Friday, September 23, 2011

Of A Man Who 'Sees' No End

His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” John 2: 2-3 (NIV)

These words from the Bible constantly inspired Margaret, mother of Don Patrick Mervin Weerakkody to be positive about her youngest son’s blindness. Though he could perceive light and make out obstacles at birth, his sight deteriorated fast and left Patrick, more popularly known as Wimal completely blind. “It was like her slogan” he chuckles as he recalls his childhood. Margaret and Wimal’s father Johannes, were both educators by profession and so strove to give their youngest an education equal to that which their three older children received. Their home was an environment conducive to learning, and Wimal picked up fast from what his brothers and sisters brought home from school. Their young uncle Juluis Perera, a master violinist and music teacher, created in Wimal his special favourite, an early love of music. And so a genius was put in the making.

In 1954, at nine years of age, Wimal entered the School for the Blind at Ragama, where he gained his elementary education as well as basic musical knowledge, mastering the piano, accordion and violin. These skills equipped him well for his task as a young teenager playing the role of organist and choirmaster at his local church as well as secondary school. He also acquired skills essential for the visually impaired academic – reading Braille script and typewriting – at this school. By the time he entered Christ King College in his hometown Thudalla, Ja-Ela for his secondary education, Wimal was well equipped not only to work on a par with his sighted classmates but even to top his class. He left school in shining glory, having passed the Advanced Level Examination at the very top of the national rank.

“Most of the responses I had from people in my young days were Christian, they were matter of fact about my blindness” reflects Wimal, now Professor. “At university it was different” he shares, describing snide remarks about karma and such. “The fact that I am a Christian has helped me a lot, my outlook is more positive because of that.”

Prof. Wimal Weerakkody. (c) Kalpa Rajapaksha
And this positive outlook he inherited from his mother has helped Wimal Weerakkody achieve amazing feats in life. Going through university and getting a BA and PhD he says, have been his greatest achievements to date. He admits the task was positively difficult since he did not have the convenience of facilities visually impaired students now have as study-aides. “I had to depend on sighted readers” he explains, adding that “the subject was difficult for the average reader and required a high standard of English” and was therefore the task even more trying. Nevertheless he trudged through, and in 1971 obtained his BA with First Class Honours in Classical Languages. Upon receipt of a scholarship he then commenced studies at the University of Hull, obtaining a PhD in Classics in 1977. Upon returning to Sri Lanka, Wimal Weerakkody joined the staff at his alma mater, the University of Peradeniya, and was subsequently made Professor of Classical Languages; a position he held for nearly ten years, until his recent retirement.

Among his academic achievements are translations of famous Greek and Latin texts ‘Phaedo’  and ‘The Republic’ by Plato, Hesiod’s ‘Works and Days’, works by Cicero, plays by Plautus and Terence as well as ‘Louise Braille: A Touch of Genius’ by Michael Mellor among many others. He is also a Vadya Visarad, (B.Mus.) of the First Division from Bhathkanda Sangeeth Vidyapeeth, Lucknow, India, and has won many international academic awards and scholarships including those awarded by the Commonwealth as well as SAARC.

Though his academic achievements are great, it is the gentle and compassionate person Prof. Weerakkody is, and the high values that motivate him, which his students and those who have the blessing to know him appreciate most in him. “My inspiration has always been my desire to help other persons with disabilities” he says unassumingly, “I try to acquire skills that help them and then impart it to them.”

He has truly done much more than has been expected of him as a voice of the visually and otherwise impaired, and as Coordinator of his brain-child; the Special Needs Resource Centre (SNRC) at the University of Peradeniya. Every year, Prof. Weerakkody conducts a number of workshops which he hopes will provide the visually impaired with skills for a better life. Although the workshops are geared at educating and providing specialized skills, it’s undeniable that the participants have immense fun in the learning process and go away having made good friends and wonderful memories. Prof. Weerakkody is a genial person by nature and an entertaining and enthralling teacher, and his lectures and teaching session are coloured with jokes and anecdotes which his students find difficult to forget. Among these unforgettable workshops number those on Braille Music notation for teachers and students as well as on special IT skills for the visually impaired, all conducted at the SNRC.

Prof.'s special watch with braille dots to mark the time.
How he clasps his hands together is typical of his patient, unassuming nature.
(c) Kalpa Rajapaksha
“I feel information is primary, that’s why we started the centre” explains Prof. Weerakkody as he describes how he once very informally approached a representative of the World Bank and was able to secure a donation of 50,000 USD for each national university that was willing to utilize it to help the handicapped. Though the fund was allocated for use over two years, Prof. Weerakkody and his staff of unconditionally dedicated volunteers managed to stretch the funds over four years. “Now we have trouble maintaining the centre” Prof. says, explaining that funding is very hard to come by. The centre takes on projects such as the recording of the pansiya panas jataka and school syllabi for grades 9-11, which are funded by organisations such as the Buddha Shasana Madhyasthanaya and the American Embassy. These funds nevertheless, do not provide any backing for the running of the centre or for the undergraduate students the centre is pledged to support.

Prof. Weerakkody believes that Sri Lanka has sufficient resources to provide visually impaired students with a good quality tertiary education, but that “attitude changes are necessary” for the proper allocation of these resources to be made possible. The attitude of the general public towards the handicapped population is also “mixed” he says, adding that despite the fact that “people are sympathetic”, there exist in our culture “age-old prejudices” regarding mental and physical handicaps. Prof. recalls the incident of a fellow undergraduate returning to his room on his way out for an examination, because the blind ‘apala’ student Wimal Weerakkody has stepped onto his path. Such incidents and attitudes are not only sad and embarrassing but also detrimental to the creation of a positive environment for the visually impaired within our country.

But Prof. Weerakkody has not allowed such events to deter him from achieving his goals and dreams. He has overstepped boundaries even unimpaired persons would consider insurmountable, mastering not only the fields of classical languages, philosophy and music, but those also of administration and information technology.

Since retiring a few months back, Prof. Weerakkody has been catching up on what he mischievously calls “outstanding work that lies on my table and my conscience”. He looks forward to completing a Sinhala translation of The Oresteian Trilogy by Aeschylus and quiet hours in his house hidden in the cool hills of Gampola. “I haven’t decided on anything yet” he smiles “I’ll just take things as they come”. Typical, one would feel, of how he has lived so far, grappling with immense obstacles and never faltering in his walk to bring glory his Maker.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Review - Rukshan Perera Live in Concert

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Where were you last Sunday night? If it was not the Bishop’s College Auditorium, take a minute now to add that to your list of regrets. Getting ‘Jazzed Up’ with Rukshan Perera live in concert should have been a part of every musician or music-lover’s agenda.

First up is the fact that Colombo rarely sees performances at this level. Rukshan Perera is an immensely accomplished, highly experienced and insanely talented musician. Sunday’s concert brought the cream of Colombo’s performing pop musicians together onstage with a tasteful as well as meaningful repertoire of original compositions and arrangements of popular tunes by Rukshan. Natasha Rathnayake, Voice.Print, the De Lanerolle Brothers and Thriloka are all well known for the quality of the music they produce. Having all these acts together on stage, and more importantly, under Rukshan’s umbrella, made the experience that night truly splendid.

Needless to say, the lights were not bright enough to outshine these well-known stars behind the mics and instruments. What made the evening different from other similar shows these artists perform at was the sensitivity towards music. Vocal and instrumental quality was complemented by a truly rare finesse, a refusal to over-do any one act or the other, and a balance of styles as well as individuality and unity.

Among the numbers that stood out was ‘Nature’s Calling’ featuring Natasha Rathnayake. Not only did the diva do true justice to the evocative song with her broad and sultry voice, she also seemed to be conveying her emotions regarding climate change with a pained look that absolutely refused to leave her face. The question of a wardrobe department did also come up during this number, but that did not hinder it from conveying a dramatic sense of what our environment is suffering.

The next ear-catching number ‘Something Is Happening to Me’ featured another guest act fast becoming uncontrollably popular in Colombo: Voice.Print. The acapella group seemed finally to have overcome their tendency to sing as many different artists rather than one performer, possibly thanks to the amazing delivery of a reverberating bass line by Melantha Perera from Mirage fame. It seems a family thing, the way he and his brother Rukshan go about their music-making: seemingly effortlessly!

‘What Time Is It?’ was a question far from the audience’s mind, the two and a half hours of the show gliding by in what felt like minutes, but Rukshan got at the keyboards nevertheless, to ask it. He used variations on the famous Big-Ben tune as a recurrent motif in this number that really got the crowd laughing and applauding. The confidence he exudes was most obvious in this number as he stopped in the middle of the song to prompt the audience to go “blah blah blah”.

The Colombo Brass Ensemble sensitively accompanied Rukshan as he opened an instrumental medley of popular local folk tunes on his flute. The Mozart Meets India-like performance was one of the many numbers during which Rukshan displayed another of his qualities that’s uncommon among locally established musicians - a true desire to share the lime-light.

Harshan Gallage, drummer for the backing band Thriloka, gave us a short taste of his unmatched skills at the drum-kit during this piece, battled by Dylan Rathnayake on percussion. Eshantha Peiris too shared a few moments of sparkling improvisation with the audience, characteristically gentle yet brilliant, during an "experimental" jam session with Rukshan on guitar and Julius Mitchell from Voice.Print doing his thing.

Official beat-boxer for the acapella act, Julius got the most alone time with his audience - and justifiably so! There are many young aspiring artists out on the Sri Lankan musical horizon doing quite a number of fabulous things with just their vocal apparatus, but Julius Mitchell is probably the only one with a whole dj's console as well as a good collection of popular dance tracks all concentrated in the upper part of his body. Slick, smooth and unassuming, his command of the audience too is quite something to see! Somebody only needs to take him to a club and give him a mic to put most dj's out of business.

Voice.Print (yes, they featured heavily in the programme) returned onstage to back Rukshan up on another memorable performance; the ‘Nursery Rhapsody’ - an arrangement of popular local children's songs in the form of Queen's ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. The harmonies were undoubtedly more complex than what they usually do, but the challenge was decently well lived up to. Rukshan's vocal flexibility was made obvious as he kept switching, in this number, from straightforward western-style singing to the sri lankan lilt with ease and no awkward moments, and carrying no trace of an artificial accent (the lede of most western-influenced local vocalists) into the sinhala lyrics - parts of which included ‘Me Gase Boho’ as well as ‘Athuru Mithuru’!

Most of Rukshan’s lyrics (especially those to 'We Are Brothers', his duet with Melantha, composed in memory of his mother, their music teacher) stood out in their remarkable simplicity. They refuses to succumb to pop-culture, discussing unfashionable matters in clear, un-poeticized language. The whole concert was testimony to Rukshan's deep and more importantly, genuine, concern with the world around him - not only in his lyrics but also in the way he highlighted the younger generation of artists onstage, those needing and deserving the exposure.

Among the better-known artists was Mariazelle on backup vocals and Ishan de Lanerolle doing a sensitive and subtle bass-line for a medley of local pop tunes that brought the maalu kaaraya, kammal kaaraya and the kandy lamissi together in Colombo 7! Chris Wickramanayake took to the keyboards to accompany Rukshan on 'Sri Lankan Blues'. The lyrics were a little mashed up in this one, but honestly not grounds for complaint, as the song was simply fabulous. Another memorable piece was an instrumental arrangement of 'Olu Pipila', a testimony to Rukshan's instinctive musical genius. In a nation of musicians infected with the imitation bug, Rukshan stood out as capable of successfully claiming for himself not just any song, but a house-hold favourite - a risky business.

In fact, the whole deal of putting up a show at this level of glamour and musical quality is itself ridden with risk. But the ease with which Rukshan dealt with the tiny glitches that popped up in a nearly spotless show declared to his audience that entertainment is surely not the easy game most people think anyone can play. Sunday night's programhas the potential to redefine show-biz standards for Colombo, and if there was anything missing, it was a more relaxed audience and a Sri Lankan instrument or two. For a musical genius of Rukshan Perera's calibre and inherent talent, this is hardly a challenge!

What the audience and artists experienced that night was more than just good music, bright lights and a packed hall. It was not just Rukshan Perera showing off his skill, some musicians sharing his light or a random collection of people bopping heads. It was the inception of a dialogue that is constantly (only) whispered. If our country can produce artists of real skill and integrity, can it also produce an audience of equally matched commitment? For as they sang at the end, each move we make is part of that 'Journey of Love' we take on this "one land, one land for all".

All photographs taken off Facebook.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Review of Nanda Pethiyagoda's 'Emerged'

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Let’s first drop all pretences: very few of us had any taste for History at school. It was all a memorizing of names and dates that meant nothing to us. So when one hears the title of Nanda Pethiyagoda’s research-narrative Emerged: Noteworthy Women from Kandy, the read doesn’t seem too welcome. But the term “don’t judge a book by its cover” (or title rather, in this case) is a good piece of advice to remember here. What the insides hold will really surprise you.

The book is an enjoyable and engrossing read! True, the cover is beautiful but rather dull, the title sounds prosaic and the first few words of the front flap “this researched study” really put one off. But the introduction as well as the first ‘half’ of the book are obviously the result of much thought and personal engagement, and therefore make a really captivating read. Nanda Pethiyagoda talks of serious social (and to a large extent feminist) theory in her informal style, making the whole discussion much easier to digest and something of a light conversation over cups of tea! With what ease she seems to manage the flow is quite amazing, and has the potential to provide an education on the issues she addresses to those not usually inclined to reading such material.

Emerged: Noteworthy Women from Kandy portrays the lives of eight women, “middle class Kandyans of means”, who lived and “emerged” in the time period between 1900 and 1950. In and through these portrayals the author explores the issues of conservatism and patriarchy, attempting to discern “whether the social milieu these emerged women came from was patriarchal” and “to what extent the emerged women were influenced and guided to emerge by their mothers who were conservative and within a patriarchal system”. These academic goals are combined with a genuine interest in telling the stories of these remarkable women, providing the author with a unique style and flow.

Nanda Pethiyagoda is obviously personally very interested in the issues she discusses. Even the introduction to the author on the back flap highlights her interest in “the situation of women” and “particularly those from her place of birth and upbringing – Kandy”. Maybe because of this strongly personal nature of the inquiry, or because of the strength of her interest in the study, the research questions she asks as a point of departure to her narrative, tend either to be biased or to be based on broad assumptions. Though from an academic point of view this may seem a negative, it is this bias and assumption that hold the narrative together and makes it interesting.

The need to qualify the first statement as “the first ‘half’” arises out of the fact that the second ‘half’ doesn’t seem to flow as well. While part I consists of Pethiyagoda’s own thoughts and therefore provides better-organized material for writing, part II is built mainly of quotations from biographees and relatives of biographees, complemented by Pethiyagoda’s comments on these quotations. The juxtaposition of comments against quotes (i.e.: theorisations against stories) is not an easy feat to achieve, and the flow of the writing seems to suffer because of this.

The work Nanda Pethiyagoda sets out to achieve nevertheless, is monumental. It takes rare amounts of bravery to nose-dive into the kind of discussion the author engages in, and much more skill to take the reader along as well, without demanding much or losing him/her along the way. The author’s experience as an academic and prolific writer help her overcome these minor setbacks and make the end result a well-balanced portrayal of the amazing yet un-sung women of Kandy that Nanda Pethiyagoda knows and admires.

Oktave Debut Concert

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Question: what happens when you put some of Sri Lanka’s best voices together, give them some of the most popular and neatly arranged music, back them up with some of the hottest sound technology available and the most sought-after accompanist in the country?

Answer: Oktave and ‘My Tribute’.

Saturday the 4th of June, 2011 saw St. Mary’s Church continue to fill up after the evening mass had been said. Music lovers from around the city packed into the beautiful church to experience the unique yet seasoned sounds of the sweetest new octet to arrive on the music-scene in Colombo: Oktave.

The brain-child of Rajeev Aloysius and Neranjan de Silva, the group has been performing at various functions in and around Colombo for some time now. ‘My Tribute’ was nevertheless the first concert these musicians presented themselves. Peshali Yapa-Aberywardena, Jehan Bastians and Eshantha de Andrado are also among the famous names belonging to the octet, and the audience came full of expectation. Needless to say, these expectations were more than fulfilled that night.

Oktave is different from any other choir in Sri Lanka in that while other such groups consider sound equipment secondary and shy away from electronic amplification, it is an integral part of their setup. The group’s aim is to be good enough to “withstand the scrutiny of individual microphones”. So when Peshali opens the favourite ‘Amazing Grace’ with her confident and sensitive alto, we know they’ve got their dream in the making.

Each of the numbers were arranged by Neranjan himself, specifically for Oktave, and Jehan’s clear, easy tenor perfectly suited their version of Chris Tomlin’s ‘Jesus Messiah’. The gospel feel of the song though, kept calling to the singers for a little more swing and a little broader delivery, the absence of which did not prevent the number being thoroughly enjoyable.

Harin Amirthanathan’s powerful tenor solo succeeded in drawing out the strength of the choir in their rendition of the heart-warming favourite ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. A thrillingly silent moment after “though your dreams be tossed—” was perfectly complemented by the full orchestra at Neranjan’s fingertips.

The delivery of ‘You Raise Me Up’ by Eshantha, despite conveying a feeling of being rushed, was duly mellow and rose to a rich and impressive fullness. The theme of the evening ‘My Tribute’ based on Psalm 30:12 was sung very sensitively by Peshali whose controlled strength of voice gave the choir a good foundation to really open up and sound fifty-strong!

Everyone has heard the ‘Alleluia’ from Shrek performed in so many different ways, and the Oktave rendition of the number was in fact, just another one of those. The blend of voices though, was quite amazing, considering the fact that each of the eight voices was amplified individually by a hand-held microphone, and the fact the singers are all well-seasoned helped render the sound a well-controlled body. Neranjan’s accompaniment again shone through, complementing the choir with its strength as well as variety.

Rajeev brought the evening’s praise to a grand close with a well-controlled and precise rendition of ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness’ in his deep, full bass. Neranjan’s arrangement allowed the choir to give the audience a peep at the amazing breadth and range they are capable of, bringing the evening to a memorable and regretted end.

Despite the fact that all the numbers they performed were popular favourites among a varied crowd, and ones that have been sung endless times by endless numbers of similar musical groups, the Oktave performance of these numbers was consistently infused with a unique and signature sound. Neranjan’s arrangements, characteristically simple yet evocative, combined with the singers’ maturity of voice as well as their evident passion for music and vocal performance, create a super-blend that leaves the audience yearning for more of their heart-music.

Pecha Kucha Colombo

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What do you say to a thousand people gathered together for an hour of inspiration-intake and passion driven pecha kucha? Inspiration and passion sound good, but pecha-what!?

Pecha-Kucha is the Japanese word for the sound of chit chat and Pecha-Kucha nights are now a world-wide phenomenon. Gatherings of thousands of people in over 100 cities witness presentations in the unique 20x20 format and use these presentations as points of departure for networking and discussion. Colombo will experience Sri Lanka’s first Pecha-Kucha Night, 6pm on July 23 at the Warehouse Project in Maradana. Tickets are priced at a negligible 100/= as the organizers are interested mostly in accessibility.

The first four Pecha-Kucha Nights will take place in Colombo within this year, and depending on “how fast it catches on” the program will hopefully spread to other cities across the island (starting probably with Galle and Jaffna). Organizers are already working closely with undergraduates within the local university system in order to make this dream of branching a reality.

For starters, Pecha-Kucha Night will feature eight hand-picked presenters (designers, artists, photographers etc.) who will stand and describe their work using 20 slides, with 20 seconds on each. The format, developed by Klein Dytham Architecture in Tokyo in 2003, is perfect for giving many people light-space as well as making sure that the audience is not driven to boredom by long harangues. The fact that the main medium is visual is a huge plus-point since it allows people in multi-lingual cultures such as ours to overcome language barriers as they display and discuss their creativity.

Saskia Fernando, team coordinator for Pecha-Kucha Colombo promises that the atmosphere will be relaxed and casual and encourages everyone to just come in “jeans and rubber slippers” and have a good time.

Zsa Zsa Gallery - Shanila de Livera

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At some point or the other we’ve all experienced the trauma of having to sit on someone else’s sofa feeling uncomfortable and not knowing what to do about it except stare at the wall in front. Often enough, the wall carries a garish lampshade or a photograph of someone you’re not very sure you want to be caught staring at for lack of better things to do. So what then?

Tell your host about the Zsa Zsa Gallery.

Fitted snugly into its new home at the creative end of Queen’s Road, Shanila De Livera’s unique venture is set out to take away your wall-blues. “Customers coming into Foto-Design often asked about something different in terms of wall concepts” the proprietess explains. She believes that home-makers are at a loss for wall-décor because of a lack of affordable and convenient options. “Viharamahadevi Park pieces are reasonably priced, but the experience is so overwhelming” Shanila continues, “and at the other end, art studio pieces are really expensive!”

The cogwheels slowly began working with Shanila and she started collecting small art pieces she found in her travels around the country, with the idea of an affordable wall-art concept gallery framing her selections. The concept came to fruition in 2008 and has now just stepped into a new phase at its new location.

Newer pieces at the Zsa Zsa gallery feature light-wood works encompassing a wide range of sizes, colours, styles, moods and techniques. Shanila is bouncy and energetic (pregnant and bounding up and down the staircase!) but still graceful, and her personality comes through in the pieces she designs. Some pieces, like those inspired by coconut palms and other local fauna are two-tone works in thick bold lines that capitalise on contrast for effect. Others, like those made of embossed lily-pads painted or stencilled in pale gold, burnished bronze and dull green, convey a more calm and subdued aura. No two pieces are alike, and one lily-pad piece especially brings across a dark, brooding personality.

Combining the bold and the graceful are the pieces based on trees and creepers. One, against a backdrop of gold fading to black, carries impressions of trees, the branches of which are carved so gracefully and sensitively that one can almost feel the wind blowing through them. Another similar piece is one based on Shanila’s favourite motif – the sandakadapahana. Finely woven lines drawing intricate patterns and thick bold ones displaying flora and fauna appear alternately on dark brown and beige rings, bringing to mind the intricacies of the traditional Sri Lankan moonstone.

Although some of the pieces are machine-crafted, most of the intricate patterns are handcrafted. Most of the pieces take hours upon hours upon days to be completed, and then the craftsmen must spend more, working on accenting and complementing the carvings with different kinds of colours and application techniques. Shanila is careful to visit the craftsmen often and discuss new ideas with them first, in order that the designer and craftsman have a mutual understanding and work together to create a unified concept piece.

Most of the pieces are based on paulownia wood, one of the lightest and softest woods available, and therefore the most suitable for the purpose. While the more dramatic hangings are worked on a single wooden base, many of the larger, more subtle ones are panelled. Shanila promises therefore that there is something at her gallery for everyone – the truth of which fact is easily found out upon stepping into Zsa Zsa gallery. And best of all is the possibility of working with Shanila in order to create just the piece you want for just that wall! The Zsa Zsa gallery also has murals and metal work art and even mirror work – so the next you’re in that situation we talked about, you can even admire yourself to ease the boredom!

Penelope (Pene Hayley) Gordon

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When I hear Penelope Gordon is 78 years old, I’m worried about how bored I’m going to be, making conversation with an old lady. But if I’ve ever enjoyed listening to stories of the past over a cup of tea, it had to be at Hayley’s down Dean’s Road last week. The great-granddaughter of Charles Pickering Hayley, founder of what is now Hayleys PLC, is one lady who is not going to let time play his games with her.

When Charles (known fondly as Chas) Hayley boarded the Percy Douglas heading towards Sri Lanka – what was then Ceylon, the “crown jewel” of the British colonial empire – in 1871, it must have been with a knot in his stomach and fear in his heart about leaving home. It is quite likely he never imagined at the time, the scale of what he would achieve on the island. In 1878 he founded Charles P. Hayley and Company, a small coir trade which would grow into what is now Hayleys PLC, one of Sri Lanka’s biggest multinational businesses involved in Global Markets, Agriculture, Transportation, Consumer Products and Leisure and has sister companies in seven countries including the USA, France, India and Japan.

Nearly a century and a half later, as Penelope (aka Pene) Gordon walks in through the Bandaranaike International Airport for the twenty-first time in fifteen years, her heart sings “I’m home, I’m home!” What her great-grandfather achieved in Sri Lanka was more than a family legacy and much more than just a booming business, it was the making of a history and a home. “Little did I know what I wonderful seed I was planting on that far away day” he is believed to have said of himself, and he probably never knew how little he knew.

Pene Gordon was born in Hatton in the year 1937 to Ray Beadon and Phyllis Hayley, the granddaughter of Chas Hayley. Her father being a planter meant that Pene’s childhood was spent mostly on tea estates in the Nuwara Eliya and the upcountry areas. “I remember going to Hill School” she smiles, adding “and running around the lake” with a twinkle in her eye. “My father was a rugby player, he played for Dimbulla, as did my brother-in-law as well as my husband. So I was always on the rugby field or the golf course” she laughs, adding that the girls played a lot of tennis and indulged in their father’s love of building swimming pools by growing up “in the water”.

She remembers even more fondly the time during the Second World War when her father’s appointment to the RFA meant they had to move to Colombo before he was transferred to England. “We lived at 22 Colpetty Lane” Pene informs me, reading my mind immediately after by saying with a giggle “I remember that very well”. It is difficult not to see an image of a troupe of youngsters screaming and running around (“we were naughty and a little wicked, and our nanny was never allowed to do anything about it!” she has just confessed with an impish grin) the Galle Face Green as she talks of flying kites every morning and following the kadala man around.

In 1945, an eight-year-old Pene Gordon visited England for the first time. She remembers fondly her aunt, Violet Hayley who she refers to as a “funny little lady”. Pene screws up her face and squints as she leans forward, imitating her aunt sitting at a sea side café. “We were having tea and it was such a beautiful day” Pene explains, “and she kept saying ‘but there’s such a mist out here’”! She struggles to contain herself as she describes how in their confusion the children watched their aunt carefully to understand her meaning. “And we discovered that she’d powdered her glasses!” she bursts out as we all erupt into laughter. Pene next spent time in England as an undergraduate, returning to Sri Lanka, her home of 27 years, to marry Trevor Gordon and settle down. As were her mother and younger sister Sally after her, Pene was married in Nuwara Eliya. “My son, Graham, was born in London in 1971 because we happened to be there at the time” she continues her story. A few weeks after though, they returned to Sri Lanka and Trevor took up work in Colombo.

The relatively peaceful and comfortable lifestyle into which the young family had settled over the next three years was suddenly torn apart and in 1974, Pene again found herself in unfamiliar territory both physically and emotionally. “My husband got ill with a nervous breakdown and couldn’t be helped here” she explains quietly. “We had to go back to Ireland because that’s where he was from. I had never been there before and it was traumatic” she admits, but stresses “we had to go”. They struggled in Ireland to pick themselves up and at the completion of a year there were ready to welcome Wendy, Graham’s younger sister, into the family.
As Pene watched her family grow and resettle though, a troublesome thought began to take root in her mind. “All of Graham’s baby photos showed him here (in Sri Lanka)” Pene shares regretfully, “but there was nothing for Wendy. She knew nothing about my family and my growing up out here.” Wendy too shares memories of “curry parties” in England and the frustrating awareness that there was “another history” out there for her which she knew nothing about. Until Wendy was nineteen, they simply could not afford a trip back to Sri Lanka, but by this time Pene had made up her mind. “I brought them both back, but particularly for Wendy” she shares, adding that “she has loved it ever since”.

“This is my heart home, this is my heart home” Pene reiterates, moving on to her return to Sri Lanka in 1994. “We went straight up to Kandy because the Perahera was on” she says with a look on her face that says she can’t believe herself, “and it was like murder with the crowds and everything after twenty whole years! But the next day we travelled up to Nuwara Eliya, and we were all tired so Graham and Wendy were both sleeping, but here I was, shaking them, telling them ‘Wake up! Wake up, we’re coming home!’”. She laughs at her own childish excitement. “I don’t know how well you know Nuwara Eliya” she says a little quieter now, “but once you’ve gone up the Ramboda pass and come down into the Nuwara Eliya valley, there’s the sixth green. And by the time we’ve hit the sixth green…” Pene’s voice catches, hushed and overcome with emotion as tears collect in her clear blue eyes. “I’m home! I’m home, you know?” she manages to whisper quietly.
“Things were different” she admits, adding with a grin that “everything was twenty years older. The fairways at the golf club were smaller and the trees bigger, but not enough had changed to make it not home for me.” She recalls appreciatively how staff at the golf club recognized her and spoke to her. Going back to the estate, she recalls, was “just lovely, and it was very emotional”. The room that Pene used as a child and all the furniture around the house was “there just the same” she says, smiling shyly that “it was very antiquated, but it was very nice”.

“I had been away for twenty years without the money to come back” she shares thoughtfully “but I knew I couldn’t let this go on for another twenty.” So Pene Gordon returned home, again, in 1997, the year she turned sixty (“and life begins at sixty!” she laughs) and continues to make the trip to Sri Lanka twice every year since 2001. “I’ve got my memories of growing up on the estate” Pene continues, “and it was like a magic life which I came to appreciate only later.” In gratitude for these untarnished memories and warm feelings of the heart Sri Lanka calls up within her, and inspired by God she says quite simply and frankly, Pene now tries in her little ways to help the people who were part of her history in Sri Lanka.

Despite suffering from diabetes and having had most of her digestive system removed due to health complications last year, Pene is still bubbly and energetic. “It was a bit wow” she laughs, explaining that her spleen, pancreas, gall-bladder and “half” of her stomach contents have been removed. “Let me show you my digestive system now” she grins as she opens a small scallop-shaped case holding two clear enzyme capsules, one of which she pops in her mouth before lifting a cup of tea to her lips.

She was smiling, smiling as she walked into our meeting after a lunch engagement and she is smiling, smiling as she rushes off next to a coffee engagement, a true testament to the energy and fire that runs in her blood. “My mother (Phyllis) is 102 and still very much alive!” she laughs, and I walk away from the meeting thinking Penelope too, must be ageless.

Real Housewives of Colombo - Indu Dharmasena

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Indu says: four people, women, housewives, rich, busy husbands, lots of time together
We say: gossip, cheating, beauty, fashion, scandalized society and domestic disasters
Indu says: WRONG

Deepika (Krys Sosa) was happily married to Suranjith (Abbasalis Rozais), a renowned architect. Lately though, there’s been the appearance of “signs”. He’s very engrossed in his work, is hardly ever home, and definitely not performing his marital “duties”. One dear friend opens Deepika’s eyes to the truth of the matter – there’s something else behind the sudden work-enthusiasm. Priyanka (Sanwada Dharmasena), Ronda (Koluu) and Manisha (Sanjana Selvarajah), in their loving bid to help their friend get to the bottom of the story and get her life back on track, put their heads together and come up with the perfect POA (an acronym for “plan of action”, Deepika – though not quite sure where her head is right now – informs us firmly and repeatedly).

Chanchala (Ruwendi Wakwella), the hottest interior designer in town and one of Suranjith’s partners (“partners”!?) on his latest and most fabulously-stunningly-dream-like project, has just heard (from a very reliable source of course!) some very good (or bad?) news about his wife (whoops! But she wasn’t supposed to share!). Suranjith knows for a fact that the source must be mistaken, or …! His good friend and colleague Ravi (Indu Dharmasena) takes a weekend out at Danny Silva (Gehan Cooray)’s spa to help Suranjith sort the matter out in a “civilized” manner, only to have his own wife Priyanka find out something he’s apparently been hiding throughout their life together.

Misunderstandings, mayhem and lots of laughs you think, we know these plots so well. Everybody’s sleeping around and having fun and nobody ends up happy. But you don’t know Indu Dharmasena’s plot for his next comedy ‘Real Housewives of Colombo’. It sounds at first like another piece of gossip with lots of juicy stories rolled up together to create an ‘immoral’ explosive. But the base for those plays is gossip itself. The base for this one is a good hard look at it.

“When in doubt” says Koluu, who plays Ronda (the “knowledgeable” one, thrice married!), get it from the horse’s mouth. “Everyone can identify with at least one of the characters” Indu assures us with a smile “because they are based on actual people”. So there’s no black or white. There’s definitely a message behind the play, but the playwright is careful to note that his plays have matured since his first few, and that the understanding that people are “really just shades of grey” has really sunk into this one. So there’s the comedy and the craziness, but there’s also the thought to take home (apart from the tears of laughter!)

‘Real Housewives of Colombo’, what Indu hopes is the first of what will grow into a series of plays, goes on the boards at the Lionel Wendt on July 22, 23 & 24 at 7.30pm. Tickets priced at 1500/=, 1000/=, 750/= and 500/= are available at the theatre. Proceeds from the first night will be forwarded to “Friends of Prisoners Children” while those from the second night go to the “Sri Lanka Air force Sewa vanitha Unit”. Be there to get a piece of the real action.

The Glam Game - Jacqueline Fernandez

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“You have to come to an understanding that a sense of your innocence will be lost” she says in a regretful but matter-of-fact tone. We’re not talking about anything scandalous, but it is impressively evident that in the five years between being the girl in the yellow bathing suit with a flower in her hair and the woman getting up-close and personal with Emraan Hashmi in ‘Murder 2’, Jacqueline Fernandez has grown up a lot. “I think then, like everyone when they’re younger, I was naïve” she smiles. “I was just a much younger girl, but I feel now that I can say I am definitely a woman”.

Not that she has lost any of her bounce or that characteristic girlish gaiety. “I’m not saying you have to change yourself” she says earnestly, speaking of how she has matured over the years with experience, reassuring us that “my father would slap me before I started acting all hoity-toity and all! But you’ve got to know the kind of direction you’re going in. That’s how it is.” And testimony to that is the fact that the room that was dull and life-less half a minute before, was lit up and buzzing with activity as soon as she walked in, running up to friends and greeting them with dazzling smiles and laughter.

The difference is that she has grown from a girl who waited for her dream to come to her, into a determined woman who is ready to engage with serious issues and address them immediately. What has driven her return to Sri Lanka, (apart from being on the panel of judges for the Miss Sri Lanka for Miss Universe pageant for 2011) is the desire to return to her motherland what she claimed from it five years ago. “I had some fantastic people supporting me and encouraging me” she smiles warmly, remembering the good times in 2006. “But they’re bittersweet” she shares, of her memories, “because they remind me that I’m older now”.

But with losing time, Jacqueline has gained years and experience, and far from only returning what she took, she plans to fill in what she can of the gaps she has come to see in the Sri Lankan glamour industry, and the training our models get before they enter an international arena. Speaking of her post-Miss Universe-Mumbai experience Jacqueline says, “I went in thinking “I’ve got a good smile and great PR, I’m going to be fine” but I wasn’t. It’s a business, an economy. I know it’s hard, but people don’t really care about you and no one’s out there to make friends” she continues, at the risk of sounding ruthless. Jacqueline may still have a long way to go, but she is definitely not deluded about where she is and where her path will take her. “It’s not a fairytale, it’s not candyfloss. It’s a mature world, and you need to be prepared for that”. But that was not her case, it seems. “I was not prepared.”

So then how did she manage not only to break into Bollywood but also to make ripples-turning-to-waves in such a short time-span? “Actually from a very young age I wanted this whole world of glamour, it was something I wanted to do” she shares unabashedly. Nevertheless we have seen and heard how soon after graduating with a degree in Mass Media, Jacqueline returned to Sri Lanka to work on television and broadcasting with Young-Asia television as well as ETV. “I think when you have an ambition and if you are ambitious, destiny will somehow find a way to lead you back to it. Not in a magical fantasy kind of way, but psychologically. I wanted to be an actor from a young age, and I always had this at the back of my head. So whatever move I made was calculated to get me there”.

Taking things for granted though, is not the style Jacqueline Fernandez advocates. Sure, the modelling/acting career fell in to her lap, but any others she might have, like breaking into an international acting career, she is not going to sit around and wait for. “It’s not about opportunities and it’s not about luck.” There is in those graceful limbs and usually dreamy liquid-brown eyes as she says “It finally comes down to a lot of really hard work”, a split-second of tension and a momentary flash of clear determination.

In recognizing the seriousness of the tasks she has undertaken, and the sheer competitiveness of the industry she has chosen to make her mark in, Jacqueline will not jump to encourage others. “It’s difficult” she shares hesitantly, “and I do feel that I struggled, and at times I did wish that I had more opportunity to gain experience”. Her bid then, is to try and make things easier for the newer models interested in breaking into the international arena. “I know a few girls who went to India to try things out there” she confides, “but they didn’t know what to expect, and when things came as a shock, it made them turn back”. With what might simply be youthful and naïve energy, but what is more likely to be a fiery passion inspired by gratitude, Jacqueline is determined to commit more time from her tight Bollywood schedule, to improving the standards of the Sri Lankan glamour industry. “I am seriously taking on more work” she says, firmly promising that she will make “a conscious effort to be here more”.

Behind these determinations lies a deep understanding of the failings of the system within which she had to struggle in order to break into the larger world of the rich and the famous. And leaving aside prudish modesties, ‘Jackie’ dishes it out straight up. “The problem with the glamour industry here is people don’t make money”. Cut-to-the-chase, she continues, “So the attitude is “what the hell are you doing?” It’s not seen as a decent job, it’s only a hobby.” Jacqueline’s theory is that if the Sri Lanka industry is expanded substantially, sufficiently and efficiently, standards will rise proportionately and chances for international break-throughs will increase. “The reason people get into any business is because the money is still good. That makes you successful and it makes you powerful” she says, adding that “right now, our glamour industry does not have that, there’s no money involved. This is why people look down on it, because it seems frivolous.”

“I get asked the question a lot when I come here” she says, “why I would be a model if I have a degree because “It’s for bimbos and airheads”. But look at people like Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss” she continues triumphantly, defiantly, “they are super, super millionaires! You wouldn’t ask them that question.” Sounds like an argument well-worth one’s money. “It’s a two way thing though, and it will take a long time” she admits, adding firmly “but we’re making a start here. My intention right now is to really help create an international supermodel from Sri Lanka and I think once that happens, its going to be a wake-up call for everyone who thinks this industry is not something good enough to go for”.

Seeing as how Jacqueline Fernandez has in a matter of years re-defined and re-configured the Sri Lankan standard for and understanding of modelling, acting and the world of glitz ‘n’ glam, it’s difficult to be cynical of her plans. “We invent, re-invent, and we evolve” she shrugs, speaking of the maturing of her image. It’s high time evidently, that the Sri Lankan world of movies, fashion and glamour as a whole, took a page out of this starlet’s book.

Olga Sosnovskaya

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It is not difficult to believe that Olga Sosnovskaya is a famed soprano in her home, Russia. A few lines she hums from Greig and Gershwin display the fluidity of her voice and the ease with which she touches the high registers. But what strikes one more than the voice is the way her blue eyes glitter and her face is lit up with a smile as her whole body sings. It is impossible not to be captivated.

“It is impossible for me to imagine life without singing” she declares simply. “There is that magical moment of creation during a performance when you feel you have made something special”. She says she feels like a vampire in those moments, drawing energy from the audience, to return it to them in a cycle of artistic passion. Television and radio can hardly convey that electricity between the performer and the audience, she believes, and that is why she is here.

Having toured Europe for over twenty years as well as the African continent in 2005, Olga Sosnovskaya, by the graces of The Russian Centre in Colombo and the Taj Samudra, will perform at the Lower Crystal Room on July 29, giving a Sri Lankan audience a rare treat indeed.

But before that evening which promises to be spectacular, Olga wants to look around Sri Lanka. “My zodiac is the Archer (Saggitarius) so I love to travel” she shares, adding that she loves our climate and that she has had a wonderful first impression of the island. She plans to spend some time on the beaches down south with her accompanist Torgeir Solsvik before heading back to Colombo.

Torgeir sometimes plays with a chamber group in his homeland Norway, and met Olga for the first time when they performed at the same festival in Russia. Upon his invitation Olga visited Norway and since then the two have continued to perform together. “We have a similar kind of passion” for music, Torgeir explains, sharing that they “clicked” from the beginning. Olga laughs good-heartedly that he is very responsible and that his approach to any performance makes things so much easier for her.

Having performed together for over four years, Torgeir finds that Olga has influenced his music greatly and she says the same of him. “I’ve been introduced to a lot of new music I was not familiar with” he enthuses, stressing on Rachmaninov (a name that drops from Olga’s lips at least once in three to four minutes!) and Russian composers. Rachmaninov especially, she says as Torgeir nods his assent, allows both musicians to truly work together, without superimposing the voice on the piano. “There’s something that strikes you when the voice and piano join” Olga muses, “something special that you can’t touch or place”, something beyond the notes on the page.

Olga will pick from the pages of famous and favourite composers such as Rachmaninov, Verdi, Mascagni, Greig, Puccini, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Gershwin and Kalman in order to bring to you a special selection of well-known favorites from the operas as well as vocal collections. She has worked with world renowned musicians such as Velery Gergiev and Anatoly Solovyanenko, a strong hint that Friday night’s performance is one not to be missed.

The concert will be held at the Crystal Lower Floor, Taj Samudra on July 29 from 7.30 p.m. onwards. Tickets priced at Rs. 2500 and Rs. 2000 are available at the Taj Samudra (Tel. 2446622) & the Russian Centre in Colombo (Tel 2685429).

The End - TNL Onstage 2011 Final

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If TNL Onstage is still the standard-setter it was at its inception, then one thing is for sure: Sri Lanka can’t sing for toffee. But this we know is not true; the night of Saturday the 30th July heard some laudable voice production at the Derana Dream Star Finals and TNL Onstage did display some super capabilities on the Friday just before. The sad fact though is, that of nearly thirty vocalists at the Finals held at the Vihara Maha Devi Amphitheatre, not more than three or four were able to even maintain their pitch levels. Let’s track back from the beginning though.

Advertisements and posters for the programme said 6:30pm but this is one show that has been around long enough for people to know better than to arrive on time. So when the organizers decided to be punctual, the opening guest act, the Rebels, was found making music to an audience amounting to hardly an eighth of the amphitheatre capacity.

The first two hours or so of TNL Onstage 2011, themed ‘Party in the Park’, seriously redefined the word “party”. CC, vocalist for the second guest act Salvage, is undeniably a good looking singer (although he might have bitten off a tad more vocal range than he could chew), and the band was probably the most confident and relaxed. The stage being set up to accommodate two bands to make things efficient sadly meant that most of the groups and soloists stayed humbly cramped in their allocated corner and duly intimidated by the other (the cameraman in-between, slyly hogging centre-stage!). Salvage was the only act able to claim the stage for themselves. Despite all this, of the audience of already negligible size, roughly three were up and cheering for the boys, the rest being more interested in their little conversations and the leaves, flowers and bits of paper strewn across the amphitheatre floor.

The next band up was nevertheless definitely more interesting than the surrounding environment. The grotesque, farcical movements (seemingly inspired by the traditional Kandyan Peacock Dance) of the “dance” crew that accompanied their performance of The Lazy Song were entertaining to say the least (no seriously, they even took their pants off as part of the sequence!). Extra excitement was delivered via the fire-dancing which (although slightly disjointed from the band’s performance) was of course exciting and possibly even gained the band some mileage by distracting the crowd from their performance.

The competitors on the other hand were actually very closely matched, and it seems safe to bet that having a relatively large panel of four judges (Shehan Karunatillake, Isaac Smith, Mirshad Buckman and Rukshan Perera) from rather different musical backgrounds was absolutely essential to eliminating close ties.
It’s not an easy thing to be an opening performer, let alone a solo opening act, but Harshana – voice fluid and gentle – got the competition off to a surprisingly good start. He can lay claim to a full voice, clean upper registers and a nice, subtle vibrato but not the emotional sensibility of a performer.

By the time he was done with his two numbers though, our dear audience seemed bored, and this is probably why Ethereal front-man Hemal demanded, when they came on stage soon after, that the audience “make some noise!” He didn’t seem to know what to do with it though, and as the crowd roared somewhat half-heartedly, declared “right”. The finalists were better aware than at the semi-finals of the importance of getting the audience engaged in the performance. So what Hemal did was good, but also symptomatic of the CIRBS (Cheap Imitation Rock Band Syndrome) that plagues Onstage. The rhotic accent was an ineffective cover for bad pitching and nervousness, but Ethereal, winners of the Voice Your Choice Award, managed to pick up some of that brilliance they showcased at the semi-finals in a generally well-balanced and well-coordinated act. The Ethereal moment of glory though, was the acoustic round where vocals were clear and sensitive, seconds gentler and stage presence much better felt.

Stage-savvy Shehara walked on confident as usual, but the audience being now a little more accustomed to her tomboy-like carelessness was a little less interested. Her performance levels at the preliminary rounds were impressive to say the least, but by the finals, her vocal production had dropped to irritating pendulum swings from a slightly nasal yet raw to a rounded mature. The gentleness, sensitivity and emotional intensity prerequisite for a good performance of Seal’s ‘Kiss From a Rose’ (a challenging and risky choice for any vocalist) was also wanting. Shehara was nevertheless one of the rare ones in control of pitch levels, and the ease of her delivery was testimony to her superior musical abilities.

Chase-D, one of the emcees that night kept asking for the “essence” of Onstage in a single photograph, probably never realizing that him doing a wolf-howl in a formal suit was just that! But yes, CryWolf got an interesting introduction but failed to live up to it, their act lacking energy. Their original acoustic number ‘The Wake’ had a rare quiet opening (which was colored by the sound manager’s contributions in the form of a popping mic) and some smooth rhythmic transitions which made way for variety without disrupting the flow of the song. The original worked much better for this band-full of performers than the covers, testifying that they seem to have found their sound and that they truly deserved the award for Runners Up in the Band category. They also bagged the Dialog Jingle Competition prize.

There was disappointingly more repetition than variety from the preliminary and semi-final rounds that it’s surprising how fans maintained enthusiasm. I was personally tired of having heard the same repertoire every two weeks or so, and wonder the performers were not thoroughly sick of the songs, unless of course they didn’t practice much more often than once in two weeks! More disappointing were the back-to-back performances of Shuaib and Cord of Major. The pretty-boy writhed his way through my agony of having to listen to him and the band seemed to have forgotten what key they were going to start the Bon Jovi number in! It wasn’t a surprise then that the crowd was desperate enough to get hyped about the Dialog i100 advert which played soon after, and start dancing to it.
Dancing of course brings us to Andre who took the audience away at the semis with his twisted-twist move. That’s as far as it brings us, because as far as he and Zilch are concerned, “mediocre” is about the most accurate word to describe the performance.

Dilini on the other hand was a complete knockout. It was evident from the preliminaries that she was in for something big and her performance just got better and better. Sadly, she was either hoarse or had completely lost control of her glottis in her first number. ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ though, was just mind-blowing; her well-controlled voice complemented the key she’d chosen, allowing her to show off not only range but also skill. The audio experience was simply amazing, but the visual was a little disturbing. Apart from changing their rules about repertoire at the different rounds, TNL would also benefit from providing fashion consultation at least for the finalists. But with all due awe, Dilini’s sensitive and simply classy delivery must have made for a unanimous vote from the judges on her victory in the Solo category.

While Dilini was undeniably the vocalist of the night, Heshan, drummer for White Living Grave took away the award for Best Musician. He was, throughout the competition, the most hyped and uninhibited performer. Shevon was close competition for Heshan in the attention-grabbing department, in his leather jacket doing the sing-dance-and-leap act. Possibly a little less sensitive and more forced than at the semi-finals, he nevertheless was completely absorbed in what he sang, meaning every word and doing the final “yes I’m wrong” on his knees! He was good to listen to and great to watch, and walked away with the Runners Up award in the Solo category for a good time shared.

The big winners for the night were of course Roadkill, the Best Band, whose vocalist made waves from the preliminary rounds, hitting crazy neat falsettos and doing jaw-dropping things with his voice in general. The band as a whole produced a unified sound that seriously rocked. Their original acoustic number ‘And Then There Was None’ (which won the Best Original award) was quiet (even at the semi-finals Roadkill seemed to be the only band unafraid of some gentleness) and the vocalist was fluid as ever. But whether on purpose or not, the quality of his vocal tone kept shifting, a little more control definitely being in the calling. The boys evidently enjoyed themselves and the crowd was ecstatic at their performance, delivering more than “loud” (Ishara, the other emcee’s favourite or newest-acquired adjective it seemed!) applause.

Through quite a number of hiccups including messed up sounds and random blackouts as well as rain at the outdoor finals, ardent fans kept up their support not only for the competing musicians but also the whole TNL Onstage franchise. Kudos to the TNL team on a job done (nearly literally) swimmingly!

Of Rock, Roll and Feedback - TNL Onstage 2011 Semi Final 2 (Band)

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One thing can be said about this year’s TNL Onstage – there’s been a lot of feedback. Not from performers or members of the audience, but the sound technicians. They apparently loved the music so much they couldn’t help adding their own sounds to the bands’ and one found nearly each and every competitor’s performance subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) punctuated by squeals and screeches of the amplifiers’ production.

Not surprising though, considering the fact that the bands (including finalists Cord of Major, Zilch, White Living Grave, CryWolf, Roadkill and Ethereal) seemed to be a notch above most of the solo semi-finalists in terms of performance standards. It must of course be added that having a team on stage is a much more comforting situation to be in as opposed to being ‘alone’ on it, considering especially the hard-to-get characteristic of the mixed (and as the comperes found it important to note, “good looking”) audience the competitors have to face.

Acid, thanks to vocalist Dinith’s relaxed and easy style was the only band able to turn attention on the audience. But it was evident that with spending precious time tuning guitars only once on stage, Acid didn’t enjoy the performance experience much. Despite having a repertoire that was different to the other bands’ which provided relief from an unvaried (and sometimes repetitive!) line-up of numbers, and having rocked the crowd and won the encore round at the prelis, the boys were just too glum and serious that night to justify entry to the finals.

White Living Grave, Roadkill and Ethereal were unquestionably the show-stealers among the nine semi-finalists, being distinctly more mature (Roadkill was on an average simply taller as well!) and confident in their performances. While all three of these bands were more relaxed and professional in their delivery, it seemed that White Living Grave was the one more aware of its image as a collective entity, their whole performance being unified from the introduction. While most of the other bands were collections of individuals playing instruments together and led by the vocalist, White Living Grave was more a team, with members other than just the vocalist (notably the drummer, Heshan, who also played the thammatama in their original acoustic number ‘Sins of Fire’) laying claim to a ‘voice’ and rapport with the audience.

Lead guitarist for Roadkill, Shamika, was another who apart from vocalist Ryan, communicated with the audience during the performance, alongside bassist Akila. Roadkill was about the only band that came across as confident with quietness, on a night full of loud sounds. Ryan definitely made some memories for the audience with his well-rounded falsetto and a fearless experimental manipulation of his vocal chords.

Ethereal vocalist Hemal’s strong rounded voice was complemented by a notably mature and precise delivery by the instrumentalists, while the band as a whole consistently maintained the quality and balance of their performance. CryWolf too, worked well together, and their original acoustic number ‘The Wind’ displayed their musicality in rhythmic flexibility and a cliff-hanger of an ending.

Chord of Major, too, showed signs of a good musical blend and coordination, but failed to evoke a response from the audience, even while singing Bon Jovi’s ‘I Love This Town’. One may safely predict though, that the audience at the finals will be more in sync with such a sentiment, considering the sensation that “TNL Onstage: Party In The Park” is geared to be. The event will feature a number of established artists that have their roots in TNL Onstage, as well as the twelve finalists for the competition. The show kicks off on the Vihara Maha Devi Park grounds at 5pm on July 30, tickets for which will be available at the TNL Head Office. For more info, call on 011 7777 555 or log onto

TNL Onstage 2011 - Semi Final 1 (Solo)

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When TNL Onstage first let its curtains up in 1999, it was what (everybody-knows) Suresh de Silva calls a “pivotal bar of standard” in the Sri Lankan performance arena. Setting the (literal and figurative) stage for the birth of super-names in rock such as Independence Square and Stigmata, the competition has continued over its dozen years of existence to enjoy an unparalleled popularity among musicians as well as audiences. Devastatingly though, the first round of semi-finals for TNL Onstage 2011 (after a much talked-about blackout during the first Preliminary round) seemed to scream that those standards are now slowly but steadily falling, that Onstage may be accepting substitutes, and that TNL Rocks only somewhat.

The sound equipment (though continually flaunted by the compere) didn’t do much to complement the performers. Voices often either reverberated artificially or were completely lost, most notably in the case of this year’s young heart-throb Andre. The audience too, despite being a collection of competitors’ organized fans (friends and family) were not helpful. Hardly anyone seemed interested in the singing, while most just chatted, laughed and sometimes even yelled at each other through the performance, waiting only to scream during the encore round. Needless to say, audience behaviour works parallel to performance standards, and no one is disputing that. Not that the vocalists were bad, but most of them just seemed to sing to themselves and forget the ‘performance’ element completely.

But you’ve got to hand it to them, for a collection of mostly first-timers these kids got some skills. Of the nine semi-finalists (apologies to Dilini and Shuaib whose names were not carried in last week’s issue) many showed the markings of much inherent musical talent, though only six (namely, Dilini, Shevon, Shehara, Harshana, Andre and Shuaib) made it to the finals. One of the more prevalent problems among the performers seemed to be inadequate control of vocal tone and intensity. That Dilini (24), Shevon (21) and Shehara(19) (in descending order) were those best in control of their voice, the stage and the audience, speaks volumes for the fact that age and maturity play a huge role in these performances.

Andre (17) nevertheless managed to completely blow the audience (or at least the girls!) away with that cute face and ecstatic dance which accompanied his version of ‘Suspicious Minds’ by Elvis Presley. It was disturbing though, to see Pathum (lead guitarist – and an amazing one at that! – for the backing band The Rebels) stand stock-still next to him intently meditating on his guitar; a more stark moment of many throughout the show when one realized that most of the soloists were truly just soloists, completely unaware of, and unable to coordinate and ‘gel’ with the backup artists. Where the fault lies though, one cannot easily say, considering that the singers were amateurs and that the only rehearsal time they’d had together was 30 minutes the week (or for some, the day) before.

Dilini’s performance stood out not only thanks to her repertoire (possibly the only one that combined crowd-friendliness with room to show off the singer’s vocal abilities) but also because of the quality of her voice as well as the sensitivity and maturity of her delivery. Similarly notable was the fact that she sang with the band, instead of either (as most did) just ignoring the backup, or as Shehara (the only other person who – commendably – seemed to understand that these were human beings providing musical backing) did, trying to sing over it.

“The heat of the competition” as Harshana phrases it, was one of the high points for most of the solo performers and the way the scales have been rocking, nobody can tell where the gold lies. The bands battled it out for a spot in the Final round last night, an event we’ll discuss at length next week. Until then, get yourself an education and tickets for the Finals!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Rare Passion - Preethi de Silva

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The precise articulateness of her speech, the firmness of her gestures and the way in which her short hair is held back by clips is enough to tell you that Preethi de Silva is clearly taking no nonsense. But to see her at the keyboard, her small delicate hands coaxing the harpsichord to life under their gentle but firm touch, to hear her bring Handel and Bach back alive, is to know the real woman.

The beginnings of her musical career lie in a mother's vision. Preethi describes how despite being a well-known painter, her mother had wanted to be a musician and how she made sure all her children took music lessons. "My father used to say that he's tone deaf" she laughs, remembering nevertheless that he was encouraging and that he understood their mother. "She pushed me and encouraged me" Preethi smiles fondly, "she believed that I had the talent and went to all ends to get me here".

And "here" is no simple thing. Preethi de Silva had come past the Royal Academy of Music, past scholarships for music studies in Berlin and at the University of Yale with world-renown harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick, past extensive performance internationally, past the publication of a good three-inch-thick book - the result of twenty years of research "on a whim" - and past internationally acclaimed early music ensemble Con Gioia. After all this, the Susan George Pulimood Memorial Oration seems like nothing much, but Preethi shares that is was a "challenging" experience for her.

This year's trip back home has opened her eyes to how "everyone in Colombo goes to music lessons or whatever" but there are those who have nearly no access to musical instruments or training. She speaks of that larger part of our nation "who are just making ends meet or not even making ends meet", reminding me of the teledrama series Arungal, that captured for its audiences, our nation and culture that understands and appreciates the pricelessness of music but disregards it because of its lack of market value. "Music is either just a hobby or just entertainment" Preethi says regretfully, careful to add that there is a difference between art as entertainment and intellectual practice. It takes not just one but many with passion and commitment to make this distinction clear, and Prof. Preethi de Silva is unquestionably one of those.

At the age of seventeen, with father and older siblings all practicing medical doctors, Preethi was faced with the dilemma of choosing between music and medicine. "I was torn!" she exclaims, needing no further explanation, for many of us know the plight of having to choose either the practical or the desired. "But I don't regret the decision at all" she declares matter-of-factly, describing how though medicine seemed at the time like a much more "giving" profession, she has come to realize that performance is "not just for myself" but an act of sharing something with her audience as well.

And so young Miss de Silva found herself studying music, first in London and then in Germany. It was here that she was introduced to something that would define the course of her musical career; the opportunity to perform on antique instruments. "I was always a great admirer of J. S. Bach" she shares, large bright eyes complementing her glittering smile, "it's not just beautiful music, but the structures, the intricacies… everything about it is so inspiring!" She explains with keen interest the workings of the different keyboard types and their differences in tone quality and performance techniques. Playing on the harpsichord and fortepiano (the main instruments for which Bach and Mozart respectively wrote), says Preethi, really helped her to understand the music better. And in the cycle of discovery, her love for the early forms of music grew.

So to be able to study at Yale was exciting for her, not only in itself as it would be for most of us (barring that it would be unimaginable also!), but also because of Ralph Kirkpatrick who was not only a lecturer there at the time but also a world-famous harpsichordist (considered by some, the best to play in this century), and the university's famous collection of 17th and 18th century musical instruments.

Following her studies at Yale, Preethi returned to Berlin to teach until she was offered a post at Scripts College in California, where she taught for over twenty years. She is now retired "but I'm not really retired, you know?" she laughs, explaining that she still engages with some graduate students. "The thing is, once you learn to play or sing, it's something you can't lose. You're never alone with an instrument, it's your friend for life".

Friday, September 2, 2011

To Sing 'Care': Getting 'Jazzed Up' with Rukshan Perera Live in Concert

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Don’t judge a book by its cover they say – and the same goes for people and homes. Rukshan Perera, despite an intimidating list of talents and achievements, is down-to-earth, unassuming and always smiling. The high walls and narrow entrance to his home too are imposing, but a deceptive cover to a cheery and comfortable interior, noticeable parts of which are an organ, electric guitar, and stacks of concert flyers.

Rukshan’s last performance in January was called “one of the best Colombo has ever seen” and simply “extraordinary”, and true to the reviews, the audience just can’t wait for more. So on Sunday August 28, the Bishop’s College Auditorium promises to come alive with the unmatched sounds of this master-musician. “I want to make it different from last time” Rukshan says, explaining that he has rearranged some of his compositions to include a brass section and other extra instruments and voices. It gets even better as he will be backed by Thriloka and joined on stage by the likes of Natasha Rathnayake, Voice Print and the
De Lanerolle Brothers. The extravagant line-up of guest artists is testimony not only to Rukshan’s genius but also the importance of the Colours of Courage Trust in aid of which the concert is being held.

And what better way to support a worthy cause than by creating awareness of the world we live in? A special thing about Rukshan’s concerts is the variety he presents, the compositions ranging from blues and jazz to acapella and pop, to unique arrangements of popular Sri Lankan tunes. But even more important is his concern for and engagement with current issues in and through his music. He gestures dramatically, describing the “Dhadaang... Dhadaang!” of falling chunks of ice he has witnessed off the Alaskan coast, the inspiration for ‘Nature’s Calling’, and speaks with true empathy of the fear related with overcoming drug abuse, the
theme of ‘You Are Strong’.

The list of Rukshan’s songs that deal with serious issues is surprisingly longer than for most other artists, and he believes he has been more outward looking than most from a young age, though he “never thought of that”. And he doesn’t seem to think much, either, of having formed his own family band at the age of ten (wittily called the Kalaa Maediriyas – a pun on the Sinhala word for “art”), of having been playing for the Golden Chimes from the age of 14, or of having toured Asia and Europe in his early twenties – all feats the kind of which only a handful of us can lay claim to.

What he does think of though, is the state and status of music in our country: “The problem is the time and the money”. He shares regretfully how Sri Lankan musicians trained abroad are reluctant to settle in their homeland because “the situation is just too bad” for musicians and artists. It’s “just not right” he declares, how performers he has known over the years (in a musical career spanning nearly half a century mind you!) are still earning what they did a decade or two ago.

But just as his music and lyrics are hopeful, Rukshan’s outlook is also very positive. “It’s really encouraging” he shares enthusiastically, that musical atmospheres such as that provided by Music Matters are being created by a generation of young and very talented artist, who choose Sri Lanka over so many more lucrative options, in order to simply encourage true musicianship.

“There are some very talented youngsters” he says, speaking of local bands, adding that “even the singers are extremely good now”. He hopes many of these will dare to dream, to reach for something beyond what seems available to them. Rukshan somewhat regretfully describes the ‘cover culture’ that thrives in the local band scene. “It was there in our time” he laughs embarrassedly, “I did enough and more of it”. “They’re (the local bands) undeniably doing a good job” he asserts, “but creativity is somewhat limited because of that.”

Which is why Jazz Unlimited, the monthly jam session at CR&FC, is another source of encouragement for Rukshan, who is enthusiastic that a younger audience listens to more challenging music and “not just pop or whatever that sells”. He is excited about the space these and similar gatherings create for an audience to be required to be informed about and understand what they’re hearing. “Just the fact that they come there to listen to it is amazing” he shares animatedly, his eyes glittering, “because if you don’t start somewhere, you’ll never do anything”.

This comes from a man who has been pretty much everywhere and done pretty much everything, musically. “I try to think out of the box” he shares thoughtfully, “I do a lot of experimental stuff”. He talks of making up his own exercises when he was a teenager, demonstrating them and then laughing mischievously. His unassuming nature makes it impossible it seems, for him to make much of his amazing talents, and its mostly like a child sharing secrets or pulling pranks that he talks (chuckling intermittently with a glint in his eye) of what he plans for the concert.

He sings (and sings effortlessly, a single short line of music enough to assert the fluidity of his mellow voice), plays the guitar and keyboards, composes, arranges, scats (a form of complex vocal improvisation traditional to jazz and not unlike the north-indian alap), scats with the guitar and scats harmony to the guitar! And if this sounds like an amazing list of talents – wait ‘til he begins to whistle. If you don’t know what this means, that’s a sure sign you need to be at his concert. Get your tickets from Park Street Mews, Commons, Torana or Video International (Nawala), and prepare to be astonished.