Country Roads: Three-decade saga of helping children through music
It was in 1988 that Feizal Samath, then a journalist for Reuters, travelling to a Trincomalee refugee camp was moved by the fate of children and women in war-torn areas.
“I thought ‘I am writing these stories – I get a nice byline, but beyond that, if I go the next week, or the week after, their lives remain the same’.”
Thus the idea surfaced of a one-off country music concert in aid of these little children with tear-stained cheeks.
“I grew up to the music of John Denver, Jim Reeves and Hank Williams,” muses Feizal. He used to be the guitarist at home parties.
What began then, as a gig at the Trans Asia Hotel, is today an annual event much awaited by fans – for a classic sundown with those country and western songs – aptly called Country Roads.
At that first concert the proceeds, the then princely sum of Rs. 30,000 were promptly handed over to an orphanage run by the Ministry of Rehabilitation.
Such was the success of that first concert that Country Roads became an annual effort that took Feizal and the team of volunteers of the Country Music Foundation (CMF)through many a dusty village track. In those early years when UNICEF was their partner, they would travel to Jaffna, Ampara, Moneragala, Hambantota, Puttalam, overseeing the projects they were helping, most related to women and children.
Back then, ticket prices started from Rs. 50 (the swankiest seats came at Rs. 125!).
Amidst pet projects for Feizal was donating 1,500 mosquito nets to children in the Moneragala District and building preschools in LTTE controlled areas — one each in a Muslim village, a Tamil village and a Sinhala village in Vavuniya.
At the Tamil village the principal had a tale of woe. “He said, ‘this building is nice; but we don’t have a proper teacher. Because teachers are volunteering and when they get a job, they move out. There’s no permanent teacher’.”
So Feizal roped in a leading corporate – Ceylinco, into paying for a teacher for a year.
Such anecdotes abound in the CMF’s three and a half decade saga. Many are the instances when they brought the corporate sector and NGOs closer to children – and not just needy children.
For instance, for the 25th annual concert, the CMF raised Rs. 1 million for UNICEF to set up child-friendly courts, where children can give evidence online.
In 2014 they donated Rs. 500,000 to Save the Children for the benefit of plantation children.
The tale of two wells, when they found that the tube wells they built in Sinhala and Tamil (the latter in an LTTE area) villages were, five years later, still the main source of water for villagers, was touching.
They were also involved in getting identity cards for the nomadic Ahikuntaka community (the ‘gypsies’ of yore).
Heading to the north and east was not easy till 2009, but partnership with UNICEF meant they could tread where other ministering angels could not.
The low-key post-tsunami concert in January 2005, with lots of foreign musicians volunteering, helped build small libraries in all the afflicted areas.
This year, the concert moves from a banquet hall setting in a plush hotel to a rooftop restaurant. Country Roads is this year at the Virticle by Jetwing (on the 30th floor of the Access Towers building in Union Place, Colombo 2) with its vantage view of Colombo albeit with theatre-style seating as usual.
There at dusk will your cherished repertoire await with performers from overseas also making a special trip for a cause close to their hearts – ‘country girl’ Astrid Brook from the UK and the Mavericks from Germany. There will also be Feizal himself playing the guitar with Country Roads veteran Jury in the Country Revival Band and the ever-popular Cosmic Rays.
This year’s partners are Sri Lankan Airlines, Jetwing Colombo Seven, Cargills, LOLC and Firefly.
Be there on Saturday, October 7, invites Feizal and the Country Music Foundation, to go down those country roads to shimmering “Shenandoah River and Mountain Mamma”. Tickets are available, for a charitable donation of Rs. 2000 each, at Cargills Food City outlets at Kirulapone, Kohuwela (Bernards), Majestic City, Mount Lavinia (junction) and Staples Street.
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