Duvindi Illankoon talks to the man behind Country Roads, Feizal Samath, who started it off in 1988 as a one-off concert. But 25 years on he says his work is not yet done In 1988, when veteran journalist Feizal Samath, then working for international news agency Reuters covered the war-torn areas of the North and [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

An amazing journey of music and charity


Duvindi Illankoon talks to the man behind Country Roads, Feizal Samath, who started it off in 1988 as a one-off concert. But 25 years on he says his work is not yet done

In 1988, when veteran journalist Feizal Samath, then working for international news agency Reuters covered the war-torn areas of the North and the East, his by-line appeared in publications across the world. Yet no matter what he wrote and where he went, the nagging feeling which he soon realised was a guilty conscience was ever present.

Feizal Samath: Strumming his guitar for a cause

“I got a great by-line out of my visits to the camps housing women and children,” he remembers. “When I went back a few months later my life had already changed. But theirs-it was the same. The kids were on the roads playing cricket and people were still struggling to make ends meet.” It was then that he decided to do something about it, and as he adds with brutal honesty make it “a one-off thing to feel good about myself and forget.”

The remedy came in the form of country music, something that both Feizal and cousin Jury Majid had grown up with. The Country Music Foundation (CMF) was set up, and their first fundraiser ‘Country Road’ was held at the Trans Asia in October ‘88. “Country Road was a suggestion by advertising legend Herman Gunasekara who said that the name could have many connotations.” The first concert raised Rs.30,000 which was donated to the Ministry of Rehabilitation.

Twenty five years later that ‘one-off concert’ is about to celebrate a silver jubilee on February 17 at the Hilton Colombo. Over the past 25 years Country Roads has led Feizal, Jury and their benefactors all over the island; from Puttalam to Medawachchiya, Anuradhapura, Monaragala, Vavuniya, Jaffna and occasionally back to Colombo itself. But if there’s one thing that hasn’t changed it’s the basic premise of the concert- music for children.

That first concert in ’88 marked the beginning of something wonderful. A UNICEF official present at the event was keen on supporting the concept, and for several years after Country Roads partnered with UNICEF and also with Save the Children. “We’ve only worked with UNICEF and Save the Children because it feels like we’re all on the same page,” explains Feizal.

The many projects they’ve done over the years have one thing in common-sustainability. Be it building pre-schools in Vavuniya or tube wells in Medawachchiya or providing 1500 mosquito nets for young children in partnership with Sarvodaya, they’ve picked some unconventional causes that have had a direct impact on the children’s lives.

They’ve learnt a thing or two about charity themselves as well. Feizal was at the opening of a pre-school in Vavuniya (one of three CMF had helped construct), when a village official casually mentioned that the school would unfortunately have no teachers from the month after the volunteer teachers from the village left for their city jobs. “It was a shock to realise that the project would be in vain,” recalls Feizal. “Jury and I learnt something that day. If you’re going to do charity, cover all areas from A-Z. We were lucky enough to have a company offer to sponsor a teacher to work with the children, but had we not been told about the need for it we would’ve gone back to Colombo and the building would have rotted away.”

Family fun: An earlier Country Roads concert at the DBU and far right, UK singer Astrid Brook who will be at Country Roads this year too

Nothing will beat the sense of fulfilment in seeing a child find your assistance of value, he adds. In 2006, they partnered with the Million Nets for Children project initiated by Sarvodaya and donated 1500 mosquito nets to needy children in Monaragala. “After the event we were driving back home and I remember seeing a child and his mother walking alongside; they were holding the net and every few yards they’d stop to open it and smile over it. Things that are so trivial to people like us can mean a lot to these children.”

“Somewhere in the 90’s, we used to have this white box for donations at the concert. One year with the rush of organising both Jury and I completely forgot about it. We didn’t think of it until a frail old lady came up to us at the concert and asked where the white box for donations was. It was a pleasant shock to realise that people genuinely cared and that it wasn’t just about the music.”

Over the past 25 years, both organisers have grown older and wiser (‘we like to think so!’), and each year it gets a little harder to take on the momentous task of organising the event. “I have begged, pleaded and borrowed to do this concert,” smiles Feizal ruefully. “It’s impossible to do a fundraiser without putting yourselves at another person’s mercy. Over the years, it was only possible for us to raise the funds we’ve done because of some very generous corporate and individual donations. Be it ticket fare for the international artists, accommodation and even contributions to the fund itself that extra mileage has really helped.”

It’s a hundred percent volunteer effort that can sometimes take its toll on the two organisers and their families, but that has never stopped them from sprinting the extra mile. “There are times when my body clock tells me to stop pushing so hard,” Feizal is thoughtful as he glances at a picture of Bob Livingston, (featured on our cover), a Texas performer singing and dancing with some children at a tsunami camp at Panadura they raised funds for. “On the other hand my conscience says your work is not yet over.” With Country Roads, we’ve found a fusion of music and charity that works; it’s been an amazing journey.”

Country Roads will be held on February 17 from 6.30 p.m. onwards at the Hilton Colombo Grand Ballroom. This year the concert will raise funds for a joint government-UNICEF project to build three juvenile courthouses for children.
Tickets priced at Rs.750, Rs.1000 and Rs. 1500 are available at the Cargills Food City outlets at Rajagiriya, Nawala, Staples Street, Majestic City, Kirulapone and Mount Lavinia.

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