Sunday, September 4, 2016

Amarasiri Peiris: On the artiste and the audience

Artistes have their views. They voice them from time to time. True, they come out less regularly than we’d want them to, but when they do they’re frank enough to call a spade a spade. The more humble among them, I believe, manage to concede their own inadequacies when indulging in this. Few do, yes, but mercifully they aren’t a minority. Being the veterans they are, they’ve traversed enough to realise that for all the shifts in time and aesthetic tastes, what they bequeathed to us survives and therefore, remains the standard by which we continue to judge and applaud them. Amarasiri Peiris, who remains frank and calls a spade a spade like most of his colleagues, has bequeathed much to us, going by that.

I first heard him, I remember, when I was 10. We were travelling to Colombo, back when Colombo was “far away” and visits to which warranted a song or two over the radio. The song was “Oba Apple Malak Wage”, which has since remained his signature for me for the simple reason that it sums up the man’s vocal texture and frankness. When I spoke with him the other day that was, of course, all there: he has mellowed and continues to mellow, but thankfully, I suspect, he retains that texture. Not surprisingly, he’s still at it here and abroad, and those who follow and fawn on him continue to do so in increasing numbers.

Amarasiri Peiris was born to a musical family. His father, Albert Peiris, had been a respectable figure at Radio Ceylon. “He knew almost all the celebrated figures in his field, including H. W. Rupasinghe. In fact ‘Rupasinghe Master’ was a regular visitor to our house, where he and my father would discuss and debate on music. I was witness to all this as a young boy. So I guess you can say I was tutored in music before I decided to strike out my own path.” Curiously and despite all this however, Albert didn’t want his son to opt for music. I ask him why. He smiles as he replies, “Back then the music industry was as lacking in opportunity as it is today. Perhaps my father sensed that, perhaps he didn’t, but in the end it was my mother who identified my penchant for music and encouraged it.”

He opted for music after he passed his O Levels. While doing his A Levels in the early sixties, he applied to the University of Visual and Performing Arts, back then known as Haywood College. “I was selected in 1963,” he remembers, “after which I had to go through a six year course. It wasn’t easy, considering that in those six years we were virtually debarred from seeking employment elsewhere, but in the end I managed to survive them.” The Principal at Haywood at the time was Lionel Edirisinghe, who despite his detractors today is fondly remembered by Amarasiri: “Our country owes him a great debt, in particular because it was because of him that we have a music form we can claim today. He also was responsible for creating a vast, veritable reserve of music teachers.”

Amarasiri would pass out in 1968, and a short while later, would be taken into Radio Ceylon by the then Chairman and Director-General, Neville Jayaweera. Initially taken in as an A-grade violinist, he would rise up to become a Conductor, Controller, and by the time he retired in 2005, Director of Music. His brush with radical politics would get him into trouble after 1977, and for three years he was without a job. “That was in the late eighties. During D. B. Wijetunga’s presidency, I was called back and was paid in full for those three years I’d been away.”

I ask him as to what he contributed during his time as an administrator in the SLBC. “Well, for one thing, I noticed that none of the programs in the Sinhala sevaya took our listeners beyond the jana gee and Oriental tradition. So I introduced programs on Western symphonies and operas. These were already played out in the English service, but Sinhala audiences didn’t really listen to that.” What of his fascination with Bach, Beethoven, and the Western tradition, then? “All that goes back to my days at Heywood, so when I was working in the SLBC I realised that if our audiences were to be discerning, they should be opened to the outside world. I believe that is what made me what I am today. We must appreciate everything, not just what we can claim as ours.”

His penchant for Western music also goes back to his first encounter with his biggest associate in later years, Premasiri Khemadasa. No biographical sketch of Amarasiri would be complete without mentioning Khemadasa, so I ask him about the man. He predictably becomes more eager and opens his heart. While spatial constraints prevent me from quoting him completely, I will say this: he sees Khemadasa not as a guru but as a grand collaborator, who instilled in him an appreciation of his field. “I was a virtual experiment for him,” he laughs, “My first song was ‘Landune’. He took my voice and varied it, and despite certain reservations expressed by some of his associates, he never stopped using me thereafter.”

At a time when most veterans are wont to disparaging and critiquing modernity, Amarasiri is refreshingly more lenient. For starters, he doesn’t see deterioration in lyricists today. It is a sign of the man’s humility that far from trashing them, he rates them more highly than many of those he worked with in his time. I ask him why, piqued and puzzled as I am, and he readily explains.

“In my day we collaborated when we composed, wrote, and performed a song. In later years, for some strange reason, that spirit of collaboration was superseded by an unnecessary fight for ownership and bragging rights. I will not mention names here, but certain lyricists, composers, and relatives thereof have sent me letters of demand and have forced me to stop singing their songs. I would have appreciated it had they opted for negotiation, but due to their hostility I can only conclude that time has swelled their heads and made them forget their roots. I don’t see this with today’s lyricists. They are thankfully more discerning. And humble.”

He rattles off a list of those lyricists he’s worked with recently, in particular Danister Perera and Dhammika Bandara, and concludes with a flourish: “Before we become artistes we must become human. These youngsters have realised this more than their elders. Tells a lot about our music industry.”

Given his unfortunate encounters with those same elders, who does he think owns a song? “It depends on where it’s placed. If it’s in a film, it belongs to the producer. If it’s standalone, according to the law, the lyricist and composer claim ownership while the singer claims performance rights. The problem here is that I’ve been debarred from those rights on the pretext that by claiming them I am violating the rights of the lyricist and composer!” A tragic Catch-22 dilemma, no doubt. And the end result? “I don’t sing those songs anymore. Not because I can’t, but because I’m hurt by how hostile these people have become.”

While praising modernity however, he isn’t one to commend it blindly. Among its demerits, he cites the discernible confusion between form and content sustained by today’s singers. “Look at Michael Jackson. He sang about love, mankind, and this world we live in. He sang with enough meaning to make us aware about the message he was bringing up. Compare that with those here who try to imitate the way he walked and danced without giving a damn about his message. These imitators have misunderstood form for substance and pretty much done away with the latter.”

All this of course offers much for reflection. Amarasiri Peiris has reflected well. I remember no less a figure than Carlo Fonseka, who collaborated with him over the song "Yanna Giya We" (which sounds like a dirge on lost love but is actually about a lost pet bird), paying tribute to his voice, “as enchanting as it is and as strangely mystical as it seems” (his words to me, from three years back). The good Professor got it right there, I believe. The man’s two biggest assets, his vocal texture and his dexterity with both Western and Eastern musical forms, have hence marked him out well.

Speaking strictly for myself, I am yet to come across a vocalist here who’s capable of the range of emotion and experience he’s dipped into all his life. He has that rare ability to elongate or shorten whatever he sings, which (and I am being simple here, given that I am no musicologist) articulates emotion and in particular, loss, unrequited love, grief, frustration, and sorrow acutely. I am reminded of those few lines in “Minisa Marana Thunak”, which sum up Anoja Weerasinghe’s feelings of jealousy and frustration in Parakrama Niriella’s film Siri Medura: "ලිහිල් සළුව අනතුරේ වැටෙද්දී / පයෝධර තුඩු ඉකිබිඳිද්දී." That no other person could have articulated the sexual nuances of those lines, or for that matter the raw, almost savage image wrought by them, we don’t doubt. And we shouldn’t.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, September 4 2016