Tuesday, June 20, 2017

'The Songs We Love': Hitting the rewind button

“The Songs We Love” organised by the Senior Choir of Visakha Vidyalaya was unveiled at the Jeremiah Dias Hall on Friday, June 2 at 07.30 pm

I like to eavesdrop at concerts. I like to hear what people are saying to each other, how it reflects what they are attending, and how it reflects their milieu. It was a desultory Friday evening when I got down from my friend’s car and walked, wearily but with a sense of optimism, towards Vajira Road. The concert I was attending that day had nothing that could make it stand out, in my mind, from the dozen or so other concerts that throb Colombo every week. To be sure, this one was organised by a school, but could that alone make it stand out? Because I was optimistic, yet had no one to talk with about this issue, I hoped for the best, walked around, and eavesdropped.

The fathers, mothers, siblings, cousins, and friends of those who were involved with the concert were not talking about the concert. They were talking about the school and its history. They were talking about the scope of the event as opposed to the event itself. There would have been a dozen other topics they rushed through, but I didn’t hear them. In any case, conversation in Colombo, like in Texas, is seldom continuous. But then 100 years is a long time. It gives reason for disparate conversation. It gives reason for pride. I saw and heard both. Everywhere.

The Songs We Love, organised by the Senior Choir of Visakha Vidyalaya in commemoration of their centenary, was a largely anglophile affair except for the last 15 minutes. There were songs that I had heard before but did not cherish. There were songs that I had not heard before but cherished. They took me back to that time when I first heard some of them around the piano by my music teacher. To be sure, the Jeremiah Dias Hall doesn’t yield anything epic: it’s small, limited, and austere. But there was nothing austere about The Songs We Love. Nothing small, nothing limited.

It’s only fit that I talk about the songs before the event. I heard the usual tunes: from Disney, from Rodgers and Hammerstein, from the eighties. I got to love Cindy Lauper through my mother. I got to adore The Sound of Music through my music teacher. I heard both. While I didn’t cherish some of them, I didn’t particularly dislike any of them, because how can one dislike music? And unlike most other school concerts I attend, there was nothing frilled up about it: you came, heard, and enjoyed. This has as much to do with the restraint of the Choir as with the smallness of the Hall, but regardless of the reason, I took to everything that Choir dished to us.

And it wasn’t just about a bunch of songs we could have heard anywhere. It was an attempt to bridge one generation with another within 90 minutes. Past principals, teachers, and even students had gathered and were interacting with their successors. They were all seated at the front, some of them old and mellowed, the others not quite so, and they were visibly moved. How could they not be, when The Sound of Music moved in to Frozen and when Tangled moved back to The King and I?

There’s something about these tunes that strikes at us. We live in a society which dotes on Jane Austen, Barbara Cartland, and Danielle Steel. In music we are very much American and nostalgic, even if the songs we listen to are derived from Europe. No concert or party would be complete without I Could Have Danced All Night, Shall We Dance, and My Favourite Things. That’s the way it has been and the way it will be, for some time at least. For this reason, whenever we hear these songs, we are taken back immediately. We hit the rewind button when they open up and by the time they are over, we are so happy that we are oblivious to the world around us.

And because that world around us is so austere, so musically disinclined, we have become incurable romantics who rebel against austerity even though we have next to nothing to help us rebel. Our school halls are small, our auditoriums a little bigger, and our concerts a sordid, beaten down affair. We like to dream with what we sing, to adorn every mundane tune with colourful sets. So it was with The Songs We Love, which kept its performers changing from one costume to another, from one backdrop to another. That these were all played for us on a Friday evening helped tremendously, moreover: it helped us escape the banality of tomorrow.

Incidentally, there was no real order that could help us decipher a pattern. But in a concert like this order can only be imposed artificially. It tends to keep us awaiting an end, which was what The Songs We Love didn’t do. I couldn’t fathom an end and I don’t suppose the rest of the audience fathomed one either. We measured the minutes that passed by with the music. There would have been a schedule, but I needn’t have bothered looking through it. The discipline and the restraint of the organisers was enough to convince me to wait, patiently, until the loose ends were tied up.

One can’t eavesdrop while a concert is in session. One can’t hear, one can’t listen, so one has to see. Glancing around, I saw the two Guests of The Songs We Love, both musically prodigies: Kishani Jayasinghe and Menaka de Fonseka Sahabandu. Kishani was visibly excited (who wouldn’t be?) and as the songs were played out, saw her reciting them silently. She might have been leading the Choir, so mesmerised was she by the schoolgirls. She might also have overlooked the visuals, which were only add-ons. Because those visuals were secondary to the performers, perhaps, Kishani did not drop her smile. That smile, and the occasional beam of delight, kept the girls going. It kept us going too.

I don’t know why the organisers opted for Sinhala songs towards the end, but I suppose that helped tie up those loose ends I alluded to before. So we heard the usual tunes: Nim Him Sewwa, Ran Tikiri Sina, and that obligatory baila session that seems to bring the curtain down on every other school concert. They were special and overwhelming: Ran Tikiri Sina, for instance, kept me wondering where that other past Visakhian, Sumitra Peries, was, while Nim Him Sewwa, played on a rather bloated, epic scale not to be seen or heard with any of the English tunes before it, was a tribute to both composer (Nimal Mendis) and performer (Amaradeva). As for the baila medley: well, as I mentioned before, it was there because it was obligatory.

The Jeremiah Dias Hall isn’t really epic. With a fertile enough imagination, however, even the most mundane hall can be transformed. It rained rather heavily that Friday evening: the drizzle could be seen and heard and the wind kept bothering the pianist. But that drizzle, and the raindrops that swept into the Hall, added something natural. They were playing selections from Frozen around that time, incidentally: rather aptly, I should think. To do with what one has, to turn it into something bigger, was what the organisers achieved at the end. Probably that’s why there was very little compering (by the vibrant Kumar de Silva) needed, if at all.

100 years is a long time. The Songs We Love was just one among many concerts, plays, and other events organised to celebrate those 100 years. What we got there weren’t just the songs we love, but also the songs we remember. And not just remember, but remember with so much delight that they take us back to that time when we all stood around our music teachers and her piano and recite “Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti” blindly, without knowing the theory behind it. I was, I admit, numbed, only because they kept me alive. For me, as it would have been for Kishani and Menaka, the visuals came second. What mattered was what the show promised us. The schoolgirls kept that promise. Consequently, they kept me content.

Written for: Daily Mirror, June 20 2017