, Subramaniam, Stockhausen, Glass or Ellington is ever heard and explained by someone who cares or is knowledgeable in the onward progress of ‘listening’ music - as opposed to the kind of dance/toe tapping/finger snapping/love making/car driving/teeny-bopping hit-factory music that every station plays . None of this ‘listening’ music needs to be presented in the English language, -they don’t in Japan or in Hungary, - for them to be a valid part of the enlightening process. It belongs to the people. But who cares?! That’s the problem.

What needs to be done to improve it ?

There is no framework - to use a stock phrase - there is no infrastructure. It’s a great pity, radio is not offered in any university or polytechnic, the closest you get to it is a journalistic programme. Management needs to take stock and create parameters for performance , they need to bring in professional trainers from outside. Having said that though there is one Tamil announcer I know who is a walking storehouse of knowledge , so much so that he is revered at Radio Netherlands. They recently recalled him back there to train some people and he even spoke as a guest at a conference they had in Brazil. So there are people here who can train radio people , but because this guy doesn’t speak English he is not considered fashionable.

Do you think there is a need for an Organisation of Professional Broadcasters?Back in the old days when the SLBC and SLRC formed a monopoly there was no need, but now with all the new TV and radio stations and so many people joining the industry do you think it’s time for one ?

Yes I do think we need something in the lines of a trade union - even though that’s a frightening phrase for some people. But I’m not talking about something dramatic, just something for broadcasters which makes sure their own interests are cared for.

Jazz is one of the main passions in your life ?

When I was young , we always had music in the home . My uncle was a trained opera singer , my father played the piano and violin, my mother was a concert violinist. But then later on I became aware of another form - not the Elvis or Cliff Richard music that was popular then - but something different . It grabbed me because of the freedom principle behind it. Actually, I take issue with the name ‘Jazz’ itself, which is so inadequate to describe a musical form that is at once so diverse and demanding of its players and takes in a near century of development in vastly different periods of creativity.

Marsalis said it was the ‘classical’ music of today. That is equally damning, because so-called ‘classical’ music today is NOT improvised, much of classical music of the past was also NOT improvised, and ‘classical’ music itself encompasses such a variety of music and genres across continents and cultures, that a narrowing term such as is applied is impossibly inapt. I might settle for ‘Serious Art Music’, or ‘Modern Improvised” instead of jazz. Though I must admit they don’t exactly trip lightly across the tongue !!

In terms of improvisation, are we talking mainly about be-bop here ?

No , swing bands and everything. The personality of Louis Armstrong made a big impression, I saw him in movies and heard him singing . And I admired the way the music came straight from the heart, not from things written down.

But people like Duke Ellington did write orchestrated scores for their bands?

Yes , of course freedom doesn’t preclude organisation. The principle came into play during the improvised sections of the music , when soloists would get up and play. You know, it is interesting that Duke Ellington always did say that he never played Jazz - but he played music. There are only two kinds of music he said, Good and Bad. He maintained that Jazz was a music that came up and died in the decade of the 20’s and was symptomatic of an irresponsible, spoilt, decadence well captured by Scott Fitzgerald’s books.

That had NOTHING to do with the artistic quality and deportment of Ellington’s creative genius. I also like it because the music has never been static. What began as dance music in New Orleans , was developed by people in Chicago. People like Benny Goodman smoothed it out , because it was a little too rough for white audiences, since it was mostly performed for and by African-Americans. Then came swing bands between ’38-’45, and after that came be-bop, for which very complex skills were needed.

Then came “cool”,the Californian reaction to be-bop, Stan Getz and Jerry Mulligan - but then as Willis Connor said “Cool froze and died”. After that was hard bop , which was no pussyfooting around, let’s get some blood into the music - a reaction to all the smooth filigree work before. People like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers .

What is your particular favourite period in jazz ?

I would have to say I’m a bit of a hard bopper myself. But as with any music , there are favourite pieces from every era , milestones that are essential to the development of the music. After all Michaelangelo was essential to Picasso’s development , just like Miles Davis was essential to Chicago and Blood Sweat and Tears. But the last ten years have been very eclectic, very exciting. South Africa for instance, there are a lot of good musicians out there , and in Australia there’s this guy called Dale Barlow - most promising.

The next stage in jazz has to be this world music where everything gets mixed up. I am particularly delighted with what Shakthi and Antony Surendra in particular is trying to do . He’s a very broadminded , wide awake guy and I plan to do a project with him some time in the near future.

You also do write your own musical compositions don’t you ?

Yes , but I rarely perform them in public. There was a radio show on which I used to play them once....but that was a long time ago. Stylistically speaking they sound a bit like Kenny Barron’s stuff. I feel a need to be apart of the musical milieu, and hence keep experimenting with instruments and musical forms to better appreciate the ‘technical’ accomplishment of other players and to hear what they hear. I do not think of myself as a professional musician but as a ‘learner’ and I do have a professional interest in the music I present or talk about.

I also see a great similarity between the improvised Indian/Eastern tradition and this Afro-American Improvised Tradition. That is one of the levels at which I enjoy the music and creative muse. They prevent me from getting into mischief or from descending into the depths of mental depression; one wakes up -literally and metaphorically- and finds aglorious expanse for the imagination opened up for the ‘intellect’

What’s happening to jazz in this country?

The early years of Jazz Unlimited were great but now things have got stale and people just do the same things over and over again . Nobody bothers to rehearse and so every last Sunday becomes really predictable. We lack direction and specialisation. A lot of the jazz musicians in this country are really very good pop musicians who dabble a little in jazz. But that’s not enough . You see the difference when people like Martin Taylor come down here - it’s like chalk and cheese . But the problem is it’s the same thing in places like New York.

I was there some time ago, and I noticed in a local entertainment magazine that one of my favourite pianists Joanne Brackeen was playing in a place called the Knickerbocker Grill , a normal restaurant , not a jazz club . And while I was straining to hear the music over the clatter of the cups and spoons, 95% of people in the audience were just not bothered. Afterwards I went over and spoke to the musicians, amongst them Cecil McBee who is a brilliant bassist. And I said, “Congratulations on playing as well as you do, but with the level of inattentiveness in here you might just as well have been playing the cowbell .” And he smiled and said “Well it’s worth it because of people like you.”

But in a place like New York it is easier to find diehard finds and get them organised than it is here. I strongly feel that there is a role that the media needs to play in writing and reviewing new jazz. There is another aspect - namely the commercializing of the art form to make it appeal to a wider audience and for people to make a lot of money from these people. This is comparable to what George Melachrino or Mantovani did with ‘popular’ classical themes; today it would be Clayderman. But, nobody among the classical aficionados would ever consider that as anything but elevator music .

Yet, Kenny G. and Sanborn do virtually the same watering-down, and receive the highest accolades in the industry; whereas the truly ‘great’ improvising players remain without a recording contract or recognition, drinking themselves to death as a way to cope with their disquiet! What a paradox!!! Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy are no more elevator music players, than were Beethoven and Stravinsky

Are you an egocentric ? You certainly tend to operate on very large canvases.

I’ll tell you something I have grown to believe, that it is something to do with my uncles and aunts , who all used to tell me , you can’t be happy just playing cricket , you must read books and poetry. They used to make us sit down and have discussions and debates at home . So whether they were talking about yellow fever and microbes, you had better damn well listen. Then fifteen years later, when you hear someone talking about it you have the ability to talk knowledgeably about a wide range of subjects.

But that still doesn’t answer the question of whether you are an egocentric?

I think the answer has to do with what drives me - one of the main motivations being economics. But if I had oodles of money and oodles of time, I think I would like to do a lot more theatre . Not because I’m Arun , but because I can be someone else for a change. Not just the mad , mumbling Arun but someone truly different.

Are you interested in directing plays ?

No I am not confident enough to do that . I find other challenges more interesting . Like taking on parts like that don’t involve raising laughs - like the part I played in “Next Time I’ll Sing to You”. . Nirmali Hettiarachi has shown me a script which has the part of a torturer in it - that’s something that interests me.

Are you a very religious person ?

Not religious as much as God fearing. I don’t go to church on Sundays, but I do study the Holy Writ . I think that there is a tremendous faultline in the structure of organised religion - it’s almost become a business.

Are you happy right now ?

Content. Not deliriously happy , content. But I’m never happy unless I keep doing new things. I would like to spend time with the younger people in my family , because I relish passing on knowledge . Just like what happened to me.

What are you going to do next ? Are you going to keep on doing whatever you’re doing now ?

Basically , yes . But only better. I firmly believe in something Mahatma Gandhi said : “He who rests on his laurels is wearing them in the wrong place.”

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