Thursday, March 9, 2017

M. S. Fernando and the sound of baila

Wally Bastian, acknowledged father of baila, nurtured and refined it and then brought it to the Sinhala middle-class. He hailed from the coast. He grew up on church hymns and the rigidity this entailed pushed him to liberate, to experiment, and to perform. In the end, he authored an entire genre.

On account of this reason perhaps, those who played around with baila came from the same social background. They grew up with the church, they resisted the limits it imposed, and they understood the liberatory worth of the genre. It is from this background that the pioneers of baila emerged, naturally enough. Including M. S. Fernando, this week’s star.

What did Fernando do? First and foremost, he helped sustain the wave that Wally unleashed. His creativity knew no bounds. He sang, he wrote, he performed. He made you dance even if you didn’t understand what he was trying to put out in his melodies. Then again, though, you didn’t need to comprehend any message in his work: you came, you saw, you listened, and you let him enthral you. His best songs, in this regard, were those he had a large hand in shaping. He couldn’t open up otherwise. Were he alive today, he would have turned 81 last Saturday. He was 58 when he left us.

I have heard stories about the man, of how he could come up onstage impromptu and go on gibbering lines which, if you listened hard enough, actually made sense. To say that he lived for baila would be putting it too mildly, because he didn’t just live it, he breathed it. In one sense, Clarence Wijewardena, Stanley Peiris, Sunil Perera, and their descendants today owe him considerably. He helped them refine the genre he let out. For that to happen, he had to let his creative sensibilities open up, unfiltered.

He was born on March 4, 1936 in (where else?) Moratuwa. He was educated at St Anthony’s College in Mt Lavinia and later at Christ Church College in Dehiwela. Channa Bandara Wijekoon, in an article he wrote to the "Daily News" years ago, records that he came under the influence of J. A. Sathiadasan, who wound up as his guru. Perhaps that helped him, perhaps not. We do not know. What we do know is that young M. S. was gifted with an ability to turn whatever situation to his advantage, coming up with melodies that enthralled everyone. Like Jothipala, his talent was born with him, raw and unpeeled.

He broke into the music industry through a duet with Pushparani Ariyaratne, “Malak Kada Konde Gasala”, the lyrics to which were written by Karunaratne Abeysekera. This was followed by another hit, “Sili Siliye Nawa Suwandak” for the 1964 film Sasaraka Hati. Again, it was authored by Abeysekera, who at the time fathered an entire generation of performers. In the end, having fathered M. S., he empowered the man to sing for over 150 films, ranging from the good to the forgettable. With them, he got to work with several composers, though the composer (and writer) he worked best with was himself, completely and purely.

Before I get to this complete and pure M. S. though, I will sketch out his collaborations with other composers. Of these, I would personally rate Clarence and Khemadasa highly, not because he couldn’t take to other artistes but because he came very close to reflecting that complete and pure avatar of himself with them. Listen to the melodies these two got out of him – Khemadasa gave us “Rom Rasa Berena” and “Eran Kanda Pem Handa”, while Clarence gave us “Dili Dili Dilisena Eliyak” – and listen to them again in the context of the melodies he worked with. 

To be sure, no two composers could have been more different. Both were experimenters. Khemadasa, however, almost always was spare with brass instruments, and inadvertently toned down the vocal intensity of nearly every singer he worked with (including Jothipala). M. S. was no exception: even in as open textured a song as “Rom Rasa Berena” (from Rana Giraw), you feel that the composer has suppressed the full range of the man’s voice, while in “Eran Kanda Pem Handa” (from Nedeyo) you feel that he is trying to prove that the man can just as easily croon as he can bellow. Not surprisingly, with Clarence he was qualitatively different: “Dili Dili Dilisena Eliyak” (from Sikuruliya), for instance, is vintage M. S.

Fernando’s legacy, which I pointed out at the beginning, lies in how he sustained the wave that Wally Bastian unleashed. He sustained it best when he was his own writer and composer. To understand why, we need to understand the art-form he promoted. Baila, as those who love it know, is an individualist genre, firmly rooted in the artiste's vision of the world. That vision comes out best unfiltered, without being refined by collaborators. The signature of a baila tune, in other words, is the signature of the performer, who constitutes all the three elements of that song.

Fernando’s signature was his sympathy for defeated people, who revelled in their defeats and happy-go-lucky lifestyles. He neither apologises for nor preaches against them. In fact, he doesn’t make us feel they deserve our sympathy at all: all he tries to do is transform a person’s state of poverty to pathos: in other words, the pathetic and the dull to the sublime and hilarious.

Consider, for instance, these lines from “Mama Enne Dubai Rate Indala”, where (as the title makes it obvious) the narrator has come from abroad, reeking of wealth:

හරි ලස්සන පොඩි ගෙයක් හදල
ටීවී රේඩියෝ දාල
හම්බකරපු සල්ලි මා ළඟයි
මගෙ අතේ මිටේ සතේ නැතිව
ඉල්ලගන්න කෙනෙක් නැතිව
හිතේ අමාරුවෙන් හිටියෙ මං

I will built a house
And fix in a TV and radio
The money I earned, I have with me
Ah, the times I lived before, without a cent to my name
With no one to borrow from
How broken was I back then!

හම්බකරපු සල්ලි මා ළඟයි” (“The money I earned, I have with me”) is frequently quoted and deliberately so. It’s as though M. S. (the narrator, not performer) is testing his patience (and ours), flaunting the fact that he is now "loaded" so as to indulge and invest in a light-hearted life. In other words, he deliberately brings up a contrast between the now and the before, not so much to brag as to tentatively lavish and spend on everything he earlier couldn’t.

Whether or not you agree with his stance here, you can take his song as either a parable against consumerism or an indictment on the listeners who virtually resided in his songs: living for the moment, wasting their lives away, having no any plan or buffer. The qualifier to this, which was his signature, is that he evoked sympathy and love, not dislike and indifference, for them.

In fact pretty much every baila singer pandered to this mindset. M. S. was no exception: he spoke for the poor, those who wanted to enjoy the lives they barely survived, and contended (rather impishly) that we should all try to live (not exist), enjoy, and share that enjoyed life. The dichotomy that this revealed – between the life he wanted us to enjoy and the manifest lack of security and money needed to sustain such a lifestyle – defines the best baila melodies. Even today. Small wonder, then, that his work was shirked by a conventional society, a society that emphasised on thrift over spending.

I can write more, but owing to spatial constraints I shall not. I must hence end, but on what note?

As an art-form and a cultural signifier, baila has almost always infuriated academic circles. With the sole (and I daresay laudable) exception of Sunil Ariyaratne, who wrote extensively on the genre, writers and professors considered it as culturally castrated. What they forgot, which Ariyaratne did and has not, was that baila owes as much to our love for nonsense and the subtle meaning that even nonsense can unearth as it does to our penchant for leading carefree, happy-go-lucky lives. How could it not be ours, then?

Going by that, I fervently believe that the veterans of this denigrated and barely understood art-form will one day join their better hailed contemporaries. Until then, we can listen, we can enjoy, and we can live. That is what M. S. taught us, and that is what he continues to teach us. For the better.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, March 8 2017