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
Q: What incidents in life made you venture into the
A: 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.
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
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?
A: 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?
A: 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
A: 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?
A: 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
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?
A: (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?
A: 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?
A: 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
A: (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?
A: 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?
A: 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.