Notes on a musical genius

Bridging generations of tempos, Navaratne Gamage has emerged a contemporary musical genius. The Nation takes a closer look at this musical mind

By Randima Attygalle
Q: What incidents in life made you venture into the musical field?
I grew up in Gangodawila, Nugegoda, which had a very ‘social’ and a cultured atmosphere during that time. Artistes, politicians and social service workers were in abundance in the Nugegoda-Kotte area. Added to that was a mood of festivity with musical shows and numerous cinemas in the area. My personality was nourished by all these sources. A place I often patronised was Janatha-Pragathi library in Pepiliyana. This was a hub of social and cultural activity and as a result, by the time I was an adolescent of 14 or 15, I was very much a matured individual. I was privileged to have had social interaction with an erudite, artistic circle in society. I don’t hail from a musical family at all, but my taste of music, theatre, as well as literature, was largely influenced by the leftist, artistically-bent environment prevalent in my hometown. I studied at Sri Rewatha Maha Vidyalaya, Nugegoda, where I came under the influence of some great teachers. Even at Daham Pasela, we were taught by some of the ‘best gurus at Peradeniya’. When I sang melodies such as Sasara Wasanathuru at literary meetings in school, most teachers were surprised at my choice, for which I was praised. Even as a youngster, I had a zest for many things in life, be it society, medicine or even space science!

By 1980, when I was employed at Colombo Commercial Engineering Company, after work, I used to go to the Public Library in Colombo, where I met another group of peers with the same interests as mine. Among them were Deepthi Kumara Gunaratne, Nihal Peries, Manubandu Vidyapathi, Sirimal Wijesinghe, Nandana Weeraratne, K.K. Saman Kumara etc. We used to be frequent visitors at Soviet Cultural Centre, American Centre, British Council and German Cultural Centre. These places inspired us to find more about films, song and theatre. This was the time in which I decided to pursue music seriously.

Q: Can you recollect your early days of learning music?
I was involved in small-scale productions of my friends, by this time. Although I did not possess the theoretical knowledge to apply in these productions, I was driven by instinct, largely shaped by my taste for music. I was involved in Sangeetha Manjariya of Master Khemadasa and the music class of Pandith Amaradeva. However, I was not following music systematically, because I was too impatient! But soon, I realised that if I were to pursue a career in this line, I must master the art professionally. It was under Victor B. Perera, whom I consider to be my first musical guru, that I learnt music professionally. He had a unique methodology of imparting knowledge to a student, and made me realise what a complex art music is, which requires patience. At the same time, I emerged as a ‘B’ Grade nadagam gee singer and was also teaching at Somalatha Subasinghe’s Lama Ranga Peetaya. Around this time, I was selected by Professor Sarathchandra for his productions. I performed as a singer in Maname, Sinhabahu, Bawa Kadathura, Loma Hansa, Mahasara etc. Association with Prof. Sarathchandra opened another door for me to mingle with a cross section of intellectuals who widened my horizons.

Q: What was your first major attempt as a music director?
In 1987, Deepthi Kumara Gunaratne did a drama called Niruwatha, which was a fusion of Aravinda’s role in Viragaya and Merso of Pitastharaya. This had a blend of both east and west, and I directed the music in it. It was my first major work and it was a success. I was considered a music director with potential and my work was reviewed. Thus it was a good start. After that, Prasannajith Abeysooriya, Dukgannarala selected me for their productions. I also worked as an assistant music director to Rohana Weerasinghe, Harsha Makalanda, P.V. Nandasiri and M.R. Chulasinghe.

Q: Can you tell us about your experiences of cinema and tele-drama background music?
My first tele-drama experience was in Rohan Weliwita’s Hari Dekma, where I provided music for a song of Amarasiri Pieris. This was followed by the work of Chandraratne Mapitigama, Sudath Rohana, Anuruddha Jayasinghe and many more. My first cinematic experience was Inoka Sathyangani’s Sulang Kirilli. Since then, I have been involved in films such Tikiri Ratnayake’s Pura Sakmana, Senesh Bandara Disanayake’s Aadaraneeya Wassanaya, Sudath Rohana’s Sudu Kaluwara, Prof. Sunil Ariyaratne’s Uppalawanna and Sumithra Peries’s Yahaluwo and Senesh’s Heart FM, latter two to be released shortly.

Q: In what way do you think Sinhala songs suffer today?
I think it lacks feeling. This is the biggest drawback I see today. We have lot of talent, technological know-how and exposure to the outside world. Despite all this, we lack artistes who can give ‘life’ to a melody today. I feel that there is some kind of a metrical quality creeping into the song which was not the case in the good old days. Today, media is open and there is hardly any quality control. There is no grading of the singers. Most of the artistes consider it only as a mere production work and not something which can cater to the pulse of the culture. I think the socio-political setup in this country should also be blamed for this plight.

Today, with technology, we have become very secluded. There is no team effort at all. The singer does not meet the lyricist. He, in turn, does not meet the music director; the digital era is a highly individualized system. The responsibility is not towards society or the listener, but only towards production. At the time of Nidhanaya, Gamperaliya and Bambaru Ewith for example, music was recorded on mono-technology. A large orchestra gave a live performance. The lyricist, the singer, the music director all came together and it was essentially a team effort. There was a high sense of responsibility. Today, there is hardly any responsibility and there is hardly anything called a ‘finished production’.

Q: At the recently concluded Sirasa-Superstar contest, you were instrumental in directing music. How challenging was it to give new music to old hits?
(Smiling) It was a challenge indeed, which truly enriched my musical faculties. The songs of H.R. Jothipala, Milton Mallawarachchi, Milton Perera were embraced so lovingly by people in this country. These were melodies very close to our hearts, as youngsters. Therefore, a responsibility laid on my shoulders to provide music without distorting its original rhythm, the shape and feel of the melody. I think I was successful as a ‘bridge’ between two generations, in giving life to these much loved songs. I was also careful to preserve the musical arrangement of these songs. These were songs backed by large orchestras, and my challenge at Sirasa Superstar was to replace such a large orchestra with only four instruments. In doing so, I highlighted the main parts of the melody such as the interlude and the introduction.

Q: In your view, what makes a people’s singer?
I think a people’s singer is someone who had ‘lived a life’. What I mean by ‘living a life’ is someone who has tasted many things in life, who has taken many roads. Singers such as Jothipala, Milton, Pandith Amaradeva, Nanda Malini became people’s singers because they experienced life in many ways. When we study their characters closely, we can understand what they’ve been through in life. They never gave up their mission, whatever the odds. These singers and so many others had the highest responsibility towards civil society. They have always been close to the common people. (Polawe paya gahapu minissu) That is why they live in the hearts of people. Without the love of the people and individual will power, an artiste cannot last long.

Q: Who are your favourite singers?
Harun Lanthra, H.R. Jothipala, Pandith Amaradeva, Nanda Malini, Sujatha Attanayake and Nalini Ranasinghe are my favourites.

Q: If you are given an opportunity to be the music director of one of Sri Lanka’s landmark cinematic creations, what would be your first choice?
(smiling) Gamperaliya would be my first choice and then Nidhanya. Apart from their musical mastery, the very cinematic quality appeals to me so much.

Q: What are your future plans?
I did Sandaeliyen Dothak few years back, which was a fusion of 10 years work and I hope to do something like that very soon. I will also be working on Chandraratna Mapitigama’s latest film Imaka Pema.

Q: How would you like to define your musical identity?
I think I give lot of prominence to the ‘effect’ in music. I do this by adding a dramatic flavour. May be it happens unconsciously, because of the theatrical experience in my formative years. I always attempt to give a different ‘colour’ to a work of music, through a voice or an instrument. Dramatic twist is prominent in my work.










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