V/A SRI LANKA : The Golden Era of Sinhalese & Tamil Folk-pop Music


V/A SRI LANKA : The Golden Era of Sinhalese & Tamil Folk-pop Music


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A double compilation conceived as a panorama presenting the mosaic of Sri Lankan musical styles between 1967 and 1979 through 30 titles

With booklet depicting the country’s historical, cultural and musical context. 

+ Free digital download

“Buddist chants, kettledrum-and-oboe ensembles, verses sung to hindu guardian spirits, Sinhala drum music, masked theater, temple processions, popular Afro-Portuguese-influenced dance music, and Sinhala pop all contribute to the musical soundscape of present-day Sri Lanka”.

Anne Sheeran  

While India and Pakistan’s respective musical heritage had already aroused interest among foreign audiences, Sri Lanka still remained one of the rare South Asian countries whose folk-pop music from the 1960-70s had not yet been compiled abroad. This gap is now to be filled with Sri Lanka. The Golden Era of Sinhalese and Tamil Folk-Pop Music. This double compilation is conceived as a panorama presenting the diversity of Sri Lankan musical styles between 1967 and 1979 through 30 titles. It comes along with a booklet depicting the country’s historical, cultural and musical context.

As a deeply multicultural society, largely based on religious affiliations (Buddhist Sinhalese, Hindus Tamils as well as Muslim and Christian minorities) Sri Lanka possesses a great variety of musical traditions and influences which have been shaped by centuries of regional and international exchanges. If Sri Lankan music is undeniably part of South Asian musical culture, its heritage is also a product of almost five centuries of European imperialism. 

Coming from an original form of creolization, as defined by Edouard Glissant, the Baila bears the trace of both the African diaspora and the Iberian influences on the country. The Kaffirs - African slaves deported by the Portuguese - introduced African sounds while the Portuguese brought their musical traditions and instruments (cavaquinho, mandolin, violin, tambourines). The baila, which is reminiscent of Caribbean calypso, became the ultimate popular music and dance, performed on every festive occasion. Although much more recent but similarly popular, the sarala gee (also called light classical music) is a combination of Indian inspired music, either classical or close to Bollywood productions, with Sinhalese lyrics and a slight pop accent. 

In the early 1960s, the country’s musical scene was very dynamic, partly under the influence of the music label Sooriya Records. Its founder Gerald Wickremesooriya was determined to put into light proper Sri Lankan music in opposition to poor copies of standards of the times. He then invented the « new sound of Ceylonese pop » with the help of a few composers, musicians and singers. Very quickly, the label’s hits came one after another. They were performed during concerts organized by the label, the “Sooriya Shows”, or broadcasted on Radio Ceylon, which remained the number one radio for a long time. Sooriya Records’ catalogue reflected the diversity of Sri Lankan musical styles of the times: Anglo-Saxon influenced Sinhalese pop stood next to the baila or the sarala gee. Traditional instrumental music, characterized by large drum ensembles called hevisi, or even nurthy music originating from theatrical tradition, were also edited by the label. 

This mosaic of musical styles is to be found in Sri Lanka. The Golden Era of Sinhalese and Tamil Folk-Pop Music. This selection, which is mainly constituted of titles from Sooriya Records’ catalogue, presents the most popular artists of the times: virtuoso sitar and violin player Pandit Amaradeva, singer Indrani Perera, Paul Fernando and his lively baila rhythms, the psychedelic touch of Tamil producer Paramesh, or even the Sinhalese pop of both Clarence Wijewardena and the Golden Chimes and Baby Shiromi.

Alors que l’Inde et le Pakistan ont déjà vu leurs musiques susciter l’intérêt des oreilles étrangères, le Sri Lanka restait l’un des rares pays d’Asie du Sud dont la musique folk-pop des années 1960-70 n’avait pas encore été compilée hors de ses frontières. Sri Lanka. The Golden Era of Sinhalese and Tamil Folk-Pop Music vient réparer cette lacune. Imaginée comme un panorama, cette double compilation de 30 titres exprime la diversité des styles musicaux sri lankais entre 1967 et 1979. Elle est enrichie d’un livret retraçant le contexte historique, culturel et musical du pays.  

Société profondément multiculturelle, basée en grande partie sur les appartenances religieuses (les singhalais bouddhistes, les tamouls hindouistes, ainsi que les minorités musulmane et chrétienne), le Sri Lanka est riche d’une grande variété de traditions et d’influences musicales façonnées par des siècles d’échanges régionaux et internationaux. Si la musique au Sri Lanka s’inscrit indéniablement dans la culture musicale de l’Asie du Sud, elle est aussi héritière d’une histoire marquée par presque cinq siècles d’impérialisme européen. 

Né d’une forme originale de créolisation, au sens où l’entend Edouard Glissant, le Baila témoigne à la fois de l’empreinte de la diaspora africaine, et des influences ibériques sur le pays. Les Kaffirs, esclaves déportés des côtes africaines par les portugais, y ont introduit des sonorités africaines, tandis que les portugais y ont importé leurs traditions musicales et instruments (cavaquinho, mandoline, violon, tambourins). Devenu musique et danse populaire par excellence, jouée à chaque festivité, le baila rappelle le calypso caribéen. Tout aussi populaire mais beaucoup plus récent, le sarala gee (autrement appelé musique light classical) est un mélange de musique d’inspiration indienne, qu’elle soit classique ou proche des productions bollywoodiennes, avec des paroles singhalaises et de légers accents pop. 

Au tournant des années 1960, le paysage musical du pays est en pleine effervescence musicale, en partie impulsée par la maison de musique Sooriya Records. Déterminé à mettre à l’honneur une musique proprement sri lankaise et non de pâles copies des standards de l’époque, Gerald Wickremesooriya, son fondateur, invente avec une poignée de compositeurs, de musiciens et de chanteurs le « new sound of Ceylonese pop ». Très vite, le label enregistre succès sur succès, qui sont chantés lors de concerts organisés par le label lui-même, les « Sooriya Shows », ou relayés sur Radio Ceylan qui a pendant longtemps dominé le paysage radiophonique. Le catalogue de Sooriya Records reflète la diversité de styles musicaux sri lankais de l’époque : la pop singhalaise traversée d’influences anglo-saxonnes, voisine avec le baila ou le sarala gee. Les musiques instrumentales traditionnelles reconnaissables par de grands ensembles de percussions, les hevisi, ou encore la musique nurthy issue de la tradition théâtrale, sont aussi éditées par le label. 

Cette mosaïque de styles musicaux se retrouve dans Sri Lanka. The Golden Era of Sinhalese and Tamil Folk-Pop Music. La sélection, principalement issue du catalogue de Sooriya Records, présente les artistes les plus populaires de l’époque : Pandit Amaradeva, le virtuose du sitar et violon, la chanteuse Indrani Perera, Paul Fernando et ses entraînants rythmes baila, la touche psychédélique du producteur tamoul Paramesh, ou encore la pop singhalaise de Clarence Wijewardena et des Golden Chimes, et celle de Baby Shiromi.

The Jetliners with Mignonne, Loretta and Conrad. Photo: x.

A rich variety of music that ranges from traditional-pop hybrids to Bollywood-inspired tunes to good old rock ‘n’ roll.

After a pair of releases that focused on a single singer, the third set from the French reissue label Akuphone, which specializes in global sounds, gains strength from its broader overview of the seldom heard pop music of Sri Lanka. While music from India and Pakistan, especially Bollywood film music, has frequently been tapped for reissue, the 60’s and 70’s music from this region is a rarer bird. The two-disc set The Golden Era of Sinhalese and Tamil Folk-Pop Music collects a rich variety of music that ranges from traditional-pop hybrids to Bollywood-inspired tunes to good old rock ‘n’ roll.

The diverse culture of Sri Lanka is made up of various religious influences. The Sinhalese are primarily Buddhist, the Tamil mainly Hindu and Christian and Muslim minorities are part of the mix as well. The nation’s music is as varied as its worship. Most of these recordings come from the archives of Sooriya Records, a versatile imprint that featured subgenres like the calypso-influenced baila and sarala gee, a light classical music inspired by Bollywood and Western pop music.

The set opens with the traditional feel and gentle pop melody of baila master Paul Fernando’s “Egoda Gode.” “Soken Pale Ne,” by sitar master Pandit W.D. Amaradeva, uses traditional string instruments, but these are used for more modern lines that, with a little amplification, would be edgy electric guitar riffs. The unusual timbre of dual-tracked sitars makes it clear why Western groups often tapped this music in the psychedelic era.

After a few tracks of the advertised folk-pop hybrid, the set goes straight pop with Clarence Wijewardena’s “Gamen Liyumak,” which opens with electric guitar and floats on a farfisa riff. On “Naan Unnai Thedum,” Tamil producer Paramesh takes an underlying melodramatic pop aesthetic and adds psychedelic touches, electric guitar fills and almost theremin-like keyboards. The Fortunes’ “Instrumental Baila Medley” starts with a farfisa that suggests the Stranglers’ “Golden Brown” but quickly runs through a succession of melodies that include what sounds like a Latin-tinged “Yakety Sax.”

On the other end of the spectrum, ”Ceremonial Drums” from Pani Bharatha & Party is one of the album’s more starkly traditional pieces, opening with a horn blare and heavy percussion as subtle melodies gradually bubble up from the rhythms. “Vairodi Wannama” by the Police Reserve Hewisi Band is in a similar vein and, perhaps not coincidentally, is a more martial-sounding example.

While lyrics haven’t been provided, the one English-language example may indicate a cheerful, if wistful, sentiment. Claude & The Sensations with Noeline Mendis pay homage to the largest city in Sri Lanka with “City of Colombo,” with lyrics that yearn for escape: “There’s a place where the sky’s always blue/ And the sea is so calm all day through.”

Like a good mixtape, Sri Lanka: The Golden Era of Sinhalese and Tamil Folk-Pop Music shifts among subgenres, taking diverse pieces and distinct voices for an integrated sonic experience that immerses you in a region that, as far as this anthology is concerned, is naturally multicultural. Whether the various factions truly get along is a question left unanswered, especially since liner notes were not provided with review files. But even without any background, you can imagine this compilation as a gift that a musically well-rounded friend sent you from their visit to Sri Lanka.

By Pat Padua. Spectrum Culture. 02/02/2017.