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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!