Saturday, December 3, 2016
Music and Dance in my life
By Dr Nihal D Amerasekera
We were fortunate to have spent our childhood in an independent Ceylon out of the shackles of colonial rule. One hundred and forty six years of British rule had left an indelible mark on Ceylonese society. We emulated the British and their ways infiltrated every aspect of the lives of the middle and upper classes.
When I was growing up what I saw around me had a tremendous and lasting effect on my life. I have fond memories of seeing the British way of life in my home town in Kegalle. Although the country was independent there were many British “up country” Planters still around. Those were the lazy hazy days of the immediate post Colonial Ceylon. There were bridge parties in the afternoon and all-women tennis fours at the Kegalle Planters Club. The Club was the hub for all social events in the district. This was the watering hole for the British planters and for our own Brown Sahibs. They drank whisky and played billiards. Those were the days of proper ballroom dancing of fox trots, quick steps and waltzes to the music of Victor Sylvester or Joe Loss Orchestra. Cricket matches at weekends and dancing in the evenings kept the members entertained. These close encounters fuelled by the booze often became a hotbed of gossip and innuendo. Our former British rulers believed we’ve never had it so good. Perhaps they were right!!
My early childhood was spent in rural Nugegoda with my grandparents. My father was serving in the “outstation” as a government servant. I grew up with several cousins who lived in the same house, schooling with me. Then my aunts played the guitar and made us sing the Sinhala music of the day and also the popular operatic arias like Santa Lucia. We enjoyed entertaining the visitors and loved the applause and the sweets that followed.
I must not underestimate the part played by Radio Ceylon and its commercial arm in popularising both Sri Lankan and Western music. Lama Pitiya is one of my earliest recollections of a childrens program with stories and music. Siri Aiya, Karu Aiya and artistes like Indrani Wijebandara and Chandra Cabraal produced wonderful entertainment for children. There were many guests attendees like Rukmani Devi and GSB Rani Perera who enlivened and enhanced the reputation of this marvellous program. The Radio Ceylon English service too had some fine presenters and announcers who brought the music of that era to life. Hit Parade and Sunday Choice had an enormous following. We were glued to the radio when those programs were on. The passage of years has dimmed my memory of those tremendously exciting times which captivated and enraptured us during those heady days of our youth.
As I was boarded at Wesley College my love of music prevailed. I joined the choir. Then much of it was Church music. It was Hymns during Sundays and special songs for the period of Lent. Carols services during Christmas were a colourful event. Singing together as a group was great fun and had enormous camaraderie. We formed barbershop quartets singing in four part harmony and also took part in Operettas. Those were immensely exciting times.
Our generation became part of the music revolution in the mid 1950’s. The slow music of the crooners like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Perry Como gave way to the intoxicating rhythm and the stirring beat of Bill Haley and the Comets. I well remember seeing Rock Around the Clock at the Savoy when the Bambalawatte boys danced unashamedly in the aisles of the cinema to the rousing and electrifying music. I was in the school boarding then and could only watch in awe and amazement the craze unfold amongst teenagers in Colombo.
It was not until I entered the Faculty of Medicine that I saw freedom. The permissive society had reached our shores with the hippie culture and the contraceptive pill. The excitement and the pleasure of dancing has no equal. The pounding rhythms drove us all into a frenzy. Being so close to female company in such subdued lighting heightened our sexual desires and sent our pulse racing. It was at University I learnt to combine the rhythmic music and the twirl and swirl of the gyratory dancing. The combination was awe inspiring, truly magical and immensely exciting. The University calendar had many dances held at its halls in Reid Avenue. It was here the students showed off their wares, girl friends, boy friends and their ability to dance. Alcohol gave them the confidence and lubricated the joints while the hormones did the rest. Live music of Harold Seneviratne Combo or Sam the Man provided the music putting us in the mood. There was the inevitable Baila session to end the night. Those were wonderfully exciting years.
When Duke Ellington visited Ceylon in 1955 he played in an airport hangar in Ratmalana. The school decided it wasn’t to be missed and we were taken for that thrilling performance. I still remember him play that simply magical piece “syncopated clock”. But it was in 1956 the film “High Society” with Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra . that brought jazz into my life giving it a new dimension. Dixieland Jazz began in New Orleans. It was characterised by improvisations. I loved the sound of the brass and woodwind instruments and the strumming of the banjos. Radio Ceylon often played the piece called “Ice Cream” by the Dutch Swing College Band and this got me hooked on Dixie. I recall our batchmate M.H Cassim was a fan of Dixieland music too and invited me to his home in Colpetty to listen to the Dutch Swing College Band and Eddy Peabody on his superb HiFi system in full stereo.
Exams came and went with monotonous regularity until it was all over. We were all doctors now and the rapid dispersal began. Internship was a baptism of fire. Onerous on-calls and busy schedules filled our days and nights. I was then working in Kurunegala. There were social gatherings and dances at the Upper and Lower Clubs. Those were a magnet for the hardworking interns. With my two left feet I was never going to set the dance floor on fire but enjoyed the drink and the camaraderie of those lavish events. Many parties were held in the House Officers Quarters with much singing and dancing. By 1968 the beat had died down to the music of the Beatles- now more subdued, Englebert Humperdink and Tom Jones.
After emigrating to the UK, family and career took precedence and dancing went on the back-burner. There were parties and dances in hospital during Christmas and on special occasions when it was mostly sedate and proper. However my love of music remained strong as ever. With the passage of years classical music became my first love. London is the Mecca for music lovers. Now I live 20 minutes walk from the Royal Academy of Music and easy striking distance of the Royal Albert Hall and the Royal Festival Hall. These venues have classical music events everyday. Music now fills my life and I have no words to describe the peace and contentment I feel.
Since its origins in 15th Century Italy, Ballet has captured the imagination of audiences worldwide. Breath-taking choreography and graceful movements make it so pleasing to watch. I see most ballets on TV but see some of them live in London. Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn are recognised as the best dances of the 20th century. Much has been written about their sad lives and their tragic deaths away from the spotlight.
The Opera is not for everyone. Much of the old operas are in Italian and the stories are hard to follow. They require much homework to read up about the story. Operas of Puccini and Verdi are popular for their fine music. Georges Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” is set in ancient Ceylon. Although not as famous as “Carmen” which he wrote 10 years later I like it for its connection to my homeland.
Retirement gave me the time to travel the world. One of the best trips was to South America. Watching the Tango danced by professionals in El Viejo Almacén in Buenos Aires was simply a magical experience. The Tango is a mesmerizingly beautiful dance. Its elaborate movements relate a story. The tango music is a mix of Spanish, African and South American rhythms that became popular in the 19th century. This music and the dance initially began in brothels and its movements show the titillations of the ladies and the fire in the belly of their clients. Soon the Tango caught the imaginations of the people and began to be accepted by high society in Buenos Aires.
Despite the 42 years in exile my love for Sri Lankan music hasn’t left me. Listening to the old music from back home is always an emotional journey and a reminder of those places and the people. The music of Sunil Santha, Chitra and Somapala from my childood days in Nugegoda. CT Fernando, Sanath Nandasiri, Amaradeva and Victor Ratnayake from those later years will always be with me. How can I ever forget the ubiquitous Hindi music that was ever present in the tea boutiques and shops all over Colombo. I still own a fine collection of Lata Mangheskar, Mohammed Rafi and Asha Bhosle songs to remind me of those years in Sri Lanka. I was an avid filmgoer in my youth and saw many of the Sinhala films right from the old BAW Jayamanne’s “Broken Promise” and “Kela Handa” to the later films of Lester James Peiris. Their music have a special appeal and a place in my memory. Rukmani Devi and Mohideen Beig featured prominently in those films with their memorable songs. Their haunting melodies and the poignant lyrics will always remain with me. Many of the old favourites have been revived by younger singers with a faster beat and modern instruments. I love these new versions which have instilled life into the old.
Baila entered our mainstream culture when the likes of Wally Bastian, Patrick Denipitiya, MS Fernando and others made it popular by their live performances on stage and on radio. This music had tremendous appeal with its pulsating beat which is an invitation to dance. The love for baila with the lively music and the rhythmic dancing is a constant reminder of my medical student days. In the Faculty there were events held in the Common Room in the evenings when the booze flowed freely and music filled the air. I recall JC Fernando singing and playing his guitar with students dancing around him. RL Thambirajah singing “Come and see the wild west show” was a regular feature and was so well received. The final year trip was a journey full of wonderful memories and the final fling of an incredible 5 years.
Music and dance have been a large part of my life. It has given me immense pleasure and continues to do so today.