December 2010

‘Modern Sri Lanka’ Resonates On-Board Srilankan Airlines
December 2010

C.T. Fernando

The new strains of music that welcome passengers aboard SriLankan Airlines flights have been carefully put together to create a feeling of "coming home." Some passengers may find themselves humming these old familiar tunes while others may be captivated by the melodies and want to know more.....

Words: Jennifer Henricus

Romance and nostalgia; legendary talent and cultural fusion have been combined to create a new musical celebration to welcome passengers aboard SriLankan Airlines' flights.

The two most romantic string instruments from East and West, the sitar and guitar, played by passionate masters of these instruments alternate on the music track reviving songs of two legends of Sri Lankan music, C.T. Fernando and H. R. Jothipala.

In their heyday, C.T. and Jothi, as they were known to their adoring fans, may have been poles apart in style and genre but they were both celebrated household names particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, both using their vocal talent to endear themselves to millions of fans.

C.T. was acclaimed as the golden voice of Sinhala song and the father of Sri Lankan pop. He fused Western rhythms with local melodies to create a unique pop culture that continues to enjoy popularity in the 21st Century.

Jothi was born 15 years later in 1936 and started his career as a playback singer, lending his voice to a range of actors in the Sinhala cinema including Eddie Jayamanne,  Gamini Fonseka, Vijaya Kumaratunga, Sanath Gunathilaka and Ravindra Randeniya. However, his mass popularity came with his Sinhala covers for popular Hindi songs, much to the chagrin of the purists.

He later took to acting as well, a move that further increased his mass appeal and no musical show was considered a success if he was not billed to sing.

Unfortunately for their masses of adoring fans both C.T. and Jothi died prematurely in their early 50s, the former in 1977 and the latter in 1987.

Fusions onboard

Internationally celebrated sitarist and composer, Pradeep Ratnayake, has loved C.T.'s music since he was a child and in 2008 he joined a host of other Sri Lankan musicians to compile an unusual tribute to the master. Pradeep says C.T.'s songs had appeal through his voice and lyrics. "My intention was to show that the sitar is close to the human voice. I also wanted to use the sitar to revive and preserve these beautiful old songs in another musical form." At the same time it was a way to popularise the sitar and introduce it to general music audiences in Sri Lanka. "I gave the songs interesting musical twists such as the taste of jazz in "Lo ada ninde," says Pradeep.

In addition to fusion effects, he introduced a range of instruments and musicians to accompany the sitar. Among those who played in the recorded tribute were celebrated violinist Lakshman Joseph De Saram, pianist Saundari David, percussionist Jananath Warakagoda, drummer Christopher Prins, bass guitarist Alston Joachim and acoustic guitarist Mahendra Pasqual.

Mahendra subsequently created a tribute to Jothipala with his guitar. He was backed by his friends, organist Sangeeth Wickramasinghe, saxophonist Jayantha Dissanyake and violinist Rohana Dharmakeethi. "These songs of Jothipala were very popular and I feel privileged to be able to record these in instrumental form for current listening pleasure," says Mahendra. 

The two CDs, Tribute to the Masters Series Pradeep Ratnayake - the melodies of C. T. Fernando on the Sitar and Jothimath Gee - Mahendra Pasqual will be available for sale on-board  SriLankan flights soon.

Pradeep Ratnayake is now a world-acclaimed sitarist and composer, but his first instrument that he started to play when he was just five was the Hawaiian guitar. He confesses that he still loves the guitar and believes that it is guitar techniques that have given him his unique sitar-playing style. "Even now its influence is very strong in the way I play and compose."

His unique style is celebrated by fans the world over and has given him unexpected accolades such as being the first to transpose sitar music into jazz. This was the focus of his two-year research at Columbia University in New York where he was a Fullbright research scholar from 2008 to June 2010.

His jazz concert, Eastern Blues at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles was a resounding success. But his moment of glory in the US was when he performed a mixture of modern world music with jazz and blues, Indian classical and Sri Lankan folk in November 2009 at the Carnegie Hall in New York. "It was a very moving experience because three of the musicians who played with me were my professors from Columbia: Ben Waltzer on piano, Terry Pender on mandolin and Arthur Kampela on guitar."

While in Columbia he composed his first symphony: a double concerto for sitar and cello, the Kuveni concerto. Based on the six simple traditional Kuveni melodies, he composed a 45-minute symphony, movingly capturing the emotional ups and downs of the story of Kuveni in four movements that has a distinct Sri Lankan flavour. "It took me six months to compose and I was extremely fortunate to have it orchestrated by my professor, a great musician, Patrick Zimmerli."

Pradeep performed the concerto with cellist Ramon Jaffe and the 75-piece New Brandenburg Philharmonic orchestra in May this year at the New Brandenburg Konzertkirch near Berlin.

More recently he played at the European Parliament in Brussels and at a special concert at BOZAR, the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels.

His earlier musical education was in India with teachers who were disciples of sitar maestro Ravi Shankar but he confesses his obsession has always been to create sitar music that is distinctly Sri Lankan. "I think I have succeeded; my specialty is to play with a multitude of techniques that imitate the beat of different instruments such as Sri Lankan drums or add harmony chords or staccato rhythms and numerous microtones that give my music a distinct Sri Lankan identity."