An INTRODUCTORY NOTE
In February 2016 I borrowed an article by Sasanka Perera in Groundviews and placed it in Thuppahi When I recently advertised this article in FACEBOOK it drew a critical comment from Vinod Moonesinghe of Sri Lanka and then a spate of comments. Several of these thoughts provide food for thought …and debate. So, let fruitful reflections flow –beginning here with my original note and then deploying the critical line penned by VINOD MOONESINGHE to encourage more sparks to kindle flames.
THE ORIGINAL INTRODUCTION: “About a week back in an email exchange I was prompted by ethnographic anecdotes sent by Arun Dias Bandaranaike in Colombo to suggest to him that we should collaborate on an article on the topics of “Insularity” and “Parochiality.” I see those concepts as inter-related and overlapping. My suggestion was/is that the foundation provided by insularity enables and inspires eruptions of chauvinism (in this focus among the Sinhalese peoples but the reasoning could be extended to other contexts and socio-political settings – for example, among the redneck and hill-billy locales in USA). So, this thoughtful essay from Sasanka Perera is serendipitous. We are on the same song-sheet. I have taken the liberty of highlighting portions of his essay in colour.” Michael Roberts
Comment by Vinod Moonesinghe on the Sasanka article of 2016 in Thuppahi in its Facebook advert, …. late September 2018
This article fails to place the criticism of the song in its social and political context. The song followed the victory of the “Yahapalana” coalition, which Sinhalese Buddhists view with suspicion, because of what they see as its attacks on Buddhism and traditional culture and values.
Sinhalese Buddhists see themselves and their culture as increasingly under threat. Had this song been sung at a private event it would not have raised any hackles. However, it was sung at a state-sponsored event attended by the leadership of a government seen by most Sinhalese Buddhists as detrimental to them.
This is in a situation where fewer than half the elite are Sinhalese Buddhists, in a country where 70% of the population is Sinhalese Buddhist. The culture of the elite is essentially alien to the mass of the people.
The Sinhalese Buddhists feel besieged, particularly because of the revival of separatism in the North and East following the Yahapalana victory, and the espousal by the government of the Geneva resolutions.
In other circumstances, the song would probably not have raised any hackles.
Response to Vinod by Michael Roberts
I am afraid I have no address for SASANKA PERERA ….. so let us hope that your comment is sent to him so that he can respond. Furthermore, I know too little about the circumstances leading to Kishani’s choice to comment on your interpretation.
Personally, I can listen with JOY to DANNO BUDUNGE anywhere and everywhere …and Kishani’s career and openness suggests to me that her rendering was ELEVATING whatever the context and whatever the machinations around her.
Vinod’s Reply to Michael R
I am not criticising Kishani here. I am criticising the article (and this holds for much of the prose which emanated condemning the condemners) for not taking into account the social context.
My family were wont to sing “Lili Marlene”, considered an anthem to soldierly cameraderie across borders. However, when we tried to sing it in Yugoslavia in the 1960s, we were told to shut up: for Yugoslavs it epitomised the Nazi occupation, which saw the deaths of over a tenth of the population.
The victory of the Yahapalana government saw the elite in seventh heaven, pouring scorn on the “baiyyas“, a Sinhala term meaning “country bumpkin”. Economic policy veered around from developing the rural areas to concentrating development in Colombo – seen in the rural areas as “kolombata kiri, apata kekiri” (milk for Colombo, musk melon – Cucumis melo kekiri- for us), a form of discrimination. The cabinet mainly wore western suits – which require air-conditioning for comfort. The whole image was of regression to colonialism, for which many of the elite did not disguise their nostalgia.
Response from Michael Roberts ….. “Thanks”
A Note from Tony Donaldson as Email Response to Michael’s Circular
This is new for me Michael. Interesting reading for a quiet Sunday as I think about Ivor Denis. I don’t know the background here so can’t comment on specifics without studying it further, but in general terms, I would say all music has a context and knowing it is important. A mother singing a lullaby to a child will be different when the same song is sung in a concert hall with an orchestra in which audience expectations may influence the performance. A song sung in the mountains will be different when sung in a field, or by the sea. It’s a human experience so context is important. Context plays a role for ritual music performed in a Buddhist or Hindu temple, or in a Church. A Filipino singing about the loss of land as a result of a natural disaster one could easily misinterpret the song if one doesn’t know the context. In the Middle East, there are songs for camel riders and an analysis of those songs demands understanding the context in which the songs are performed. In South Africa during apartheid times, songs were a powerful way of uniting peoples to protest against the apartheid government, and whenever the police knew people were coming on the streets to sing, it meant there would be trouble.
My only other comment, and this is a very tiny point — is the notion of putting “Hitler’s brown shirts to shame.” How does one put Nazi Brown shirts of the 1920s and 30s to shame in today’s terms in a different context?
A Comment from Darshanie Ratnawalli within the Facebook entries
Controversies surrounding new renditions of popular songs do have a sociological basis…or rather a basis which owes something to sociological factors. But it’s silly to think it’s all sociological. Enjoyment of music is a function of individual taste which is unpredictable and cannot be slotted so easily into neat sociological cubbyholes. Why did some people react so violently to Kishani’s rendition? Why did a Sinhala TV morning show host liken it to a screeching of a female cat in heat? It’s because a powerful operatic voice trained to hit top notes can sound too powerful for ears used to and raised on Hindustani based music. But no..even that is not right. Popular music lovers of any country may find opera outside their groove zone. See this video of Whitney Houston, Sting and Elton John attempting to sing an opera aria with Pavarotti…………………………..…,,,,, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2mMPz_a4vY)
Whitney Houston, Pavarotti, Sting, Elton John – La Donna e Mobile 1994
A Further Comment from Ratnawalli
Try a small experiment. I did this unwittingly. I have Diana Damrau’s Je Veux Vivre (Roméo et Juliette) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qo5qZQdbBns as my ringtone. I was at Dr. Nalinika Obeysekere’s Pet Vet clinic the other day when my phone rang. All the people around (Not people brought up on Hindustani based music, mind you) shuddered and shook and made like sleeping cats doused with cold water. Opera is unrealistic, exaggerated and larger than life. It operates on an epic, heroic scale and aims to thrill your soul into soaring, celestial planes. It is exactly right for the song Danno Budunge, which unlike what many people believe is not a Buddhist devotional song, which is supposed to make you serene and calm. Danno Budunge is a song describing Anuradhapura, a glorious cathedral city (I use ‘cathedral city’ tongue in cheek.) where instead of cathedrals giant spherical structures topped with spheres rose into the sky proclaiming the triumph of Buddhism in the island. Of all the renditions the operatic rendition does it the most justice because if you were three travellers touring Anuradhapura, marvelling at this Buddhist cathedral city, where the temporal and spiritual ‘sasana’ has achieved its epitome, far beyond even what the Buddha himself could have envisaged, then your marvel, your wonder, your feeling of actualization as a Buddhist traveller can find the best expression in this heroic and epic musical vehicle.
I am no real judge of opera to say how Kishani’s voice may compare with a legendary opera voice like Maria Callas (after all Kishani has never sung main Opera roles in the leading theatres like another Asian, the Korean Sumi Jo has done), but her voice is powerful and it thrills. Anyway, there’s something about opera which renders all this sociological baggage superfluous. It’s not right to say that Sinhala Buddhists felt threatened with Yahapalanaya and with operatic renditions of songs like Danno Budunge, they felt convinced that they will lose their last bastions.
Sinhala Buddhists are not some monolith. When I was in Pakistan last November, I presented Danno Budunge Kishani version and Rukmani version to a Hindustani music aficionado as examples of Sri Lankan music and he categorically preferred the Rukmani version. So, music is an acquired taste and so many things are going on, at many levels when people love or reject a rendition. Even Michael Roberts I feel pretty sure hasn’t really listened to the Kishani version, which is clear from his statement, “Personally I can listen with JOY to DANNO BUDUNGE anywhere and everywhere .. .and Kishan’s career and openness suggests to me that her rendering was ELEVATING whatever the context and whatever the machinations around her.”
Whether her rendering was elevating or not should be discovered by listening to her, not deduced by her career and openness. I suggest Michael download https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=plaKsOtC3b8 and listen to her version instead of his usual record.
Also, it’s no wonderful or novel thing for opera singers to get pelted by the public. It’s almost a tradition. Maria Callas used to be pelted with vegetables: “I remember Callas being bombarded with vegetables as she took her bows after her second New York Norma, a Saturday matinee. Bunches of carrots and heads of cabbage are not sold at the refreshments bar at the Metropolitan.
“They were flung that afternoon by opera-lovers who knew they were going to fling them before Callas had sung so much as a note. Callas could have been dubbed Sutherland or Caballe that afternoon and she would have been pelted. Callas, the woman, was as detested as her infamous wobble or ‘incorrect’ separation between her high, middle and low registers. For these audiences, Callas had three voices and none of them pleased.”……………………… (https://www.theguardian.com/…/maria-callas-far-from…). So I think Kishani should have just chilled and concentrated on her art and on giving even more operatic renditions of iconic Sinhala songs in a heroic metre. … YOUTUBE.COM…. Diana Damrau Je Veux Vivre (Roméo et Juliette, Gounod)
Of course. Sasanka Perera’s pseudo-operatic posturing and snobbish (We know opera- you don’t- you ignorant scum- so enjoy your Bollywood mimicking singers and leave real culture to us cultural elites) rant is nauseating as well as unhelpful. His assertion that Pavarotti was unknown in Sri Lanka is not true. Why affect such snobbery. Pure culture is unchartered territory to many. …..
 Vinod Moonesinghe is the son of Anil Moonesinghe , the LSSP intellectual and politician of yesteryear. He lives and works in Sri Lanka.
 Tony Donaldson is a Kiwi ethno-musicologist whose MA is on Indonesian dance/gamelan and whose Ph.D is on Sri Lanka. He lives in Melbourne and has specialized in the music of Sunil Shantha as well as Asian Pacific music.
 Ratnawalli is a freelance journalist and investigator in Sri Lanka who has also written on historical topics.