Monday, November 7, 2016

Sanchitha Wickremesooriya: Harvesting and reaping rhythm

I was not musical as a child. My only encounter with the subject was through Miss Helen, the prim, proper, no-nonsense music teacher who tried to get me into the choir at my school, Lyceum. She couldn’t (or to be more accurate, I didn’t let her). Music wasn’t my forte then and it’s safe to say that after all these years, I am (almost) as tone-deaf as I was as a child. That probably explains why I tend to look up to musicians, especially the more prodigious among them and especially as I realise that they are more endowed than I am with the ability to harvest the most universal art-form the world has ever known.

And when those musicians and music lovers happen to be young, I tend to look up to them even more.

Just the other day I met Sanchitha Wickremesooriya. He’s young, he bristles with energy, and he’s fired with a sort of enthusiasm I haven’t come across others his age. He needs no introduction, no real CV. He prefers to stay out of the limelight while courting fame, the kind of music lover who’s quietly harvesting what he’s done. For that reason, I “notice” him even more, and as I go through his life and the anecdotes that colour it, I can’t help but think, “Here’s someone to reckon with!”

Sanchitha has a background and comes from a family that contributed to the music industry of this country, but right at the beginning of the interview he brushes off all that as he recounts his story. He was, as I expected, musically inclined as a child. “My parents tell me that long before I learnt to talk and read and write, I’d go to a corner behind the cupboard and, well, sing and draw,” he chortles, “I started going for classes at the Mary Anne School of Vocal Music when I was four-and-a-half years old.”

He later joined the choir at his school (Royal College), which had not been your typical school choir. “We even indulged in pop music,” he remembers, adding that almost every teacher had encouraged his passion for the subject. “When you have so many teachers who inspired your later career, it’s hard to point at one name in particular.”

After he completed his A Levels (in Commerce), he was on tenterhooks, deciding eventually to join his family business and in possible, be a vocalist himself. His parents, however, had been adamant that he pursue his interests academically. “They didn’t push me to conventional subjects like Engineering or Medicine. However, they insisted that I should combine all what I’d done academically. In that sense their advice was sound, particularly when I left for the United States and landed at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.”

Berklee had been an eye-opener. “It was more or less a different world. The culture-shock was a little hard to adapt to. Not that I can’t adapt, but I’m not a big fan of changing myself to suit another way of life. That’s why the first three months there were challenging. Moreover, Berklee attracted the best and got the best: not every Tom, Dick, and Harry could enter it. I had to contend with that as well. Yes, I guess it was all existential, but soon enough I decided to fast-track my Degree and after completing it, return home.” Not that he dislikes the country: “I love the United States and its people, but I don’t think I’d want to live there.”

What of the Degree itself? “I originally wanted to be a performer. In fact for some time I did perform at Berklee, when I got together with some friends of mine and formed a band called ‘The Indian Ensemble.’ But when I realised the sacrifices that vocalists had to make, not in terms of money or capital but in terms of the moral and physical investment, I changed my mind. That’s why I went for a Degree which combined commerce and music: Music Business and Entrepreneurship.”

I ask him about what went into the Degree. “Well, it’s essentially what I learnt for A Level Commerce, only this time from the perspective of the music industry. So you’d study Economics and Accountancy in terms of, say, a record store. It was quite interesting, especially since I learnt how commerce and music could cohabit. I mean, think of it this way: there are factors that go into the music industry of a given country, not just demographics but ethnicity and religious bent as well. In the end, those factors help explain the success or failure of a single or album or performer.”

I confess that it’s difficult to unveil his perspectives on our music industry. For starters, Sanchitha argues that we can’t really claim an “industry” of our own. “The market here is dominated by a few powerful players. It’s monopolistic. Whoever goes up stays up and tries his level best to degrade newcomers. I am not saying that it was perfect world before my time, but back then things were more amenable to young blood. Everything’s cutthroat and competitive now.”

I put to him that these problems may all be economic, but he disagrees. “It’s futile to blame economics on every form of deterioration. There are other factors. For instance, why do aspiring vocalists want to make it big in the West? What does ‘make it big in the West’ mean anyway? Does it mean making the cut in the USA, in which case you are ignoring tons of other musical forms from Europe, or does it mean imitating what little you know from that part of the world?”

Not that he finds fault with those who harbour such ambitions. “In music as with life, there’s no one correct answer or solution. There’s nothing wrong in trying to hit it big in the West. The problem is one of motivation. Why would you want to do this? Can you or should you do that? More often than not, these up-and-coming artistes see the world in terms of the West, and have no desire to create something of their own in Sri Lanka. The most they would have heard from the US, for instance, would have been an Ariana Grande song, in which case they’ve merely scratched the surface.”

And in a way, that reflects the kind of songs one comes across here. According to Sanchitha there broadly are two trends musicians here go for today: stereotypical love songs that rip off the West and the more plebeian bus tunes. Again, he sees no reason for lament: “It’s all basically a choice. For me, a song’s primary aim is to put out there what’s in you. As long as you’ve achieved that, it doesn’t matter what you put out.”

He then goes on to add that in music, as with other art-forms, there’s little possibility of enforcing tastes on audiences. I tell him here that this truism of his can’t hold when it comes to propaganda.

He disagrees. “Propaganda is a strong word. For me, songs can only be forced on listeners if someone is holding a gun to their heads. Otherwise, they can always choose to shut them out even if they’re broadcast everywhere.” He also disagrees with those who differentiate between the aesthetic and the political in music. “I am opposed to those who say that songs should make you happy. Why must music appeal to only happiness? Aren’t we endowed with other emotions, which a song can provoke?”

All this offers much for reflection. I suspect Sanchitha wants to compel just that in us. He’s noticeably cheerful as we near the end of our interview. “I come from quite a quirky, unconventional family. We don’t look for monetary recompense with what we do and we certainly haven’t made money a primary motive. Sure, my grandfather Gerald, who founded the Sooriya record label, had a business acumen not many can claim. He brought music and commerce together in ways which entranced the ‘commoners’ and astounded the ‘elite’. That however doesn’t mean he compromised on artistry. We have much to learn from him, to be honest.”

He concludes with some rather prophetic words. “The States, regardless of whether one likes to live there or not, is amenable to those who experiment in music. I saw this for myself. Here you see someone experiment and think, ‘If we can’t do what he does, he is inferior to us.’ I suppose that’s as close-minded as you can get, but the sad truth is that that’s the kind of mentality you come across everywhere. We’ve conditioned ourselves to react prudishly to pop music and fusion and for that reason, it takes time for innovation to get rooted here.”

It’s all about passion and freeing oneself from the shackles of conformity, one can therefore infer. All about discovering self, going forward, and creating a precedent. Maybe it’s impossible to jot all that down in words, or for that matter one article. Maybe it’s time to stop reading and go for it. Just like that.

Written for: The Island YOUth, November 6 2016