2015 Year in Review: Books

When a fulltime job combined with what could easily be called the best years of television come at you together, reading takes a backseat which is what happened to me from about 2012/13. While my 2015 Goodreads challenge to myself to read 25 books would make my former self hang my head in shame, it was nevertheless looking like a Herculean task at the beginning of the year.

But finally giving into a Kindle (thanks Abeysekera for the final push) and then truly falling for how amazing a gadget it is has resulted in (a) Shopping sprees on the Amazon store and (b) Surpassing my challenge by about 1.5 books.

I read a lot of books by women and/or about women this year. 2015 was also the year I read Teju Cole, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Bell Hooks and Margaret Atwood for the first time (probably a result of resolving to read less South Asian literature for a year). It was also the year that I’ve begun to force myself to read at least two or three non fiction books though I tend to read them at a much slower pace, as opposed to the hundreds of articles and longreads that I read throughout the year.

So excuse me while I indulge myself (as per the paragraphs above) and write a few words about some of the books and authors that stood out from what and whom I’ve read this year.

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Paraya: A short review

I (along with three others) was invited by The Sunday Times to write a short review of Paraya, the latest production by the Mind Adventures theatre company. It was published on the Mirror Magazine and you can find it at http://www.sundaytimes.lk/131006/magazine/hit-by-paraya-64620.html

I’m reproducing my review here.

Mind Adventures is one of the few reasons (another being Ruwanthie De Chickera’s Stages Theatre Group) I still patronize English language theatre productions in Sri Lanka. While I’m a huge fan of Broadway musicals, it is heartening that there are theatre companies that strive towards originality, pushing beyond rehashing musicals. However, originality can come in many forms and what makes Mind Adventures stand out is the intelligence in their productions. They make you think for days after and in the case of Paraya, I’ll be thinking for weeks and months.

At the abandoned Hotel Rio, Mind Adventures created an alternate world that was at the same time very familiar. From the moment you stepped into this space, the apprehension that “anything could happen” was palpable. Starting from little details like the unsmiling ushers sternly asking us to stay in line at the gate, the cast did an excellent job in ensuring that this atmosphere was maintained throughout the production though I felt the audience was not so helpful at times.

I wish the number of audience members could have been limited to about 50-60 but understandably there may be logistical and financial challenges in doing so. It was clear that most audience members were unprepared for Paraya and their confusion and lack of engagement diminished the intensity of the production. Personal conversations, trying to locate friends, etc. took away from the atmosphere and space that Mind Adventures had created both with their acting as well as with the choice of location, props, lighting, etc. This will probably be remedied with time as audiences become more familiar with nontraditional forms of theatre because for many it was their first experience of immersive theatre including myself.

Having seen Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke on stage, I was curious about his work as a Director. While there were some technical glitches, the Director, cast and crew should be lauded for the military precision in the simultaneous execution of the scenes that melded into one production.

I can’t speak about each actor within my word limit but out of the characters I followed that night, Ruvin de Silva’s Rajiv Kurukulasuriya deserves special mention. I got the chance to engage with this character and to watch certain scenes up close and I was in awe of how Ruvin lived and breathed Rajiv without breaking character even for a second.

When I finally stepped out of Hotel Rio, it was with a familiar feeling. I had witnessed and heard horrific things happening around me whether it was censorship or militarization or torture. By not speaking out and by staying under the radar, I had come out unscathed. Unscathed but with an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach that is still lingering.

Photo by Brandon Ingram (from the Facebook event page)Image

Guest Post – Review: Cantando Cello Ensemble: Lionel Wendt: July 2nd ’09

By Eshantha Peiris

D minor triad. Multiply by 13 unamplified cellos on the Lionel Wendt stage. Result: one of the most powerful openings to a live concert that I’ve ever experienced. The compositions of J.S. Bach have a knack for being readily adaptable to instruments for which they were not originally written: e.g. from pipe-organ to symphony orchestra (Stokowski), string-band to vocal-jazz-group (Swingle Singers), viola-da-gamba to electric-guitar (Malmsteen), and even apparently, from solo-violin to cello-ensemble. Although listening to the Cantando Cellos’ interpretation of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor from Violin Partita (arr. Laszlo Varga), I was not reminded of a lone fiddle; rather the constantly evolving multiple musical layers shared among the cellos served to create a truly hypnotic sonic landscape of their own (interrupted only occasionally by some very human tuning inaccuracies in the upper notes). Otherworldly music indeed. (no wonder NASA likes sending recordings of Bach on their probes to outer space…) And a fitting introduction to Cantando Cello Ensemble’s 5th annual concert, held on July 2nd.

Jazz-musicians and neuroscientists often marvel at how classical-instrumentalists can synchronize their playing without the aid of a steady beat or a cue-giving conductor. David Popper’s Suite showcased this phenomenon quite vividly, with the cello octet displaying a remarkable sense of group-coordination as they stylishly navigated through fluctuating moods and pulse. I presume they must have rehearsed a lot together.

As with most else on the program, Cesar Franck’s Sonata in A major (originally composed for violin and piano) was presented in an adapted format (featuring Dushy Perera, cello and guest musician Rohan de Silva, piano). I had forgotten what a musically sensitive pianist de Silva can be; the velvety tone he was able to extract from the piano in the first movement was rivaled only by a breathtakingly intuitive sense of ‘rubato’ melodic timing in the solo piano passages. There’s a reason the man is a pro. The second movement, while hectic, was less impressive, but fortunately the cello took over the challenge of driving this brilliant movement to a show-stopping close.

The narrative element of the concert really came to the forefront following the intermission: with the audience comfortably back in their seats (sans noisy cellophane cashew-nut wrappers), the ensemble was successful in immediately drawing the listeners back into the music with a magically quiet vibrato-less chord, before proceeding to conjure up vivid images of fertile landscapes (Dvorak: Largo from ‘New World Symphony’, arr. Lothar Niefind) and dancing skeletons (Saint-Saens: Danse Macabre, arr. Edward Laut). While the use of theatrical lighting cues is not typical of the classical concert format, it did occur to me that more could have been done with the stage-lighting to enhance the dramatic qualities of these two pieces. For future reference I would like to suggest that a music-score-reader be deployed in tandem with the lighting-engineer in order to maximize synchronization of lighting-effects and music.

A curiously witty arrangement of Mancini’s Pink Panther theme by Manilal Weerakoon was able to exploit the full textural vocabulary of the cellos (effects typically relegated to weird experimental music) in service of the musical humour inherent in this famous tune. However, in spite of a grooving walking-bass-line courtesy of Andrea Leitan (double-bass), the rest of the band didn’t quite seem to get the swing-feel required of this music (it felt a bit down-beat-oriented for my taste); but this is a problem with classical-musicians world-wide, so I can’t complain too much. Anyhow, this didn’t stop the audience (and the lighting engineer) from having a ball with this piece!

The excerpts from Bernstein’s West Side Story seem to have become a Cantando trademark, and it seems to sound better every time I hear them play it. With the chorus of Tonight being the ultimate melodic-vehicle for showcasing the ‘cantando’ (i.e. singing) capabilities of the cello, this potentially goose-bump-inducing refrain could have had a bit more support (i.e volume) from the pulsing rhythmic accompaniment, I thought. Bringing in a guest classical percussion player was a nice touch, and added some spice to the music; however I’d love to hear what kind of flavours a specialist Latin-percussionist would be able to bring to the same mix.

Overall, a highly enjoyable concert, now turning into a much-looked-forward-to annual event. Cantando Cello Ensemble must also be commended for maintaining a standard of quality musicianship and ensemble-playing, and in doing so providing a platform for the development of new talent on the local music front. We wish them many more fruitful years of music-making and look forward to hearing more new music from them in the future.

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Dhyan Yathra

Dhyan Yathra took me on a much-looked-forward-to journey. Now if only half of Colombo didn’t turn up merely to socialise and be seen. But more about that later.

It started off with Karunaratne Kiriwattuduwe on santoor accompanied by the tabla. His performance made me wish, not for the first time, that I’d pay more attention when my father listens to Indian classical music. I have listened to Rahul Sharma quite a few times but last night I realized that I had listened on a very superficial level.

This performance couldn’t be enjoyed or even heard for that matter because the audience was not prepared for a long classical piece and therefore the discipline one sees at a classical concert was missing. It was very noisy and had it not been World Temperance Day, it may have been noisier. So everyone missed out on what could have been a very enjoyable performance, one that would have really taken us on a dhyan yathra. I hope we get to see him perform again, in an environment more conducive to classical music.

Next up was Mistake, who really need to come up with a new band name now that they have proven that there is nothing mistaken about them. I was not the only one impressed by their music. They started out a bit stiff, understandably due to nerves but started relaxing towards the middle of their performance. There seemed to be technical difficulties such as with sound balance but none of that stopped them from giving us an idea as to the kind of music they want to make.

There were loose ends and disjointed passages but nothing that couldn’t be rectified with experience since the musicians all showed potential. For a new band, they pulled off the usually difficult task of holding the audience’s attention and I look forward to their future performances with hopefully a tighter sound.

Harsha Makalande along with Alston Joachim, Shiraz Noor Amith, Ravibandhu Vidyapathi and Jithendra Vidyapathi played some of the best live music I’ve heard all year. It still didn’t surpass the last time I saw the same ensemble (minus Jithendra and plus Lakshman Joseph De Saram and Pradeep Ratnayake) but that again may have been due to the noise of the audience and the fact that there was no intimacy between the listeners and the performance.

It was evident that there was a lot of brilliant improvisation going on and the answering passages between Vidyapathy father and son on percussion only added to this musical treat. My only grouse is that there was no piano, which could have enhanced the quality of Makalande’s passages.

Lastly it was Thriloka (excuse me while I shift gears from fan girl to objective critic *cough*) and they just keep lifting the bar for all the other bands around. They started out with Unlucky Number and though I can’t point out the exact how and why, it sounded different from the last time I heard it. It was a good introduction to people who were listening to them for the very first time and it was almost amusing to see people who were as astounded as I was when I heard them for the first time.

The Thriloka version of Thunderblast from Selvaganesh‘s Beat it if you can was one of the best performances during that entire night. There was some fancy playing by the Pabalu, Harshan and Sarani but it was disappointing to note that even that couldn’t stop some people from jabbering nineteen to the dozen (yes I’m aware that I’m starting to sound like a broken record about this issue).

I was very interested in listening to their interpretation of Anna Balan Sanda from the moment I saw it listed in the evening’s programme and I was not disappointed. It proved the point I made in an earlier review about how Thriloka takes the essence of a piece of music and then fuses it to another style rather than simply repeating a well known tune with different instruments. While Sarani Perera on guitar gave a beautiful introduction to the song and then played the chorus itself, what stood out for me were the keyboard passages by Eshantha. For those who haven’t heard the original version, it being sung by Edward Jayakody can be found here.

The last track for the night was Raga De Latino and they keep adding something to this track everytime they play it. There was the answering passages between Sarani and Pabalu on guitar and percussion and that little bit of baila that disappeared as quickly as it appeared. And I love how the entire band seems to be connected by an invisible cord that tugs exactly at the same time.

While Thriloka is undoubtedly excellent at what they do, there were some things lacking. One thing I’ve been noticing (and so had others as I later found out) is that while guitar, keyboard, drums and percussion each has at least one solo to play during a set, the bass seems to be stagnating. All the musicians except for the bass player Uvindu have carved a niche for themselves and display individuality within Thriloka. While the bass parts can be heard more clearly than before, there is still room in their music for more bass. And as Alston Joachim proved last night, there is more to a bass player than standing in a corner, overshadowed by the other musicians.

The ambience was excellent at Barefoot for the kind of music played that evening but it was ruined by some parts of the audience who didn’t respect the musicians enough to keep quiet even if they weren’t interested in the music that was being played. However kudos to Rockapalooza Productions and Fusion Dhyan Arts Circle for putting the show together and for being willing to give exposure to young bands to play along with some of the best in the field.

All in all, it was an evening well spent with some good music and some even better music.

Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na (Soundtrack)

Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na (Soundtrack) 2008
LABEL : T Series

Music – A.R. Rahman

It is the trend in Bollywood to release movie soundtracks months before the movies are released. And sometimes the worst movies turn out to have the best soundtracks, Saawariya being the most recent example. I usually check out the soundtracks as soon as they are released but with no cable tv at home for the last few months, I haven’t been that up to date with my Hindi movie soundtracks.

And that is how I missed out on the soundtrack for Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na until I watched the movie. Truth be told, I wasn’t interested in watching the movie but with all the hype about it, decided to check it out nevertheless. The first half of the movie was passable but then it just turned into the usual masala flick. But the music……

Let me admit it before someone accuses me of it, I tend to be biased when it comes to Rahman. He is one of the few men who can make me bawl my eyes out and/or walk around for days with butterflies in my stomach because of something as small as a beautiful harmony that lasted for a few seconds in a song. But I promise I will try to review the soundtrack as objectively as possible.

For starters, it is not Rahman’s best work but then again, I don’t think it was expected to be either. The songs are not challenging and don’t require extreme voice ranges. In keeping with the spirit of the movie, it is fun music which is not too intense. But there are some very good young singers at work in this soundtrack and I want to hear more of them.

Rashid Ali is a revelation. In ‘Kabhi Kabhi Aditi’ he sounds somewhat like Adnan Sami but definitely not nasal like Sami is. The song is very simple and the main instruments that could be heard are guitar, flute and drums. He sings with a slight Western touch which suits the movie but I’d love to hear more of him in different styles. And about the melody, I hope it was a coincidence but it sounds uncannily similar to the song Appudo Ippudo from the Telegu movie Bommarillu.

The other song Rashid Ali sings in this soundtrack is Kahin To and this shows more range to his voice than the other song. But I must confess I wished Rahman himself would have sung it because the higher range would have had more personality than Ali’s rendition. Vasundhara Das (Chale Jaise Hawaein – Main Hoon Na) is fabulous though she only sings four lines for the entirety of the song. Her voice complements Ali’s voice very well. While this song is beautiful, I felt that it was not suitable for the climax of the movie. The climax itself was not very good and the song did nothing to improve it.

Tu Bole Main Boloon was sung by Rahman. The song was very jazzy and reminded me of Vennila Vennila­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ from Iruvar. The tune was goosebump inducing but I felt that it should have been written a few keys higher so that it could have been sung gustily because the voice was not strong enough for the style of the song.

Nazrein Milaana, Nazrein Churaana is probably my favorite song out of the entire soundtrack. It is sung by seven singers and I’m yet to figure out who is singing which part. But I love the female voice that begins the song. It is a very husky voice, similar to but not as deep as Sunidhi Chauhan’s. The rest of the voices are also very good though there is nothing distinct about them. But they all work well together as a group. Also, check out the harmony in the few seconds between 0.52-1.05 and between 2.22-2.35. That is what is giving me ‘Rahman butterflies’ these days.

Pappu Can’t Dance is just fun. I love how the ‘thrikita thaana’ well complements the rest of the song which is very Western. The singing gets annoying at some points, especially the female voices but you get the feeling that it was on purpose. However I could be wrong about that. And any idea who pappu is? Saif Ali Khan? Muscular, popular, bachelor and quite angrez, in my opinion he also can’t dance. There is a remix of Pappu Can’t Dance by Krishna Chetan but there is nothing special about it.

Both Runa Rizvi and Sukhwinder Singh sang a track each of Jaane Tu Mera(i) Kya Hai and while I love both their voices, the songs were uninspiring. The arrangements were very different in the two tracks and I have a feeling that they will grow on me once I listen to them a few more times. Especially Sukhwinder’s version because I love his voice.

I obviously can’t comment on the lyrics and my insightful observations on them are that (a) there was more than a smattering of English words since the movie was urban and (b) the line ‘jaane tu…ya jaane na’ was repeated in almost every song.

Like I said, not Rahman’s best work and so far Jodha-Akbar remains his best work for 2008. But it is an addictive soundtrack and it’s all I’ve been listening to all day.

Thriloka – Almost Acoustic

Thriloka – Almost Acoustic
Friday 18th July, 2008
Russian Cultural Centre Hall,
Colombo 7

I have an aversion towards Sri Lankan fusion music. One reason for this may be that I grew up listening to a healthy balance of different genres and therefore have a real love for what is loosely termed as Sinhala music. Whether it is vannam or nurthi songs or music from the gramophone era onwards, I love good (there is a need for emphasis since there is an incredible amount of the not-so-good kind) Sinhala music. There are beautiful melodies, meaningful lyrics and amazing talent, though for the past few years it has been becoming more and more mechanical.

Therefore when someone takes one of these melodies, plays it with an electric guitar with traditional drums backing it up or adds a few hiphop beats to it or inserts meaningless rapping in between the melody and then calls it fusion music, I believe my aversion towards it is justified. For me, fusion music should be much more than a shallow experiment. The musician should recognize the essence of a certain genre of music, understand its structure and meaning and then fuse it with another genre.

Needless to say, I was slightly apprehensive about Almost Acoustic. Thriloka is called a Sri Lankan Fusion Band and though the band comprised of talent I knew of or had heard of and though the few tracks I had heard were good, I still had reservations about the evening ahead. But by the end of the evening, I had rephrased my stance to ‘I have an aversion towards most Sri Lankan fusion music’ and hopefully this review would tell you why.

First on what they called ‘tonight’s fusion menu’ was Monsoon Rain, an arrangement based on a tune by Ananda Premasiri, a veteran musician at the SLBC (Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation) and a member of the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka. I must confess I paid more attention to the individual musicians during this song because there was so much to observe. It was evident that each musician had excellent technique but it was not great technique that made them special. There was an almost tangible energy that pulled them together, something that was more evident in pieces like Unlucky Number and Seven 2 Six which had complex time changes. And most of all, they undoubtedly enjoyed themselves and despite there being no over the top showmanship, kept the audience glued to the performance.

My favorite was Loophole which featured Ranil Goonewardane of Hollow Point Halo. The answering passages between Sarani Perera and Ranil on guitar and between Sarani on guitar and Eshantha Peiris on piano were excellent. Arahatha Vandanava was based on a tune which was very familiar and the fusion was very subtle. Each time the tune was revisited, you realized that the diversion was so subtle as to leave you unconscious of it. With Seven 2 Six, Thriloka proved that they were constantly experimenting and evolving because the arrangement was completely different from the original in their debut album Bisura.

Harshan Gallage was probably born with drumsticks in his hands, as his solo performance proved. The drumming genes inherited from his father Hemapala Gallage who is a familiar face in the oriental music scene, were out in full force as he displayed technique I am yet to see in any other drummer in Sri Lanka. If I’m not good enough authority on this, then his teacher Aruna Siriwardena was recently on tv stating that Harshan is probably the best drummer in Sri Lanka to date. Search for ‘Harshan Gallage’ on youtube and you can see it for yourself.
Harshan along with Pabalu Wijegoonawardene who played a variety of percussion instruments were he two most animated musicians in the band and while it was evident that they were both skilled performers, their exuberance sometimes resulted in drowning the other instruments. Uvindu Perera on Bass in particular could not be heard most of the time and though there were initial problems with the sounds, I think the imbalance between the drums/percussion and the other instruments was more responsible for this. I had to strain my ears to hear the bass line complement the melodies.

Sarani Perera’s prowess in guitar was awe inspiring, more so because of how effortless he made it seem. Nebula can be described by one word only; trippy. I found myself closing my eyes and listening to the intricate changes that were hardly discernible. Sri Cuban brought out the performer in pianist Eshantha Peiris who I had so far only seen in his classical avatar. So needless to say I was amazed to see him almost get up from his seat while playing. Any attempt on my part to comment on the musicianship of these two musicians would put me in the danger of praising them too much and losing my credibility, so I think its best that you see them perform yourself.

A cover of Michael Jackson’s Earth Song was done and that was the only dish on that night’s menu that I didn’t like. I felt that it disturbed the flow of the rest of the pieces performed and when a band comprises of such talented musicians, you only want to see them challenge themselves more on each song they play. However guest artist CC who was a winner at last year’s TNL Onstage was surprisingly good. Surprisingly because I thought he was horribly off tune and mediocre when I watched him perform at Onstage finals but his performance at Almost Acoustic made me change my mind. Despite seeming slightly nervous (Thriloka doesn’t seem to be afflicted by nerves at all) his pitching was perfect and it was an enjoyable performance.

The closing item was Last Minute for which Thriloka was joined by Anthony Surendra on guitar and Kalani Perera on violin, who apart from being one of the best violinists in the oriental music scene, is also the proud father of Sarani and Uvindu. Though I can’t pinpoint to one particular snag, I felt that there was a lack of coordination between the band and the guest artists during this performance and I felt my attention drifting at times. Eshantha switched instruments for this piece, settling down on the floor to play a harmonium. I noticed that he was constantly bellowing the instrument, which was unnecessary but I suppose it is because hand coordination in a harmonium is different to that of a piano. But it was nice to see a harmonium being played because it is now an almost extinct instrument seen on stage, the organ having replaced it.

Almost Acoustic is the best live performance I have attended in a long time and there are only two suggestions I would like to make. One is a brief introduction to each piece, either in the printed programme or by the musicians themselves before they start playing. For an example, the programme described Nebula as ‘trip to Hameer from Poorya Dhaneshri’ and I did not understand it. Later Google told me that Purya Dhanashree is a raga but some further information to the uninitiated would have made the audience understand it better.

The other suggestion is about the venue. Understandably, there must be practical issues related to selecting a venue but a more relaxed venue would be better to better enjoy the kind of music Thriloka makes. One place I immediately thought of was Club Nuovo at Taj Samudra where there is a more intimate atmosphere because the audience can sit on the floor closer to the band. Even an outdoor location would be perfect though the unpredictable weather these days would make it difficult. If practicalities can be defied (the band had sponsored itself, which in itself shows that the circumstances may not be ideal), then a different venue would only enhance their performance.
Despite new bands mushrooming everyday, there is still a lacuna in the Sri Lankan music industry for good and original music and Thriloka has, for me, filled that void to a large extent. They are definitely worth your time and money and I look forward to more of their performances in the near future.