Monday, April 4, 2016

He sang of joy, emotion, and grief

There’s a story about a playback singer I heard recently. This singer had been approached by arguably the most sought after composer in his day, Amaradeva, somewhere in the 1960s. Amaradeva requested this young man to sing a song for a film he was scoring. This young man, it must be said, was popular. Amaradeva hadn’t approached him before. Not knowing his methods and his way with other musicians perhaps, the man had simply replied: “Give me a day, I’ll come over, I’ll record once, and I’ll go.”

Amaradeva had got angry, apparently. I don’t know exactly what transpired between the two of them there, but from what I’ve heard he never spoke nor came across this young singer until about 10 years later. Again, there was a film he was scoring, and someone had suggested the man’s name. Giving him one more chance (we can assume), he had made his request again. The singer, predictably, gave the same reply. Amaradeva didn’t get angry this time.

He instead decided to try out this man’s claim (for in his experience, I am willing to bet, he hadn’t come across a vocalist who could record a song perfectly in one go). So he gave him a date and time for the recording.

What happened next surprised Amaradeva. True to his word this singer came over, recorded once, and left. The recording was perfect and moreover perfectly in tune with the sequence of the film. I don’t know what Amaradeva would have thought then but I am sure he reflected on his previous encounter with the singer with some humility. After all, I am willing to bet, he couldn’t have come across a vocalist like this before. In the meantime the song, “Kanden Kandata”, became popular, and so did the film, Tharanga. But that’s peripheral.

What's important is the name of the singer. H. R. Jothipala.

Jothipala could sing. He could articulate nearly every emotion known to us and in ways which render a crass reading of the man’s talent an injustice. He was “Jothi” to everyone who thronged around him, “Jothi” to those who continue to sing his songs wherever they are.

It wasn’t just the man’s popularity, of course. It was also his humility. Time and time again, from lyricists and from those who knew him personally, I have heard stories of his humanity, his zeal for giving to others. He did not forget those who loved him. Naturally, we loved him back.

I remember someone telling me that Jothi had a way with the actors who got to lip-sync his songs. For some reason or the other, he could blend in with the voice of that individual actor. More than 10 years ago, Gamini Fonseka, in an interview by Prasad Gunewardene published in “The Island” in 2011, confirmed this: Jothi’s voice, he contended, was “the only voice that really suited not only me but also Vijaya Kumaratunga and even Joe Abeywickrama.” Elaborating on that, Fonseka went on to argue that Jothipala’s voice could vary inflection, tone, and pace in a way which did justice to the lyric and the actor.

And what lyrics he could sing! He could sing of love in a hundred different ways and yet establish that poignant commonality that brought them all together. I am neither musician nor musicologist, but it doesn’t take an academic to figure out that Jothi’s greatest talent lay in how seamlessly he could sync in song, actor, and context. That’s a generalisation I agree, but a perusal of his songs (they weren’t really his, of course) will confirm this. “Chandra Me Rae Paya Awa” is vintage Jothipala the same way “Ninda Nena Rathriye” is, and yet the one was (in terms of emotion) worlds away from the other.

It wasn’t just love, of course. There were other themes. Even when he was “morose”, he could breathe life and vitality into them. The first few lines of “Pruthugeesi Karaya” (another standard Sri Lankan must-sing), for instance, give rise to anything but merriment. Who could sing about the invader light-heartedly, after all?

Jothi could. When he sang of the invader who ransacks the country in his quest for domination, we sang with him. We didn’t forget the invader, but we couldn’t resist “celebrating” their ruthlessness in the most comic way possible. Professor Sunil Ariyaratne would later call “Pruthugeesi Karaya” one of the first Sinhala songs which thematised irony. He is correct.

“Pruthugeesi Karaya” was written by Arisen Ahubudu. He was a Buddhist. It was composed by Sunil Shantha. He was a Catholic. So was Lester James Peries, who directed the film which had that song, Sandeshaya. Sunil Ariyaratne, talking at an event held at the BMICH some years ago, observed that when Lester called Father Marcelline Jayakody to write the lyrics to a film that portrayed the Portuguese negatively, he declined, afraid (so it goes) of whether the Catholic Church would interfere and prohibit. I don’t know whether Father Marcelline could have written “Pruthugeesi Karaya” even if he came in, but my guess is that with Jothipala even another song would have worked. Beautifully.

And in a big way, that’s why we know and love the man. He enters into conversations and forces us (I’d like to think) to sing. I’ve always believed that a song, in whatever form, belongs to the lyricist, but that would be doing a crass injustice by the vocalist. Jothipala grew with us and we grew with him, and my guess is that whenever we listen to his voice and are compelled to sing along with him, we are paying tribute to all those vocalists who proved that a song wasn’t just a series of lines etched by the lyricist, but a fusion of voice and intellect, of heart and mind.

We still love him, of course.

We always will.

Written for: The Sunday Island LIFESTYLE, April 3 2016