Q and A with Ranga Chandrarathne
Alston Koch was known as Asia’s King of Pop, a title given him by the Australian and Asian music media critics being the only Asian singer-songwriter to be signed to an International Record Company (R.C.A) from the early 70’s to the late 90’s touring the world with concerts to perform and promote his songs when released to the international community. He migrated to Australia in 1969, but he had a vibrant musical career in Sri Lanka for over a decade before his Australianisation. He is a recipient of three ARIA (Australian Record Industry Award) awards and a special ‘best live performance’ award from the US Marines in 1983. With 1 Platinum and 2 Gold awards the Sri Lankan-born musician is probably best remembered for his 1976 hit ‘Disco Lady’ which was on the ‘International hit parade’ in Sri Lanka for six weeks at No 1 outdoing the legendary Bill Forbes.
‘Disco Lady’ was the most played track in discotheques across the dance floor in Australasia and the USA with legendary (New York) disc jockey Bobby Gattadaro playing it across America which led to an appearance with ABBA on their sell-out Australian Tour and the much publicised ‘ABBA Television Special’ in 1976 which was broadcast to the world and still holds the record for the ‘most watched’ programme in the Southern Hemisphere.
Alston was introduced to the World by four times Grammy Award Winner ‘ALICIA KEYS’ at the MTV Music Awards in 2005 as a ‘Legend & a Superstar’ Glenn A Baker (Music historian and critic) named him the ‘Purveyor of Disco music in Australia and the Southern Hemisphere. Donnie Sutherland (Pop Music Guru and TV talk host) certified at the Australian Music Awards that Alston Koch was an ‘original’ and introduced disco music to Australia. George Levendis Vice President BMG/Arista Ariola and later assistant to the great Clive Hines said ‘He was the Luther Vandross of Australasia’ when he signed Alston Koch to a four year record deal with BMG/RCA.
Alston was also signed as a song writer to the legendary Mickie Most organisation in the UK by Dave Most, releasing his hit ‘Try Again’ in Europe and America. When Muttiah Muralidaran became Test cricket’s leading wicket-taker last year, Alston wrote, performed and produced the official song which was played by the BBC and related stations across the Australian and cricketing countries. The song was performed live by Alston last week at the Colombo Oval felicitation for Murali to a packed house of specially invited guests at the Cinnamon Grand.
Alston is no stranger to writing sporting related songs, having previously penned ‘Kookaburra’ under the name of ‘Alston and the Fremantle Doctor’ which was the official song for Australia’s America’s Cup defence in 1986. The America’s Cup is still the most expensive sporting event in the World.
He has also written the song ‘A Land Like No Other’ for Sri Lanka Tourism which was launched in London at the United Nations WTM in November 2008. It was announced by our media that British Tourism Minister Barbara Follet on hearing Alston’s live performance at the Ministers’ conference in the UK remarked ‘this is one of the best songs written in recent times and extended an invitation to Alston to the ‘House of Commons’.
Excerpts of an interview with Alston Koch:
Q: How big and influential is the Australian pop music industry in a global context?
A: Australia is very fortunate in that it has a very competitive and diverse music industry with massive support for the arts from the Government. Music has played a huge role in politics too with our former PM Paul Keating being an ex pop-singer and our present Environmental Minister (Peter Garret) being the lead singer of the famous Australian band ‘Midnite Oil’. Peter and I, although good friends, were on the opposite sides of the fence with him a rock music’ exponent and my direction at the time being ‘Disco’ music.
On a Global level Australia has introduced The Bee Gees, Olivia Newton John, Kylie Minogue, Danni Minogue, Natalie Imbruglia, AC/DC, Men at Work, Little River Band & Air Supply to name a few.
Q: How would you respond? How easy is it for a total stranger born elsewhere to establish a career in the music Industry Down Under?
A: Establishing a career in Australia or for that matter anywhere in the western world is extremely hard as you have to find an original direction and style to achieve popular acceptance to your brand of music. Today it is more difficult with very little investment been made in new artists by record companies as record/CD sales etc are at its lowest since music was made available to the consumer.
There are just a handful of major record companies investing in new talent and the queue is a mile long for new artists. Today ironically, anyone that can sing ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ can put it on a CD and call it a ‘release’ to a unknowing public who are not aware that a ‘real’ release is only when a major label or distributor releases the track with their label affixed to the disc and it is only then’ that programmers of international Radio Stations and TV Networks will consider the song seriously as an official product for airing on their network.
Music in most countries of the world are governed by proper intellectual property right laws digital or otherwise. In the serious International world the song has to be published too with a recognised publisher for picking up ‘at source’ publishing royalties for the song-writer which is independent from the performer of that ‘particular’ song and this is where the intellectual property rights of song writers are fully protected. Books have been written on this subject of professional music and the laws that govern it and music law is a subject at most universities today and is a serious business and not to be discussed lightly so it is difficult for me to explain all of this in just one paragraph.
I have had people ask me all the time if my songs and albums are available here and I have had to explain that although the songs have been hits in various countries of the world and released in those territories, it was never released in Sri Lanka as there were no major record labels that actually released product here at the time. I have been writer director of the Australasian Performing Right Association since 1976 to this day and I have learned through the years that music when recorded has to be taken seriously and treated like a business but within the rule of music law.
Q: After your move to Australia, you formed a band called Dark Tan and you performed in local clubs before you managed to win three ARIA (Australian Record Industry Award) awards. Was this a difficult journey having a band called Dark Tan and a tanned skin?
A: As DARK TAN we first performed in the professional music industry circuit throughout Australia performing for Australians. We were then shipped off to New Zealand by R.C.A to promote our songs and we toured New Zealand and the South Pacific Islands for what seems like years performing and entertaining the natural citizens of the country. The people welcomed us with open arms and supported us.They bought our records. They kept the wolf from the door.The record companies paid us royalties.
There was a time when we had 117 appearances on professional TV stations in a year and the band appeared on ‘BANDSTAND’ which was the highest rating Pop programs on television in the 70s including live performances of The Commodores, Elton John, Cliff Richard, ABBA, The Bee Gees, to name a few. A lot of Sri Lankan Australians I have spoken to have told me that Australia is a racist country. How would you respond? How easy was it for a total stranger who was not even born there to establish himself?
I have been in Australia for almost 40 years and never experienced any racial comment or racism towards me or my family. My son and my daughter have both graduated from universities in Australia and have never experienced the sort of thing been reported in the media these days. I was one of the pioneers to arrive in Australia.I believe that If we migrate or become a part of a new country we should conform to the requirements expected of us in the country of our adoption and integrate into their system as worthy citizens of the country we came from and not carry a chip on our shoulders as being Indian or Sri Lankan or any race or creed but conform to the ideals and accepted norms of the country of adoption. You will very easily find that racism will not find you.
Q: According to some critics you are the only Sri Lankan-born singer song-writer to be signed to an international record label and have successes in Australia , Asia and Europe with Platinum & Gold record status. How did you manage to achieve these? Is it because of your Sri Lankan genes or Australian connection?
A: Any successful song-writer or record company will tell you that the secret ingredient in song-writing is that you got to have good songs to be successful and songs accepted by the music industry ‘proper’ and not just songs that ‘you’ think is the best song ever written etc because it is written by you.
Let the public be the judge of that. It does not matter if you are Sri Lankan or otherwise. In the world of music many promises are made and broken and many believe to know the answers and I see it in emails I receive everyday. Never believe what you hear but only what you see and with the internet today it is very easy. If the promoter,manager,whoever,does not have a track record or a history of good judgement, move on and don’t waste your time. Any successful song-writer, promoter or organisation will have a track record and this you can find out very easily if you ‘google’ his or the organisation’s name.
Q: Have you any political aspirations and if not what are the reasons for your continued interest in Sri Lanka?
A: I am very grateful to Australia for adopting me and giving me all I have today, but Sri Lanka is my motherland and will always take a prominent place in my heart and I will always do anything expected of me to make Sri Lanka what it should have been more than 30 years ago. My forefathers or ‘The Koch family’ as represented by Johann Godfried Koch arrived in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) as a single person and every ‘Koch’ in Sri Lanka is related to him as he was the only Koch on board the MV Rosenberg from Alt Ruppin, Germany arriving in 1776 to Jaffna. He married and settled down in Jaffna and his family helped build the Jaffna Fort. My uncle Edwin Lawson Koch helped build the first general hospital in Colombo and a clock tower was built by public subscription in his honour which still stands to this day. My other grand uncle Roslyn Koch was the Minister of Public Administration in the first Government of Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and I have had family who have served the Government here from Secretary to the Governor General to advisers in the administration during the time of the British and as administrators of the Dutch Forts in Galle and Jaffna.
It is also strange but true that my wife Yolande is the granddaughter of T.B. Jayah who helped build the Muslim nation in this country to what it is today and helped design the National Flag as it is seen today so through both our families we have been involved artistically or politically whether we like it or not but… I am just a small ‘little’ cog left behind in a huge wheel that began turning in the 17th century.
Q: You are now Ambassador for Sri Lankan Tourism and what have you achieved for Sri Lanka since your appointment last year?
A: Firstly, I wrote a theme song for ‘climate change’ and Sri Lanka called ‘A Land Like No Other’ which was warmly received internationally and especially in the United Kingdom. The song has been confirmed to be played at the United Nations Climate Change conference in Copenhagen attended by the World’s leaders including President Barack Obama as they decide on the subject of ‘Climate Change’ I brought the world’s leading manufacturers and distributors of organic and Ayurvedic medicine in modern form to Sri Lanka to meet with the Minister of Ayurveda and his professional advisers.
They are currently setting up to distribute Sri Lanka’s precious herbs like Gotukola, Pittawaka, Welpenela, Karawila etc in a more modern and intelligently packaged format to the world as an essence in a quick working effervescence format. This is a world first for the world’s ayurvedic herbal industry. We are also bringing in a scientifically tested and recognised ‘world’s first’ organic methodology to increase yield of farming produce and husbandry in the country. I believe Sri Lanka can be the organic capital of the world.
Last week I had major film producers visiting the country and meeting with tourism authorities here and a big budget ‘Hollywood’ epic is on schedule to begin filming here early next year with the assistance of the Tourism Authority and local film location companies. I have also introduced a huge resort building and hotel network who have opened discussions for establishing resort style hotels in the North and North-East regions.
I recognised Kalpitiya as the ‘boom’ tourist region as far back as 1996 when I flew in to the region by helicopter with a team of investors and also visited the outer regions of Wilpattu when it was very dangerous to do so. I met with the members of Parliament for the region and the village officials etc from Puttalum onwards to the Dutch Bay Islands. I recognised its beauty and possibilities as I used to play around in these areas as a little child both here and beyond to Jaffna and Trincomalee and down to the bays. I predict that this region is the ‘Maldives’ of the future
Sri Lanka was once known as the ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’ and I believe that the outer shell of the oyster (Sri Lanka) is only just opening (thanks to the defeat of terrorism by the President, his team and the forces) yes, only just opening to reveal not just a pearl but a ‘diamond….’
ALSO SEE “Alston koch to sing Namo Namo at MCG” …. IN http://cricketique.wordpress.com/2012/12/12/alston-koch-to-sing-namo-namo-at-mcg-and/
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