Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Milton Mallawarachchi: The voice of a thousand love letters

Victor Ratnayake’s signature, some contend, come out most potently in his love songs. I am unfortunately not a musicologist, only a listener, but to my untrained ear, those love songs of his stand out powerfully from the sixties to the eighties. And it’s not just his voice or his songs: even in his film scores, you sense at once how powerfully romantic his vision of the world is.

The opening passages in "Deno Dahak Atharin", "Neela Bingu Kala", and "Bambarindu Bambarindu" and the music in Rajagedara Parawiyo and Sarungale build up not in gushes, but with a flow, so much so that his melodies moves along gracefully. Unlike Amaradeva, he isn’t constrained by the raghadari tradition. Unlike Khemadasa, he doesn’t let the liberatory thrust of the Western melody take over.

Of his songs, I consider "Deno Dahak Atharin" and "Piyasalana Lihinayaku Se" as defining that romantic vision of the world the man imbibed. With these two songs, you can infer how intense that vision was: so intense, in fact, that he has to be subtle about it to reveal his feelings. "Deno Dahak Atharin" is played out in a sequence from Sunil Ariyaratne’s Vajira, with Nadeeka Gunasekara’s character crying for her lover. "Piyasalana Lihinayaku Se", on the other hand, is richer because it doesn’t accompany a set of images.

"Deno Dahak" got Victor working with Nanda Malini. "Piyasalana" got him working with Milton Mallawarachchi. With the former, he was working with an established voice. With the latter, he was working with an as yet unrecognised star. For Milton, shunned as he was for being unmusical, had to cross some hard yards to get to where he stands today. This week’s star being Milton, this is hence a tribute to the man, his voice, and his life.

He was born on April 7, 1944 and was educated at Ananda Shasthralaya in Kotte. While he hadn’t aspired much for the music industry as a child, after leaving school he wound up with two groups. The first, called the Sakyans, was short-lived, while the second, Les Ceylonians, not only got him to sing two hits (“Daha Duke Vidyahala” and “Mal Ravamal”) but got the attention of Patrick Corea. One thing led to another, Corea got him to sing under the Exvee record label, and in 1969, he recorded his first original hit, “Oruwaka Pawena”, in turn accompanied by three other singles: “Ran Kooduwak Oba Sadu”, “Sansare Sewanalle” and “Mangale Neth Mangale.”

When I met Victor last year, I put to him that given his unmusical voice, Milton would have found it difficult adjusting to the demands of his composers. Victor vehemently disagreed and pointed out that even Jothipala, with his pavement (“bajavu”) voice, was accommodative and could adjust. Victor had the credentials to say what he did there, because when Milton was up and coming, he took him, nurtured him, moulded him, and released him.

Like Kapuge and Jothipala, he probably would have ruffled some feathers with his voice today. But what he lacked in vocal range and texture, he made up for with his articulation. Put simply, he made you understand that he was sincere about what he sang. For the rest of his career, that is what sustained him.

What happened after the sixties? He got to work with Patrick Denipitiya (“Ma Nisa Oba”), Clarence Wijewardena (“Mata Men Ohutada”), Khemadasa (“Sakwala Rathwana”), and Melroy Dharmaratne (“Mal Gaha Yata”). He was a film playback singer as well, making his debut with Poojithayo in 1971 and winning a Sarasaviya Award with “Kandan Yannam” (from Athin Athata) in 1984. He got an entire live concert to himself courtesy of the Ceylon Tobacco Company and Mahajana Sampatha. The Super Golden Chimes featured him in their concerts, through an invitation extended by Clarence himself.

In the end, after all those hits, awards, accolades, and packed crowds, he passed away on March 10, 1998. He was 53. Had he lived, he would have 72.

What else can we say? That he continues to be sung everywhere: on bus rides, at Big Matches, at birthday parties, and at get-togethers. He had a voice which was made for the guitar, so for that reason both children and adults celebrate him. He spoke and articulated the wishes, hopes, and dreams of a thousand lovers. He had a life and a family, both of which no doubt shaped his dukbara, romantic view of the world. Added to all these, he had sincerity.

There’s no doubt, after all, that "Eda Rae" is reminiscent of the best poetry of Thomas Hardy, in how it features the fissure between love and rejection and between embracement and separation that makes up the best love songs. It needed Milton to reinforce that. He did just that.

And what he did for that song, we can hence conclude, he did for every other song. The way he wanted, the way we wanted. Simple as that.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, March 15 2017