Sri Lankan music, ‘false’ applause and the ‘great pretender’

By Feizal Samath

The next time you’re in the audience at an oriental music concert with a well-known artiste on stage backed by a full orchestra, watch his or her lips, and follow the movements of the instruments, closely.
The singer will be ‘singing’ the song perfectly, and members of the orchestra would be moving the bow on the violin or ‘strumming’ the guitar. Perfectly … all too perfect, mind you because more often than not they are just miming!

Mime (or just mouthing the words) has become a new art in music that many oriental singers and bands follow – not singing or playing on stage anymore. It’s the recorded tracks that are played while they mime the words and the orchestra or band pretends to play. The audience blissfully unaware enjoys a good evening’s entertainment, not knowing they have been cheated.

This often happens amongst solo artistes and reputed ones too. Why? Because they want to sound perfect and without any flaws – on stage. “Often solo artistes will bring their tracks and play them while pretending to sing (the lyrics from a sheet in front of them),” says veteran singer Sunil Perera, who says he has never or will never mime or use backing tracks. “Even if we make a mistake on stage, that’s a genuine one and the audience responds positively.”

The ever popular Gypsies with veteran singer Sunil in the centre

As Sri Lanka moves into another decade in the new millennium, technology and the habit of playing recorded music and voices on stage have been and will be the biggest bugbear in the local music scene.

Technology has certainly helped advance the music scene but it has also destroyed the values and ethics of music particularly in shows or concerts, and even recorded CDs. Recorded tracks have become not part, but the life of musicians. Originality belongs to a bygone era.

Both Perera and Sohan Weerasinghe, another doyen in the local music scene, see ‘miming’ as the biggest issue in the past decade. “It’s like cheating your audience. Miming on stage has been taken to the extreme. And with technology you don’t have to be on stage. You mime your song while the rest of the music is programmed,” noted Sohan

And for good measure, the ‘applause’ also can be faked. “Some people play recorded tracks of ‘applause’ which add to the real applause from the audience,” said Sunil from the Gypsies, bitterly.
On the flip side, technology has helped the music industry across the world and, in particular, small musicians in Sri Lanka. Those days it would cost a fortune for a small-time musician to do a studio recording, whereas with Internet and cheaper equipment now available, that could be done at home.

Most two or 3-piece bands particularly doing the hotel resort circuit sound the same because it costs just $10 to download a track and often a Frank Sinatra or Bryan Adams song would sound almost similar. “They play a perfect copy of the original through tracks.. The harmony and pitch correction are all taken care of through digital sounds,” added Sohan.

Are audiences aware? “Some are; some are not,” according to Nalin Perera, leader of the popular Marians band with its origins in Chilaw. Nalin, also a well-known TV game show host, believes in originality and in recent years the band has switched to a series of unplugged shows which he says has drawn tremendous interest. A recent concert at a college ground outside Colombo attracted 30,000 people, which Nalin believes is because the band has reduced its outdoor concerts and are less seen in public.

“Those days we had many outdoor concerts running up to 4-5 a.m. (in the morning) and they were also shown live simultaneously on TV. As a result, we found fewer crowds at concerts,” Nalin said, adding that since 2006 they have reduced the outdoor ‘scene’ and concentrate on the top end of the market.
For example, the 9-member Marians – which according to Sunil has the best sound system in Sri Lanka – played at the Hilton on 31st night on Friday.

“That is fantastic. We have progressed from the village to the city. We are capable of English, Sinhala and Tamil songs. That’s what being versatile is all about,” he said. Nalin’s biggest project is preparing to open a high class studio this month in Negombo for upper-end recordings of both video, audio and also film tracks. “I am hoping to attract the Indian film industry market and being located in Negombo helps as we are close to the airport and good hotels.”

When on tour in the countryside, the band is a mini version of the likes of an Eagles or Britney Spears’ caravan, having three truckloads of equipment, sound, lights and two generators plus a crew of around 30!

For singers like Maxi Rozairo, what is disappointing in the past decade is that the traditional dinner dance has changed to more a ‘baila’ and ‘disco’ music scene rather than the ballroom, foxtrot or the ‘cha cha’ form of dance.

“Nowadays, if we play a song suited for ballroom dancing, the couples will walk out. If baila was the last session in a dance those days now it’s the first or soon after the first,” Maxi said.

He believes the explosion in the Sinhala pop music scene will continue, a view shared by Sunil and Sohan, all of whom grew up in an era where Cliff Richard, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or Jim Reeves were popular.

“When we come to oldies’ music, I think we are clutching at straws. When our generation goes, the new music will be the evergreens,” he said.

Noel Brian Ranasinghe, a living legend in music and creator of the sarong-and-straw hat style of singing ‘calypso or country’ songs, is hurt by the new generation of artistes. “They have become slaves to sound. They just imitate the West and forget about originality (or being creative).”

Veteran emcee Vijaya Corea, who has made a great comeback to hosting a series of ‘old music’ concerts, says there is a huge demand for ‘old music’ concerts while a lot of bands are piggybacking on the success of the music of the late Clarence Wijewardene. The Marians’ Nalin has a vision. “I want my band to be remembered like Abba, the Beatles or the Eagles. I want to be remembered long after we are gone.”

Bold words indeed in a generation where time is short, musical lifespan shorter and originality thrown out of the window!

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