Music of Sri Lanka

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The music of Sri Lanka has its roots in four primary influences: ancient folk rituals, Buddhist religious traditions, the legacy of European colonization, and the commercial and historical influence of nearby Indian culture—specifically, Bollywood cinema. The Theravada sect of Buddhism has exercised a particular influence on Sri Lankan music since Buddhism arrived in Sri Lanka around the opening of the first millennium.

Portuguese colonists were among the first Europeans to arrive in Sri Lanka, landing in the mid-15th century. They brought with them traditional cantiga ballads, ukuleles and guitars, as well as conscripted Africans (referred to, historically, as kaffrinhas), who spread their own style of music known as baila. The confluence of both European and African traditions served to further diversify the musical roots of contemporary Sri Lankan music.

Folk music

Caste-based folk poems (kavi) originated as communal song shared within individual groups as they engaged in daily work. Today, they remain a popular form of cultural expression. Kavi was also sung to accompany annual rituals. These ancient rites are rarely performed in contemporary Sri Lanka, but the preserved songs are still performed by folk musicians.

Another traditional Sri Lankan folk style is called the virindu. It involves an improvised poem sung to the beaten melody of a rabana. Traditional song contests were held in which two virindu singers would compete through spontaneous verse.

Traditional folk music of Sri Lanka

The art, music and dances of Sri Lanka were derived from ritualistic responses to natural phenomenon. Sri Lanka's earliest folk music was later influenced by the influx of Buddhist traditions. These songs were performed by commoners, and not merely recited by the priestly castes.1

Pagentary

Sri Lanka has a highly evolved pagentry tradition, which has a unique array of music.

Local drama music (Kolam/Nadagam/Noorthy)

Kolam music is a low country folk tradition of the south-west coast and it's use was both in exorcism rituals as a form of healing and in masked comedy and drama.

Nadagam music

This particular style is a more developed form of drama influenced by South Indian street drama which was introduced by some South Indian Artists. Phillippu Singho from Negombo in 1824 performed “Harishchandra Nadagama” in Hnguranketha, which was originally written in the Telingu language. Later “Maname”, “Sanda kinduru” and a few others were introduced. Don Bastian of Dehiwala introduced Noorthy firstly by looking at Indian dramas and then John De Silva developed it and performed Ramayanaya in 1886.

Sinhala light music

Some artists visited India to learn music and later started introducing light music. Ananda Samarakone was the pioneer of this attempt and He composed National Anthem too. Then Sunil Santha who also did not stick to Hindustani music introduced light music of his own, influenced by The Geethika (Hymns) tradition of Sri Lanka. Pandit Amaradeva is credited as the major contributor to the development of this genre into a truly Sri Lankan style. Nowadays this is the most popular type of music in Sri Lanka and enriched with the influence of folk music, kolam music, Nadagam music, Noorthy music, Film music, Classical music, Western music, the Geethika (Hymns) tradition and others too. Most of the musician in Sri Lanka have come out with their own creations The temple paintings and carvings used birds, elephants, wild animals, flowers and trees. The colors were made of nature. The Traditional 18 Dances display the dancing of Birds and Animals. Mayura Wannama - The dance of the Peacock Hanuma Wannama - The dance of the Monkey Gajaga Wannama - The dance of the elephant

The Music is several kinds. The folk music is created with few instruments only. The folk songs and poems were used in social gatherings to work together. The Indian influenced Classical Music has grown to be unique.,2345 The traditional drama, music and songs are typically Sri Lankan.

Sri Lanka's traditional musical instruments

The classical Sinhalese Orchestra consists of five categories of instruments. But, the drum, is the king of local percussions instruments and without it, there will be no dance.6 The vibrant beat of the rhythm of the drums form the basic of the dance. The dances feet bounce off the floor and they leap and swirl in patterns that reflex the complex rhythms of the drum beat.

This drum beat may seem simple on the first hearing but it takes a long time to master the intricate rhythms and variations, which the drummer sometimes can bring to a crescendo of intensity. In traditional ceremonies, especially in Buddhist temples an oboe called "Horanawa" is also played during the drumming.

Gatabera

The typical Sinhala Dance is identified as the Kandyan dance and this drum is indispensable to this dance.

Yak-bera

This is the demon drum or the, drum used in low country dance in which the dancers wear masks and perform devil dancing, which has become a highly developed form of art.

Dawula

It is a barrel shaped drum, and it was used as a companion drum in the past, to keep strict time with the beat.

Thammattama

A flat, two faced drum. The drummer strikes the drum on the two surfaces on top with sticks, unlike the others where you drum on the sides. This is a companion drum to the adore mentioned Dawula.

Udekki

A small double headed hand drum, used to accompany songs. It is mostly heard in the poetry dances (vannam).

Rabana

Flat faced circular drum and comes in several sizes. The large Rabana has to be placed on the floor like a circular short-legged table and several people (especially the womenfolk) can sit around it and beat on it with both hands. This is used in festivals such as the Sinhalese New Year and ceremonies such as weddings. The resounding beat of the Rabana symbolizes the joyous moods of the occasion. The small Rabana is a form of mobile drum beat since the player carries it wherever he goes and he produces patterns of back ground drum beat for his songs.

Then, the metal percussions is almost always made up of cymbals and "Thalampata" - 2 small cymbals joined together by a string.

The wind section, is dominant by a wind instrument, something akin to the clarinet. This is not normally used for the dances. This is important because the Sinhalese dance is not set to music as the western world knows it. Here, the primary sense of rhythm, and patterns of man in motion, is the music that is beaten out by the drummer.

The flutes of metal such as silver & brass produce shrill music to accompany Kandyan Dances, while the plaintive strains of music of the reed flute may pierce the air in devil-dancing. The conch-shell (Hakgediya) is another form of a natural instrument, and the player blows it to announce the opening of ceremonies of grandeur.

Endemic Instruments (The Béra)

According to the historical record available today, it is believed that several instruments originated within the tribal groups that once inhabited the island presently known as Sri Lanka. Among these, seven remain in use:

  • Gáta Béra - Also referred to as the Kandyan Drum; it is a double-headed, barrel-shaped drum, that is played by hand).
  • Thammátama - A twin-drum (similar to the bongo) that is played with two sticks instead of by hand.
  • Yak Béra - Also referred to as the Low Country Drum; it is a double-headed, barrel-shaped drum, that is played by both hands (one in one side).
  • Udákkiya - A small, hour-glass shaped drum, that is played with one hand while the other hand modifies the tension of a cloth wrapped around its centere (thereby changing the pitch of the drum-head).
  • Hand Răbāna - A drum similar to the tambourine (except in that it does not possess metal jingles)
  • Daŭla - A double-headed, barrel-shaped drum played by hand (on one side), and by a stick (on the opposite side).
  • Bench Răbāna - Similar to the hand rabana, except larger (it is often played by three to eight individuals simultaneously).

In addition to these drums, a new drum was recently created (in 2000) by Sri Lankan musician Kalasoori Piyasāra Shilpadhipathi, referred to as the Gaŭla - it is a barrel-shaped instrument containing one head from the Gáta Béra, and one from the Daŭla. A set of rudiments (practice rhythms) were also created by him to accommodate the instrument's unique tone.

Also in addition to these drums, the dhōlki is also used by many musicians - though this drum is believed to have descended from those brought to Sri Lanka from India - unlike the aforementioned instruments; which are believed to have existed in Sri Lanka prior to the arrival of the first Indian explorers (though this is difficult to verify due to the proximity of the two nations to one another - it is impossible to say, with any degree of certainty, that no cultural exchange occurred between the peoples of southern India and Sri Lanka prior to any particular date in history).

In 2011, an eBook and a small print book were published with basic playing technique for the Thammattama drum, using Western Notation as a basis. The title is "Sri Lankan Drumming: The Thammattama" published by BookBrewer (eBook) and CreateSpace (Print Book).

Western music

Western classical music has been studied and performed in Sri Lanka since its introduction during the Portuguese colonial period of the 19th century. The upper middle-class and upper-class citizens of the country traditionally formed the pedagogues, students, and audience of the Western classical tradition in the country, although western music is also offered as a subject at secondary schools and at tertiary level. The Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka is one of the oldest western orchestras in South Asia. The foundation of the National Youth Orchestra has helped increase interest and participation more widely in society and among young people outside Colombo. Many Sri Lankans have continued to reach the upper echelons of classical performance, including world renowned cellist Rohan de Saram, pianist Rohan de Silva [1], and many other composers, organists, and orchestral performers.

Recorded music

The earliest stars of Sri Lankan recorded music came from the theater at a time when the traditional open-air drama (referred to in Sinhala as kolam, sokari or nadagam) remained the most popular form of entertainment. A 1903 album, entitled Nurthi, is the first recorded album to come out of Sri Lanka via Radio Ceylon. The station, which had long held a monopoly over Sri Lanka's airwaves, had been established in 1925, and one of Sri Lanka's pioneering broadcasters, Vernon Corea, almost immediately grasped the opportunity to introduce Sri Lankan Music on the English Services of Radio Ceylon.

In the wake of western and Indian proliferation in music, composer and singer Ananda Samarakoon emerged from training at Rabindranath Tagore's school at Shanthiketalan to develop a uniquely Sinhalese music tradition in 1939. His work such as "Punchi Suda", "Ennada Manike" and notably "Namo Namo Maatha" (adapted as Sri Lanka's national anthem later) established the sarala gee genre. Another artist Devar Surya Sena with his Western education was pivotal in popularizing folk songs of Sri Lanka to the English elite that bore higher status in the country at the time.

Kadawunu Poronduwa in 1947 brought about a film industry in Sri Lanka. In the late 1940s and 1950s Sinhala film music became the most popular with audiences; it was drawn heavily upon melodies found in Hindi and Tamil films - adapted to a Sri Lankan audience by substituting their original lyrics with Sinhala lyrics. Meanwhile, musicians like W. D. Amaradeva, Sunil Santha, W.B. Makulolouwa etc. began experimenting with developing a Sinhalese music style.

Pandit Amaradeva, trained at shantiniketan like Samarakoon, took up the "Sarala Gee" tradition along with experimentation of raaga forms. This became popular in the country especially through sarala gee programs broadcast in Radio Ceylon. Musicians such as Victor Ratnayake, Stanley peris, Austin Munasinghe, Rohana Weerasinghe, Sanath Nandasiri, Gunadasa Kapuge, Sunil Edirisinghe, Edward Jayakody, Amarasiri Peiris, Rookantha Gunathilaka, Bathiya and Santhush, Iraj & Ranidu and Ranga Dasanayaka carry on the tradition.

C de S Kulatilake, Makulolouwa believed Sinhalese music should follow the traditions of its folk music called "Jana Gee". He gathered a great many of Sinhalese folk poems by travelling around the country and tried to develop a unique style. Late musicians like Lionel Ranwala, Austin Munasinghe and Rohana Beddage contributed in developing Makuloluwa's "Jana Gee" style.

Sunil Santha took a Western approach in his work inspired from Church music. He opposed of getting elements from Hindustani "Raaga" music to develop Sinhalese music. This was evident when he was later banned from Radio Ceylon after refusing to audition for Indian musician Ratanjankar, whom the corporation had brought from South India to oversee the direction of music on their stations.

Premasiri Khemadasa also known as "Khemadasa Master" is one of the most influential composers in Sri Lankan music. Inspiring from Western Classical music, Hindustani music and also Sinhala folk music he composed in his own style which became popular since late 1960s. He is one of the highly regarded film, stage and TV drama composer and his music is used by the best directors in the country. Khemadasa Master is also famous for creating operas and cantatas.

Pivotal to the works of these musicians were songwriters like Mahagama Sekara and Chandraratne Manawasinghe who in their lyrics presented deeply poetic, and honestly expressed, ideas - many of which also promoted a sense of nationalism in a nation that had received independence less than a generation before in 1948.

With the dawn of the 1960s and government restrictions on travel to India original compositions became in vogue in film music though a few popular films continued to tout stolen melodies under the hands of music arrangers like P. L. A. Somapala and Mohomed Sally.

The mid-1960s, saw the introduction of pop groups such as Los cabelleros led by Neville Fernando, La Ceylonians led by Noel Ranasinghe (widely known as "King of Sri Lankan Calypso"), The La Bambas, The Humming Birds and Los Muchachos; all of whom played calypso-style baila borrowing their style from Caribbean folk-singer Harry Belafonte. This mixture of Caribbean calypso with native baila was dominated by two groups: The Moonstones, and The Golden Chimes led by musicians Annesley Malewana and Clarence Wijewardene.

Sri Lankan pop/film music managed to hold a large portion of Sri Lanka's market during the late 1960s and early 1970s, but by 1980, Indian film music had again displaced local musicians as the highest-selling sector of the Sri Lankan music industry. In the 1980s the disco-pop musician Rookantha Gunathilake emerged to become one of the most popular artists of the time. Many young musicians followed Rookantha and his style in 1980s and 1990s.

MIDI/Computer based music performances and recording were introduced to Sri Lanka in the 1980s by Keyboardist/composer Diliup Gabadamudalige. He was the first to use a complete MIDI based performing keyboard setup and also use MIDI/Sequencers and Music software/Computer based music recording and performances in Sri Lanka. Diliups contribution has been recognized by the Govvernment of Sri Lanka and he has been awarded the Kalashuri title and was also awarded the first Lyle Godrich Memorial Award for Contribution to the western Music Industry in Sri Lanka in 2011.

The Gypsies has remained a popular band for over four decades and the Sunflowers (band) is the most widely recorded group for nearly three decades.

Since 1998, Many Pop/R&B groups have emerged in Sri Lanka - the most prominent of which is known as Bathiya and Santhush—who draw inspiration from the Europop groups that visited the island. Among their accomplishments; they are the first Sri Lankan group to be signed to an international record label (Sony BMG), and were an integral component in the label's entrance into the nation's music industry in 2002/2003. They have received international awards for their compositions, and have performed in several countries - including on BBC radio in the UK.

Ancient Srilankan Ravanahatha

The Ravanahatha is a crude violin made of coconut shell, bamboo and goat skin, with a natural fibre serving as the string. Goat and sheep gut and coconut wood are also used. Having been the first stringed instrument to be played with a bow, it is recognized as the world's first violin. Ravanahatha or Ravana's hand is mentioned in the ancient Indian epic 'Ramayana'. The soulful music emanating from the Ravanahatha is believed to have moved Hindu god Shiva, of whom Ravana was an ardent devotee. 'The instrument was picked by Hanuman and flown to north India, where it is still played in Rajasthan and in the Agra area of Uttar Pradesh and is known as Ravanahatha,

Sri Lankan Ravanahatha

From India, the Ravanahatha travelled westwards to the Middle East and Europe, where in the 9th century, it came to be called the ravanastron, according to the website library thinkquest.org. From the 11th century onwards, the bowed instrument underwent many changes before it took the shape of the modern violin in Italy in the 16th century.

Dinesh Subasinghe, a star on the Sri Lankan music horizon, has a new and daring passion - to popularize Ravanahatha a violin-like instrument that Lanka king Ravana had devised and played about 5,000 years ago. The Ravanahatha sounds like the north Indian instruments Sarangi and Esraj. Its plaintive and melancholic sound touches an emotional chord.7

The melancholic sound of Ravanahatha might be a reflection of the character of Ravana, a tragic hero who the author of the 'Ramayana' demonised, conveniently ignoring his abilities as a scholar, musician and technologist. The ravanahatha's birth itself is believed to have taken place under traumatic circumstances. According to legend, Ravana's mother Kaikasi, an ardent devotee of Shiva, was eager to go and live in the god's abode on Mount Kailash in the Himalayas. Ravana opposed the plan vehemently, but to please his mother he promised to bring Mount Kailash itself to Sri Lanka. As Ravana was lifting the mountain, an angry Shiva trapped his 10 heads and 20 arms. Writhing in pain, Ravana prayed for mercy. When Shiva let him off, Ravana decided to sing his praise and instantly made an accompanying instrument using one of his heads, an arm and some of his hair. The soulful music emanating from Ravana's instrument is said to have moved Shiva, who bestowed immortality on him. Though crude and utterly simple, the Ravanahatha has proved to be a very soothing instrument.

Dinesh Subasinghe brought some changes to this ancient instrument, he brought a unique style and technique to play it like a Sarangi, in year 2007 for the first time he introduced this instrument to electronic media in Sri Lanka and into the recording music industry and Dinesh Subasinghe launched the first audio album from thia Ancient Instrument Ravanahatha.89

Rock music

Rock Music in Sri Lanka dates back to the early 1970s when Kumar Navaratnam and friends staged the first Rock Festival at the Havelock Park in Colombo Sri Lanka. Kumara Navaratnam could be hailed as the Main strength behind the evolving rock music scene then along with others like Prins Jayaratnam and the Unwanted Generation, Prasanna Abeysekara's Coffin Nail, Neville of Acid, Gobbledegook and Sweetie Pie, which was led by pianist Nimal Goonawardane, Richard Simon, Mary etc. Mary was the only Rock band to play all original music at that time and was led by Ravi Balasooriya of "Bugs" fame. Other members being Aruna Siriwardane, Benjy Ranabahu, Diliup Gabadamudalige and Dwight Van Gramberg. Ramesh Weeratunga, who was a composer/solo performer of this period, went on to become a professional musician/song writer in Germany, releasing several solo albums.

Sri Lanka now has a significant underground metal and hard rock community, which is growing in popularity among upper-middle-class teenagers and young adults. Some internationally known Sri Lankan metal bands include Stigmata, Chitral Somapala, Whirlwind, Old Castles Massacre, Funeral In Heaven, Forlorn Hope, Plecto Aliquem Capite, Paranoid Earthling. The main rock radio station in Sri Lanka is 'TNL Rocks', which is a very popular radio station among the youth of Colombo, Kandy and some other suburbs of the island. Many other bands too have emerged ever since the 1990s making the heavy metal underground much bigger. While Colombo is a breeding ground for many hard rock bands like Stigmata, Kandy gave birth to the pioneer Grunge outfit Paranoid Earthling, which was the first rock band to emerge from the Hill Capital. Kandy is also the stronghold for black metal bands like "Pariah Demise" "Lieu De Fault" and some doom metal bands as well.

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