Jeered for their style of attire as they entered the local music scene with their unique style of Sinhala pop 50 years ago, the La Ceylonians were unlikely trend-setters. Here the band’s founder Noel Brian Ranasinghe recalls the music scene back then with Feizal Samath When the La Ceylonians first got on stage some 50 [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Songs and sarongs: The birth of Lankan calypso


Jeered for their style of attire as they entered the local music scene with their unique style of Sinhala pop 50 years ago, the La Ceylonians were unlikely trend-setters. Here the band’s founder Noel Brian Ranasinghe recalls the music scene back then with Feizal Samath

When the La Ceylonians first got on stage some 50 years ago with their strange and, to many, ‘laughable’ outfits, they were greeted with boos, catcalls and jeers.

Dressed in sarongs, waistbands, garlands, short sleeved batik shirts, straw hats and barefoot, there were shouts of “ado Taxi Karayas, Rasthiyadu Karayas, Malu Karayas”, recalls Noel Brian Ranasinghe, founder and mentor of the band.

The way they were: (Noel (centre) with his band

“Yanda… yanda … gedara yanda,” said Noel, laughingly describing the catcalls that accompanied their first moments on a public platform in what was seen as a ‘ridiculous’ outfit. Fifty years later, as the band marks its golden jubilee on May 9 having set a trend, a culture of music and distinctive rhythm, there is no special celebration for its four members, who (together) have been around for over a decade. Noel, Ranil Ferdinando, Kithsiri Fernando and Anura Liyanage will be either at work, playing solo at a southern hotel or at home relaxing with the family. Noel, however, says he will celebrate the event, a few days later (this week), playing his banjo at another public show that has no connection with 50 years of the La Ceylonians.

Priya Peiris, veteran musician from La Bambas, another outfit from that genre of music, says many bands at the time were inspired by Noel and the La Ceylonians. “The sarong and barefoot concept was new and innovative. It was radical and I recall Colombo 7 socialites calling us ‘Godayas’, Priya told the Sunday Times. The La Bambas is best known for the hit “Nuwara Menikhala’.

The La Ceylonians emerged during an era where there was no Sinhala pop or a distinctive Sinhala beat. It was a period of raw box guitars, maracas and congo drums.

Ironically for a band that was hooted as ‘Malu Karayas’, the outfit’s first and trademark hit was ‘Hoiya, Hoiya’, about the lives of fishermen. That followed with ‘Hodi hellai, hellai yaa’, also about fishermen and ‘Tharuna Jeevitha Ape Vinodayai…’ reflecting the lives of young people composed by Noel after the popular hit ‘Young Ones’ by British singer Cliff Richard.

Noel has composed some 300+ songs but all in English, which were then translated by friends and colleagues. “I can’t write a word of Sinhala,” he confessed relaxing in his simple home at Pagoda Road, Nugegoda surrounded by memorabilia, guitars, banjos and, what he calls, a GUYRO – a 12-inch piece of wood with holes carved to give a screeching sound when a pencil–like stick is gently moved up and down. The band’s instruments comprised a box guitar, the long-necked congo drum and maracas made out of a powder tin and filled with sea sand, ‘mung-atta’ and ‘madati-a-atta’ seeds. Other innovative instruments of that genre were two spoons turned upside down, held together and smacked between palm and thigh in an-up-down movement to give a distinctive sound, and the tea chest bass used by skiffle bands. Those were the days, my friend!

Veteran Sun/Weekend journalist Louis Benedict, still a vibrant journalist today, dubbed the La Ceylonians “the barefooted singers” while the band’s first entry into the hotel circuit was at the Mount Lavinia Hyatt (now Mount Lavinia Hotel) where its General Manager Robert Mcfadden wanted the trio to move from table to table. That was the birth of the Sri Lankan calypso.

“Malee … Ruwan Malee” and “Dahaduka Vindala” were two other songs that made the La Ceylonians popular. I was trying to recall the second number, having grown up in that generation, when Noel helped out, picking up his guitar and in his own inimitable style strumming the song … his fingers effortlessly moving across the fret board. Singing is not easy for the 72-year-old veteran musician, after he suffered a stroke though he occasionally plays the banjo and guitar. The band’s last, rather short outing was at the recent April 3 launch of writer Shelton Premaratne’s book on “Neville (Fernando of Los Caballeros fame) and Noel (La Ceylonians)”.

The golden voice of another legendary singer Milton Mallawarachchi was guided by Noel when the former was a member of the La Ceylonians.

Annesley Malawana, veteran singer and co-founder of the Moonstones with the dynamic Clarence Wijewardena in 1965 (they would also be celebrating 50 years in 2015), spoke of Noel’s generosity and support for other musicians.

“Neville was more into Spanish music while Noel was into vocal harmony. That was the turning point in group songs. Noel helped many people including us. Once when Noel had three recordings with the Phillips (record) label, he introduced us to the company and offered the third recording to us,” said Annesley. Seizing the opportunity, the Moonstones recorded ‘Mango Nanda’ turning it into a bestseller.

International recognition: At the World Song Festival in Tokyo in 1976

While Noel stirred the local music scene with his sarong-and-barefoot attire, Clarence ‘electrocuted’ the scene introducing electric guitars and drums following the popularity of British band, the Shadows, creating waves in Europe.

The La Ceylonians and the Moonstones also helped set up the ‘Songs of Lanka Club” when this new form of vocal harmony was frowned upon by some officials at Radio Ceylon and banned from the airways. “It was known as ‘Thuppai Sangeetha’ until Vijaya Corea gave us airplay and encouraged us on the station’s English service,” recalled Annesley.

Noel’s daughter remembers how the house was filled with excitement when the band rehearsed. “It was amazing to watch how he used to give advice to his boys and how they performed,” recalled Nelum Waidyaratne who is domiciled in Australia.

She said her father worked at British firm Collettes by day and performed at night, hardly having time to relax. “He is a warrior, a fighter where injustice is concerned,” she said in an email communication.

While technology controls today’s musicians, Noel recalls an amusing incident during power cuts in the 1970s when the La Ceylonians and the Jetliners were the house bands at the Hotel Intercontinental (now Kingsbury). “We played under candlelight with our acoustic instruments. I remember Tony Fernando, manager of the Jetliners pleading with us to play on till 9 p.m. when the power came on and they could use electric guitars,” he said.

Among the crowning moments of the band was winning the semi-finals of the World Song Festival in Tokyo in 1976, competing with 1780 entries from 57 countries, and going into the finals with 23 others contestants. Another memorable occasion was playing on board an Air Lanka flight piloted by its chairman, Capt. S. Rakkhita Wikramanayake.

Malcolm Andree, music promoter of the 1970s, says the La Ceylonians and Noel were pioneers of a music generation. “That music still lasts and at the recent Jetliners show which was outstanding … people were dancing in the seats,” he said, reflecting with disappointment on today’s music where electronic sound and miming artistes call the shots.

Noel shares the same thoughts. “Today’s bands are slaves to electronic sounds. No skills or innovation whatsoever,” he says.

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