CLAUDE FERNANDO – a musical giant of his time
Back in the late 1970’s Vanderwert Place, Dehiwela was a quiet suburban residential neighbourhood. About half way down on the right side as one walked from the Galle Road, at number 22 if I remember right, was a small annexe which was a hive of musical activity. It was the Claude Fernando Music School.
A small reception area lead to a living room which was graced by a large, near indestructible, upright piano, a grand old instrument if there ever was one. It was in this cosy and welcoming setting that I was fortunate enough to learn to play popular songs of the day on the piano from one of the most wonderful of men one could aspire to meet in life.
Claude Fernando was one of a kind. Many of his peers in the music world that I have been lucky enough to meet in recent years have spoken with extreme affection in unison of the man he was and of his artistry on the electone organ. This instrument was new to Sri Lanka at the time and it is perhaps right to say that he lead the way. In the words of one of the most popular Sinhala vocalist-musicians of our times Claude “appeared to play not with ten fingers but twenty”! Many of his contemporaries from the 70’s Group Song era recall with enormous admiration the phenomenal skill Claude possessed at writing music scores. His ability to write the notation for compositions at lightning speed is legendary. I understand many a composer of the time relied on an ever-obliging Claude to write musical scores for them at recordings.
I myself was lucky enough to see him write musical scores while simply whistling the tune softly. In the back room of his little music school stood a large table with a number of thick, well-trodden manuscript books containing the notation for hundreds of songs both English and Sinhala. All the notation was hand-written by him; the introductions and interludes in red, choruses and verses in black. At each lesson one selected a song, copied the notation on to one’s manuscript book which was a work of art in itself with a distinctive sketch of a female head with flowing hair in red and black in one corner, and then sat with Claude at the piano to be taught how to play it.
The sheer beauty of the system he used in writing musical scores was that even the likes myself with only basic sight-reading skills could follow the thread and learn to play those songs. While what one played with the right hand was in conventional western notation, the base was written below the staff using English letters to signify the chord and dots placed in exactly the right spot to create the beat. Ofcourse watching Claude play the song to this notation was a major treat and a vital component of the lesson. One learnt fairly rapidly to close the book and play from memory simply trying to imitate the guru. How he got us to play the popular songs of that era on the piano despite our very basic theoretical musical knowledge and limited finger-skills was quite phenomenal.
It was during this time that I used to drop in at his Mendis Place home where he lived with his mother on some errand or to pick up the keys to the music school. I recall with extreme fondness how well Claude’s mom treated me and the mug of the most delicious cocoa drink which invariably followed.
Claude went out of his way many times to help nurture my interest in music by taking me along to some of the recordings at the recording studio at Bishop’s Palace down Kynsey Road. He played the treasured organ of that era at these recordings and I recall with immense gratitude how I was allowed to have a quiet play on this instrument when the musicians took a break.
The King Claude Show came into being in the early 1980’s. I recall with nostalgia how I had the privilege of taking part in the very first show. This televised concert went from strength to strength for some time and many who performed on the King Claude Show went on to make a name for themselves in the field of music in later years.
My association with this most humane of personalities was unfortunately relatively brief as higher education beckoned and beat music in to second place. However I have spent that last forty years playing songs by Abba and BoneyM, “Kandayam Gee” of the 70’s, instrumentals of that era, baila and many many others the way Claude Fernando taught me to play them. For the sheer joy this has brought me through a lifetime I owe him an eternal debt of gratitude.
May his soul rest in peace!
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