Thursday, July 13, 2017

On Anton Jones for no reason whatsoever

Weekday evenings can be terrible. Bus rides are always stifling, often suffocating, never the relief they should be. I find going back home a bother, consequently, since there’s always too many people. Not that I am averse to them, of course, it’s just that it’s difficult to wade through the journey back while standing. People get in by the dozen, traffic jams are terrible, while the conductor operates on the principle that the number of passengers must be disproportionate to the capacity of the vehicle.

One evening, when it was raining heavily despite the sun, when the weather was unbearably humid, and when there was a traffic jam from Race Course to Havelock Town and I had to tolerate everything while standing, someone (the driver, I think) switched on the radio. I heard a voice. “Sunflowers” was accompanying him (which I didn’t like). It took some time for me to remember the name. Anton Jones.

It was one of those non-stop playlists where one song follows another in quick succession. Given the intolerable, overwhelming state I was in I needn’t have bothered listening, but then the speakers were right above me and I couldn’t choose to ignore. So I listened. And so the lyrics flowed. Here’s what I heard:

මම වැඩට යන්නෙ දවල් දහය පහු වෙලා
මගෙ යාළුවො ඇත මා එනතුරු පුල පුලා
ලොකු මහත්මය එන වෙලාව බල බලා
ගී ගයනව මිතුරන් හා එක්වෙලා

The mood shifted, but the voice didn’t:

බැලුවම අහිංසකයි
මේ මිනිහ හරි වසයි

Utterly listenable, I thought to myself:

කොමල පපා මුකුලු පපා
අපේ ලගට එන්නකො
ඔමරි ලතා බොලද කතා
අපට කියා දෙන්නකො

Then I remembered. Anton Jones died last year. February. He was all of 76. What a life, I thought. They don’t come like that anymore, I reflected. And smiled.

About a year ago I wrote on M. S. Fernando. Here’s what I observed:

The dichotomy that he 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.

When M. S. Fernando sang about expatriates who returned from afar, loaded and affluent, in “Mama Enne Dubai Rate Indala”, he sang about every one of us who yearned for more than what we had. That opened up the dichotomy which baila, ever since it was indigenised here by the traffic-warden-turned-performer Wally Bastian, operated on, between the comfortable lives we hankered after and the constraints we put up with. No other musical genre here captured audiences that way.

The 6/8 beat that baila was born from was made for collective, sensual enjoyment. I don’t claim to know the history of the genre and, in any case, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the 6/8 beat was a great leveller. It did away with barriers, ensnared both prince and pauper, and brought every listener together. It embodied a nearly perfect combination of quickness and pace. One could dance to it, one could embrace movement, and all the while one could still listen and comprehend.

Anton Jones’ songs were like that. You didn’t have to intellectualise what the man was saying because he was talking about us, to us. Baila lyrics have no meaning outside themselves. Their meaning was apparent because if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t bother reading into what was being said. To this end, Anton spoke about real people, people who lived and suffered and martyred themselves for a cause not many considered worthwhile. When Maru Sira was caught and executed, he sang about him. When Podi Wije was shot, he was there. And when a cyclone devastated the country in 1978, we didn’t take long to hear his voice.

He was like that. Utterly inescapable.

I sometimes wonder why we detest and still embrace baila. After reading that article on M. S., someone emailed me a comment. Here’s what he wrote:

Whereas Ves Natum can divide cultures, baila unifies everyone on the dance floor.  What has always amused me is that it is Sri Lanka’s own hybrid colonial class, the product of “baila culture”, which has often denigrated its value as an art form.

It was this culture of denigration, I am convinced, that compelled Amaradeva to let go of his baila streak and spend the rest of his career composing raga-based sarala gee. One only has to listen to “Pipi Pipi”, to “Gayana Geyum”, and to that irrepressible, lovable classic “Atha Gaw Ganan Durin”, to sense that baila streak (his Christian background would have helped, along with his childhood in Moratuwa).

Personally I don’t see anything to be bemoaned in his later compositions, but imagine the versatility, the vividness, the vivacity, of what might have been!

The prejudice against baila is middle class and, therefore, rather hypocritical (not that hypocrisy of this sort is the preserve of the middle class, of course). It’s rooted in what is considered as the genre’s tendency to awaken our baser instincts, since there’s nothing much to read into its melodies. When Pauline Kael encountered someone who claimed that “a film, like a poem, is”, she retorted: "Why does cinema have to mean something? Do you expect a work by Bach to mean something?" The same can be said of baila. The fact that it took decades for someone like Sunil Ariyaratne to write on the genre from an academic standpoint says a lot, I should think.

What does one mean by “baser instincts” in the first place? Is it to do with our joint disapproval of the melody as a secular, sensual, never-to-be-tolerated activity? I know a young boy who insults several vocalists considered legendary by his elders with the telling epithet “Eeya!” I suspect that signifies how dissatisfied his generation is with those marketed as icons. They have been icon-ised so much that we forget their true worth, and in forgetting their true worth (because in this country, an icon is, even at his or her worst, an icon) we denigrate every other person. When a work of art and artist are elevated so highly without paying attention to why they should be elevated, you get a rather gandabba cultural sphere operating on that false low culture/high culture dichotomy. False, because it never really exists.

Baila is arguably the most hybrid musical genre we have. It is less an achcharuwa, however, than a bouillabaisse: the more people there are to accompany the vocalist, the richer and the more meaningful the song becomes. They also borrowed wildly: the chorus in “Kanthoruwa” is set to “Jingle Bells”, while “Mini Gavuma” is set to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” (For what reason, I can’t tell.) But we have conditioned ourselves to despise hybridism. We seek purity, in form and in content, with every work of art we come across, forgetting that unity can never be found in purity, only in diversity. After all Sinhala owes its texture to both Hela and Pali, which logically means that not even Amaradeva, or for that matter Sunil Shantha, were purists. They themselves would be the first to admit this, though their fan-base (which in one sense was their “electorate”) would vehemently claim otherwise.

After the Indian raag, baila was our foremost external musical influence. One infers it in some of Amaradeva’s compositions, much of Khemadasa’s more vibrant work in the seventies, the Clarences, the Annesleys, the Anil Bharathis, the Stanley Perieses, the Gypsies, and even some of Sunil Ariyaratne’s lyrics (“Master Baila”, “Sukiri Batillange Geethaya”). Its influence was always pervasive. We enjoyed it in our youth, but as we grew older and embraced a more conservative ethic, some of us conditioned ourselves to spurn it. No two guesses for figuring out why: all those hopes, all those fantasies, of the people that the likes of Anton Jones celebrated with their melodies, belonged to our youth, and were at once idle and indulgent.

When a song like “Kanthoruwa” moved away from this trend and spoke about older people, it spoke about the kind of old people we were warned against, not unlike the Handamamas and the Boru Kakul Karayas (because yes, one can sense the baila streak in those melodies that Premakeerthi de Alwis and Freddie Silva worked on).

The problem was that these songs were never didactic, while the middle class were. They purported to tell us something, but it was up to us to condone or condemn. We could have been the worker from “Kanthoruwa”, we could have been the husband from “Mini Gavuma”, but we didn’t really care. We revelled in our own pathetic existence when we realised the singer sympathised with us. I suppose that explains why they were vilified by our elders. The middle class aspired for more than what they were. They didn’t want to be reminded that they were also aspiring for more than they had. So they did the inevitable: they shirked and vilified M. S., Anton, and later, Paul Fernando and Christopher Paul. It was, at one level, a defence mechanism to compensate for their inhibitions. They would resort to it frequently.

The other day I suddenly heard Anton Jones. He was, I daresay, the last of the best. Those who remain and take and sing after them were bequeathed to us by his generation. For having enriched us and our pathetic condition, despite what our elders would say, for having taught us to dance and to listen to what made us dance, I don’t think we can be grateful enough. He outlasted them all: M. S. died at the age of 58, while Freddie was 63. We remember Anton everywhere. We ought to continue doing so every day.

Written for: Daily Mirror, July 13 2017