Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Stanley Peiris and the music of the middle

Music is, at least after the cinema, the most collaborative of all art-forms. Songs in particular require collaboration, to the extent that authorship is impossible to ascribe. On the other hand, however, this does not and will not deny the individual artiste a personal signature. Talent can’t be collectivised, this much we should know. That is why there are names associated with music and that is why some forms of music, to a considerable extent at least, are gauged on the basis of how their contemporary exponents echo the masters of the past.

I love these masters. They taught me how to live. And to love. Amaradeva never fails to enthral me. Khemadasa enthrals me even more (owing to my admiration for the man’s penchant for Western orchestration). Somadasa Elvitigala and Shelton Premaratne, the former dead and the latter domiciled in Australia, enchant me too, a pity since both were marginalised in their time. Sunil Shantha continues to be sung everywhere, teaching us the beauties of a land that undercut him. H. M. Jayawardena and Gunadasa Kapuge have taught me more about humanity and the resilience of the human spirit than any political tract. These people didn’t just compose tunes. They ensured that whatever they composed added meaning to our lives.

Unfortunately or fortunately, there were other composers. They also imparted meaning to their compositions. The only difference, however, was that they pandered to a different sensibility, nurturing a different audience. Like Clarence Wijewardena. The Moonstones. Los Caballeros. The Gypsies. Marians. Right down to Daddy. They too told (and continue to tell) stories in their songs, stories which deserve more than a cursory perusal. But if we are to compare them with those other names, I’d be inclined to say that they were responsible for simplifying music. With deference to Marx, I’d even be inclined to say that they brought music to the urban petite bourgeoisie here.

Stanley Peiris, who died in 2002 and would have been 75 were he alive, fell into this category. He composed more than 6,000 songs, hefty in a context where musicians today try to score points with a fraction of that amount. He was not an exponent of high music or low music. He was an exponent of popular music. Some of his tunes survive because, like those other composers one can classify him with, he appealed to a cross-section of his society. That cross-section has continued to balloon exponentially in the years following his death. No wonder his work remains popular.

He was born in Kandy and was educated at St Anthony’s College in Katugastota. He studied music at the Kandy MGC Institute and worked for a while at the Sri Lankan Navy, eventually becoming a Signal Officer. During this time, the Moonstones had more or less empowered the pop music industry in the country, a landmark given that pop music had hitherto been limited to calypso bands that came out of nowhere and disappeared. Emboldened by this, no doubt, Stanley decided to strike his own path, forming his own group (Fortunes) and specialising in instrumental music.

The Moonstones would shortly be uplifted by Vijaya Corea, who made the waves in our radio and music industries in the fifties and sixties. In 1969, the band had travelled to Kandy to perform at a dinner dance. Corea was to compere that dance. Stanley and his brother, Rangith, began their gig for the evening and went on, until late that night, with their saxophones. They had enthralled the compere so much that the man, wasting no time, told the duo to come to Colombo and not be limited to Kandy. When he himself went back to Colombo, he contacted the formidable Gerald Wickremesooriya. He asked the latter to accommodate Fortunes and, if possible, make them famous.

Legend has it that Gerald wasn't too enamoured of Corea’s proposal, but legend also has it that, thanks to Corea’s ability to persuade, he got the duo to come and perform for him. So one morning, at Gerald’s residence in Kollupitiya, Stanley, Rangith, and the rest of the boys in Fortunes went on from one item to another. History doesn’t tell us what Gerald would have thought. History does, however, tell us that he smiled at Corea, looked at Stanley and Rangith, and nodded at them. Fortunes was in, and with it Stanley too. Later, when Stanley partly abandoned his saxophone (which stayed with him, until his last days) and opted for a career in composing, rather than performing, music, he would look back and admit that if it wasn’t for Vijaya Corea, there would probably never have been a Stanley Peiris.

6,000-plus songs, as I mentioned before, is a hefty amount. With them, he got to meet and associate with a great many vocalists and lyricists, each different to the other by a considerable margin. He gave Chandrika Siriwardena her two most memorable songs, “Igillila Yanna Yan” and “Ran Tharawako”. He gave form to Ajantha Ranasinghe’s reminiscences about a nameless woman he’d seen in the city and got Amaradeva to sing “Tharu Arundathi”. He got together with Sunil Ariyaratne and Nanda Malini and got the latter to sing about the true spirit of Christmas with “Jesu Swami Daruwane”. And of course, he gave us a near-perfect fusion of romance and silliness and got Raj Seneviratne to sing “Sili Sili Seethala Alle”. There are a hundred other songs I have grown to love, but now’s not the time to list them all.

Was there something that brought all these together? Probably. Khemadasa’s signature became evident with the violin: he managed to get us hooked with even his lesser work, which he gave us regularly and despairingly so in the eighties, by resorting to that instrument. Stanley resorted likewise to the guitar, which remains treasured by the very same audience he won to his side.

In arguably his most rebellious song, the much vilified but scantily assessed “Seegiri Geeyak” (which got him working with Sunil Ariyaratne again), he conjures up with the guitar the very image of the Seegiri Apsarawo, alive and animated, as they dance to Nirosha Virajini’s fervent wish for her lover to carve a sandakada pahana in her heart. “What is the meaning of that song?” a prominent lyricist once asked me, to which he supplied his own answer: “Meaning is relative. So is music. If we question the meaning that the lyricist and the composer wanted to bring out, we are implying that we know better. We do not.” Aptly put, I’m compelled to concede.

Stanley didn’t go solo, of course. He scored some films: Saranga in 1981, Baisikale in 1982, and Soora Saradiel in 1986. He taught at his own school. Among his students was Rookantha Gunathilake, who with Mahinda Bandara and Keerthi Pasqual would form the band Galaxy under Stanley’s guidance. He guided other vocalists and composers, prime among them Dinesh Subasinghe. Among his later collaborators, who’ve graduated since, one can count Rohana Bogoda, Raju Bandara, and Nelu Adhikari. They all remember him today as self-effacing, kind, gentle, and never self-centred. A veritable portrait of a veritable artiste, I should think.

On October 13, 2002 Stanley Peiris succumbed to cancer. He was helped even in his final days by his students, who organised a musical show at the BMICH to raise funds for him. At the time of his death, the pop music industry in Sri Lanka was fast being inhabited by pretenders and amateurs, those who resorted to the same hackneyed themes in a bid to simplify their art even more. In the end, tragically but inevitably, we fell into a crevice, in which we remain stuck and in which we prefer to remain stuck.

What Stanley did, which the likes of Clarence began before him, was to bring music closer to the urban middle-class Sri Lankan. I think it was the inimitable A. J. Gunawardana who titled his tribute to P. L. A. Sompala as "The music of the middle". That would have been an apt heading for Stanley’s epitaph and for the kind of music he composed. On the other hand, though, what his descendants did (which they continue to do) was create an artificial common denominator so as to evade the burden and energy entailed in composing, writing, and singing songs which were original and spoke of experiences felt and lived through. We should regret, this I believe.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, January 4 2017