Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sarith and Surith: The rhythms flowing from one heartbeat

Human beings are born for and because of rhythm. They are born with their mother’s heartbeat and they die with the death of their own heartbeat. Small wonder, then, that music is considered universal, a language that eschews ethnicity, gender, and age.

Sarith and Surith Jayawardena came to us not too long ago, as aspiring youngsters and twins who continue to be avid followers of music. Their career began five years ago, but their penchant for the arts began long before that. They have since grown, and as is usually the case, they have changed. To what extent though? A question that can’t really be answered, and which compels another, as intriguing query: have what they sought to do, as performers, been achieved? To surmise this for myself, I went and met them on a cloudy Friday evening in Colombo.

It all began in 2012, but that’s not to say they don’t have a story before that. Sarith and Surith Jayawardena were born in Matara to a rather arts-conscious family and had been exposed to art and music from an early age. Their father Jagath, a teacher by profession, was (and is) a lyricist, while their mother Niluka worked in a bank and taught for some time before “retiring” as a housewife. Their sister continues to study music and art, with the piano as her preferred instrument.

The twins had professed an interest in drawing, which meant that an exhibition, to unveil their talent, was in the offing. While plans were underway for that exhibition, though, they had been entranced by music. This had been supplemented by their participation at Poddanta Puluwan, aired on Sirasa TV. Given that it was modelled after America’s Got Talent, their other competitors had displayed a whole bunch of abilities, which meant that the competition was tough. Tough, but not hard to get through. Sarith and Surith didn’t just get through, they won.

Victories are more often than not savoured and later forgotten. These two youngsters, however, did not forget. Nor did fate, which meant soon enough that they were called in for various shows and contests. Their first encounter as such had been a mere two days after Poddanta Puluwan ended, at a concert at the BMICH. About a year later, they had gone to Dubai, while in 2014 they had left to Vietnam to compete at the ABU Music Festival with 32 other participants and countries.

If Poddanta Puluwan confirmed their inclination for music, the ABU Festival confirmed it even more. I believe the two of them put it best: “The other competitors lip-synced. They didn’t perform live. We did, singing the first English song our father wrote for us, ‘Together Forever.’ The response was so enormous that we clinched a Gold Merit Award, not easy considering the competition we had to put up with.”

Meanwhile, their lives changed in other respects as well. They were in Seventh Grade at Rahula College in Matara when they won at Poddanta Puluwan. In April 2014, they were admitted to Ananda College, where their father teaches English. The shift from the one to the other hadn’t been overbearing for them, and soon enough they were moving into various Clubs at their new school. Because they had “gone small” before, Rahula hadn’t yielded much of a fandom, but at Ananda they found themselves reckoning with a huge fan base.

What of their other landmarks? After entering Ananda, they had gone to India for the Odyssey Philharmonic Festival, to which they had submitted (of all things) a rock version of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”).

Apparently their submission had enthralled the judges so much that the two of them clinched first place, for both Sri Lanka and their school. How refreshing had it been for them? So refreshing that they now hope to send a copy of it to London, “if possible with a video.” Meanwhile, their sojourn in India encouraged them to take the next step: form up a band. In 2015, that’s exactly what they did.

Lehan Budvin, Venuk Pesara, and Rashmika Chanith were virtual strangers to each another before they teamed up with the duo to form Sarith Surith and the News, the band which gave the duo a motive to collaborate with other, as talented musicians. Today Lehan handles the bass guitar, Venuk handles the rhythm guitar, and Rashmika handles the keyboard. Of these bright youngsters only Rashmika is from Ananda: Lehan studies at Asian Grammar School while Venuk is a Peterite.

So how did the band fare? “Pretty well!” the two of them chortle. Their first event had been at a festival at Bishop’s College called Future Voices. From then on, other events, concerts, and contests had come up in quick succession. Apart from outside concerts they have also performed at various College events, with Morning of Friendship (organised by the Interact Club at Ananda) and the Big Match being two of them. They had also performed at the finale of Trail, unveiled at their hometown in Matara.

All that is the past, of course. What of the impulses behind that past? To find out for myself, I ask Sarith and Surith as to what defines their love for music. As expected, they can’t think of a particular reason, so I ask them to list out their biggest influences. Not surprisingly, the singers and bands they list out were and are exponents of rock, reggae, and the guitar: Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, and Dire Straits figure in among them, while closer to home they name Rookantha Gunathilake, Chitral Sompala, and Bathiya and Santhush.

I then ask them as to what they look for in a song. Being performers, they could have easily mentioned the melody or rhythm, but to my surprise they do not: instead, they claim they value the lyrics and the lyricist highly. Their father Jagath (who is also their manager) has ensured that the verses adorning their songs lend some meaning to what they’re performing, which probably is why the two of them claim such a high place for the written word. “We always look out for a story or message in what we perform. In fact that is why we openly invite good writers to join us. We can help them and they can help us.”

I tentatively ask whether this reflects their dissatisfaction with the music industry in Sri Lanka and the philistinism it’s indulging in at the cost of the written word, but being the modest youngsters they are, they smile and reply that they aren’t mature enough to comment on that yet. Modesty is a hard to reach, harder to retain commodity in such talented performers, which they have been amply blessed with and which probably has to do with how they’ve reckoned with their fandom.

What of the present? Sarith and Surith finished their O Levels last December, before, during, and after which they were busy with their first single, “Ira Wenaswela.” While I should not reveal what the song (or the video accompanying it) revolves around, I can certainly say that there is a story and a message, and that great care has been taken while editing the video. The entire enterprise apparently took a whole year. That shows. Quite discernibly.

In the meantime they have not let go of their education. While they are following CIMA, they have also undergone a course in Audio Engineering by Ranga Dasanayake at the Hit Factory Audio Institute.

Together with Lehan, Venuk, and Rashmika, they have also gone through the Grade Three Trinity College music exams. To date, they continue to be defined by how willing they are to crisscross paths less traversed and by how fascinated they are with the mechanics behind music.

Whether or not they’ll rise higher, however, is a question only time can answer, which is why it’s best that I end my little piece with their own words.

“We didn’t do the hard yards alone. There were people who helped us and continue to help us. We are grateful to them, in particular our mallis and aiyas who form our biggest single audience at our school. With them, we’d like to thank our teachers, especially Ms Damithri, who taught us music at Ananda, Ms Geetha, who taught us at Rahula, and Lahiru Perera. As we mentioned before, we value meaningful lyrics. If anyone wants to contact, request, or join us, we are there on social media and pretty much elsewhere. We are not hard to reach, nor are we hard to accommodate.”

It’s not just about music, in other words. Not just about going big and gaining audiences. It’s about something else. Something more. Something we as music lovers would do well to note. And heed.

Written for: The Island YOUth, February 19 2017