Rukshan rarin’ to go again

By Namali Premawardhana

Don’t judge a book by its cover they say – and the same goes for people and homes. Rukshan Perera, despite an intimidating list of skills and achievements, is down-to-earth, unassuming and always smiling. The high walls and narrow entrance to his home too are imposing, but a deceptive cover to a cheery and comfortable interior, noticeable parts of which are an organ, electric guitar, and stacks of concert flyers.

At home with his guitar. Pic by Mangala Weerasekera

Rukshan’s last performance in January was called “one of the best Colombo has ever seen” and simply “extraordinary”, and true to the reviews, the audience is demanding more. So on Sunday August 28, the Bishop’s College auditorium promises to come alive with the unmatched sounds of this master-musician. “I want to make it different from last time,” Rukshan says, explaining that he has rearranged some of his compositions to include a brass section and other extra instruments and voices.

It gets even better as he will be backed by Thriloka and joined on stage by the likes of Natasha Rathnayake, Voice Print and the De Lanerolle Brothers. The extravagant line-up of guest artists is testimony not only to Rukshan’s talent but also the importance of the Colours of Courage Trust in aid of which the concert is being held.

A special feature about Rukshan’s concerts is the variety he presents, the compositions ranging from blues and jazz to acapella and pop, to unique arrangements of popular Sri Lankan tunes. But even more important is his concern for current issues in and through his music. He gestures dramatically, describing the “Dhadaang... Dhadaang!” of falling chunks of ice he has witnessed off the Alaskan coast, the inspiration for ‘Nature’s Calling’, and speaks with true empathy of the fear related with overcoming drug abuse, the theme of ‘You Are Strong’.

The list of Rukshan’s songs that deals with serious issues is surprisingly longer than for most other artists, and he believes he has been more outward looking than most from a young age, though he “never thought of that”. And he doesn’t seem to think much, either, of having formed his own family band at the age of ten (wittily called the Kalaa Maediriyas – a pun on the Sinhala word for “art”), of having been playing for the Golden Chimes from the age of 14, or of having toured Asia and Europe in his early twenties – all feats the kind of which only a handful can lay claim to.

What he does think though, is the state and status of music in our country: “The problem is the time and the money”. He shares regretfully how Sri Lankan musicians trained abroad are reluctant to settle in their homeland because “the situation is just too bad” for musicians and artists. It’s “just not right” he declares, how performers he has known over the years (in a musical career spanning nearly half a century mind you!) are still earning what they did a decade or two ago.

But just as his music and lyrics are hopeful, Rukshan’s outlook is also positive. “It’s really encouraging,” he shares enthusiastically, that musical atmospheres such as that provided by Music Matters are being created by a generation of young and very talented artists, who choose Sri Lanka over so many more lucrative options, to simply encourage true musicianship.

“There are some very talented youngsters,” he says, speaking of local bands, adding that “even the singers are extremely good now.” He hopes many of these will dare to dream, to reach for something beyond what seems available to them. Rukshan somewhat regretfully describes the ‘cover culture’ that thrives in the local band scene. “It was there in our time” he laughs embarrassedly, “I did enough and more of it.” “They’re (the local bands) undeniably doing a good job,” he asserts, “but creativity is somewhat limited because of that.”

Rukshan on stage with Voice Print at his January show

Which is why Jazz Unlimited, the monthly jam session at CR&FC, is another source of encouragement for Rukshan, who is enthusiastic that a younger audience listens to more challenging music and “not just pop or whatever that sells.”

He is excited about the space these and similar gatherings create for an audience required to be informed about and understand what they’re hearing. “Just the fact that they come there to listen to it is amazing,” he shares animatedly, his eyes glittering, “because if you don’t start somewhere, you’ll never do anything.”

This comes from a man who has been pretty much everywhere and done pretty much everything, musically. “I try to think out of the box,” he says thoughtfully, “I do a lot of experimental stuff.” He talks of making up his own exercises when he was a teenager, demonstrating them laughing.

He sings (and sings effortlessly, a single short line of music enough to assert the fluidity of his mellow voice), plays the guitar and keyboards, composes, arranges, scats (a form of complex vocal improvisation traditional to jazz and not unlike the north-Indian alap), scats with the guitar and scats harmony to the guitar! And if this sounds like an amazing list of talents – wait ‘til he begins to whistle. If you don’t know what this means, that’s a sure sign you need to be at his concert. Get your tickets from Park Street Mews, Commons, Torana or Video International (Nawala), and prepare to be astonished.

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