Monday, October 17, 2016

A tale of two shows

School shows are worth a dime a dozen. So are concerts. They nurture talent, yes, and the best of them sustain it. But that’s rare. Doesn’t happen always. For the most, then, half of what goes for concerts, school shows, talent competitions, and reality programs do little more than inflate ego and reputation, without really delving into the worth and talent of those involved in them. Competitions are decided by votes, not judgment. Merit, it would seem, has completely if not almost completely been overtaken by popularity. For the worse.

Which is why, when a bunch of schoolboys who clearly have other things to do organise two musical events, an ambitious island-wide competition which precedes an even more ambitious concert, the nation must notice.

The first show began more than 40 years ago. Ananda College had just initiated its first Music Society. This was in 1975. The Society was baptised as the “Oriental Music Society.” Two names stand out in this respect: Hemachandra Jayawardana and Bandula Kodikara, staff members from College. On December 6, 1978, the Society made its first real contribution by providing music for the opening of the Kularatne Hall, more specifically a play titled “Ananda Udawa” staged for the occasion.

Time passed. Bandula Kodikara retired. He was replaced by arguably the biggest exponent of folk music here, Lionel Ranwala. Given that the Society had concentrated on oriental music, Ranwala came and oversaw a transition to more indigenous musical forms. He succeeded.

There were other milestones. In 1986, an oriental orchestra was formed by the then teacher-in-charge, Sunanda Balasuriya. In 1989, the Music Society was renamed as the Music Circle of Ananda College. In 1991, a group of students attached to the Circle started a pop band named “Rhythm of the Maroons.” Its first function was held in 1991, titled “Maroons Fiesta” and featuring Kasun Kalhara, Bathiya Jayakodi and Gaminda Priyaviraj (“Podi Malli”). Five years later, the Circle organised another event, “Rhythm of the Maroons”, handled by Kalhara.

Eight years passed by. In 2004, the Music Circle organised “Miyasiya”, a show to celebrate its 15th Anniversary, and was guided by the current teacher-in-charge, K. M. Rathnapala. In 2006, the Music Circle more or less made “Rhythm of the Maroons” its annual look-forward-to show. It re-emerged on November 19 at the then refurbished Kularatne Auditorium. The following year, it was shifted to the BMICH. The response was overwhelming. It merited an even bigger show in 2008: ROM, as it was colloquially referred to by then, was shifted to the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium.

The second show began three years ago. From 2006 to 2013, ROM continued with the same format. There was percussion, singing, and not a little bit of dancing. Senanayaka Weraliyadda and even Pandith Amaradeva made guest appearances and splashed some colour on an otherwise conventional show. Inevitably and as time went on though, variety gave way to routine. Those who organised and those who participated in it encouraged and retained dedication, and for this reason perhaps, what it lacked in novelty it gained in effort. Still, it needed a fresh lease of life. The organisers wanted something more.

They got that in 2013. They got it by planning out a competition.

The competition had a name. Vocalize.

This year Vocalize marks four years. That’s three winners down and one to come. What’s special is that it’s unprecedented, something “Rhythm of the Maroons” clearly was not. That’s not to say that other schools or institutions don’t organise musical competitions, but they’re all “in-house” and internalised. Vocalize, on the other hand, is “outsourced” and welcome to outsiders. In fact it wouldn’t be wrong to claim, as its organisers do, that it affirms camaraderie.

The idea was to find a winner. Now winners can be created through merit or popularity. The Music Circle didn’t want to tilt to either extreme, so they compromised: until the Final Round, which would unveil at ROM, there’d be a board of judges who would shortlist the participants. The final winner, on the other hand, would be decided by a live SMS campaign.

Naturally, word got around. More and more schools came in. Two categories – solo and choir – were created to recognise the individual and collective in music, something the boys at the Music Circle seem to have understood completely.

What comes out, not surprisingly, is the dedication and energy they’ve put in. And not just because of participation. All those hours, days, and months, and all those gruelling schedules adhered to for the sake of timing and perfection have gone a long way in bringing everyone together. Friendships have been made, new faces have surfaced, and commonalities which go beyond school-colour have been recognised.

The winners, on the other hand, have reaped dividends. All three of them – Dhanushka Chandimal, Janith Iddamalgoda, and Piyath Rajapaksha – have in some way made a mark for themselves in the country’s musical sphere, which speaks a lot about the show as a whole. So while the overall format of the competition hasn’t changed over the years, it’s evident that the push, the dedication, and the camaraderie privileged by its organisers have accumulated and more pertinently have become key determinants of the entire event.

Predictably therefore, there’s next to nothing different this year. The title they’ve come up with – “Vocalize Generation 4” – is deceptive because it assumes a new set of members who’re organising it for the first time. Not so. On the contrary, everyone involved with it this time have, for the past four years or so, been deeply engaged with the birth, formation, and development of Vocalize beyond what was intended, and for this reason, they know what they do by heart.

On June 3, Vocalize Generation 4 went through its first round. From nine in the morning to about four in the evening, more than 50 schools participated in both categories. In the end three choirs and 18 solo singers were shortlisted for the second round. As usual participation had been good, it had been attended to by quite a number of schools from outside Colombo, and the competition had been healthy. There had also been a panel of judges most conducive to such an endeavour, including Nadeeka Guruge, Heshan Gamage, Jananath Warakagoda, and Kanchana Jayasinghe.

The second round was unveiled on August 30. Six finalists were selected from the 18 solo singers: Achinthya Sahan, Kanchana Anuradhi, Chamodya Rashmiprabha, Seneli Premaratne, Tharushi Malisha, and Madushi Sulakshani. The stage, as always, has been set for the final show.

Competitions and concerts are a dime a dozen these days, as I implied earlier. So what’s special and unique about ROM and Vocalize. For one thing, they boil down to giving a platform to talented singers and choirs. The President of the Circle Pasan Induwara told me as much: “When we started, all we wanted to do was give these students an opportunity. As time has flown by, we’ve changed our objectives a little, in keeping with our original vision. Now we want to raise these kids higher, to make their platform bigger. We’re already doing this now, with a panel of judges who’re recognised throughout the country, but in future shows we hope to tap into their talent by coordinating their work and efforts with well-known vocalists and artistes here.”

It’s almost impossible to think that an event of this magnitude can be organised by a bunch of school kids, but that’s the truth. I’m not only talking about the hours spent at finding sponsors or organising, but also those hours spent practising and synchronising to the last dot. It’d be a miracle if half of what they plan comes out well, but as those who’ve associated with the event know, everything that’s planned out does come out. For this reason, the Music Circle remembers one name in particular: K. M. Rathnapala.

Before he wrote of insanity and long before he himself became insane, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote of music. He contended that music threw out man's individuality and championed the union of humanity. His theory, studied by music lovers for ages to come, was that music embodied the collective. He didn't "assess" concerts, choirs, and singers individually, but he might have found in their unyielding solidarity a confirmation of that same argument.

Nietzsche once wrote: “Without music, life would be a mistake.” The boys at the Music Circle at Ananda know this, I’m sure. And no, not just because that is one of the many quotes they’ve used when promoting their work in these past 10 years.

“Rhythm of the Maroons” will be staged on October 29 at the BMICH.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, October 16 2016