It HAS been a very long forty three years since I set foot in Sri Lanka (my lovely Island home) in 1973. I do not remember the exact month or date, but I do remember that there was a Gerald Wickremesooriya representative at the airport to meet me, even though I had told no-one that I was coming back home after eleven years, having migrated to Melbourne in 1962.
When Gerald’s name was mentioned, I could not possibly refuse the offer of doing a “stage-show” for the man, whose “Children’s Book-Shop” in the Fort, I had “haunted” since it’s very inception, mainly to read and “thumb-through” the various books & magazines for sale, where, later, I also met Gerald and his lovely wife, Mrs. Wickremesooriya. I remember them both, even now, 54 years hence, with pride, because it was an honour to meet and get to know both of them.
Later on, Gerald started selling “Records” as well. The little 45 rpm records and the larger L.Ps. At that stage, I was practically “living there”. Most of these “good things” I couldn’t afford, but I suppose that the Wickremesooriya family knew how much pleasure it was for me to simply even just “handle” & drool over the two “first-loves” of my life, BOOKS & MUSIC”.
Then, later, in 1958 I recorded “Dream-World” and, I remember that The Children’s’ Bookshop actually sold
some of the initial copies of this recording, which became a big “hit” in Ceylon (at the time) , later, in India, and now, is considered a “perennial favourite“ all around the World. “Dream-World” was my first recording, my own original composition(words & music) to be picked by Philips in Holland & promoted under their own label. The “Sooriya-Label” had still not started but was “a future dream” for Gerald and wife.
I do think however, that Sooriya Records got going after I left the Island and had precious little time to “keep in touch” with everything that was happening “back home” having to work so very hard in Melbourne to ” put food on the table”, so I don’t really know who the “Sooriya-Stars” of the past were but, even then, the “name” Sooriya, alone, would have tempted many “locals“ into their recording studios.
This “story” is dedicated firstly to Gerald Wickremesooriya who has “gone” to his bookshop in the sky, his wife, who, I believe is still with us, his family & all those who are, or have been featured on the famous “Sooriya” label. Now, I am proud to be “re-united“ with the “re-launch” of this “ship”. May she sail along smoothly & in PEACE.
Back to the “Desmond Kelly” “Sooriya Show”.
Gerald Wickremesooriya’s “Man” informed me that they would be “in-touch” with me later with details about the show. My base in Lanka was at a good friend’s home in Nugegoda. They were the ” Gauders”. Even they did not know when I was going to arrive, however they did know that I would be staying with them as they had previously invited me to do so.
Anyway I hailed a taxi, got in, and said to the driver that I wanted to be driven to Nugegoda. “Hondai”, he said. “Kowda balanda the, mahatmayo?” I replied in a word. “Gauder”!!(still had to get used to my colloquial “Sinhala”). He must have thought I was having him on. “Kowda?”, he asked again, and I said again, “Gauder”!!
We went on like this until we reached Nugegoda and I was laughing so much, by this time, I had forgotten the bloody address of the Gauders.
We had just had a shower of rain and all the “old smells” of wet, green foliage came back to me. Yes I was back home again, perspiring freely, having up to three cold “showers” a day, going out and perspiring again but coming back to where the Gauder’s “Amme“ had prepared another delicious “rice & curry meal for us, complete with the old “pol sambol””pappadams” & “lunu-miris” which I ate with gusto, only to start sweating like a horse, again.
Then I had to go for rehearsals for the show with Gabo & the “Breakaways” This was another interesting story. Gabo picked me up in a car that he had to “start“ & restart with a couple of “wires”. Usual “start-up” keys didn’t work with this car. It was probably older than me and I was 37 at the time. He also DROVE in a strange way. Going towards the Fort, Gabo “drove“ on the “pavement” for at least half a mile, until there was a break in the traffic and he could get onto the sea-side of Galle Road to continue on our journey. The people on the pavement scattered, I think he drove over two dogs and I then started wondering if I was going to be able to go back to Australia & my family. I don’t know whether he was just trying to “show-off” but I do know that he was one crazy driver.
The band treated me well. We rehearsed for about two hours, then sat down to enjoy some orange-barley water and I told them the story that about 23 years earlier I started my own Carol-Party in Lorenz Road and went “caroling” to earn some money about 3 days before Christmas, “visited” a large, grand-looking home in Dawson Road, sang carols for about 15 minutes and THEN an “Ayah” came out onto the upstairs balcony and said “Kawuruth gedera naa”. 15 minutes of lusty singing, all for nothing. We were all very annoyed, but what to do men?! My friend, Carl Jansz (R.I.P) broke a few “flower-pots” on the way out.
Every rehearsal I attended after that and there were 3 of them, as soon as the band saw me coming, Gabo would yell out “Kawuruth gedera naa Desmond”. They were a great bunch of guys and I was “Kawuruth”.
Now, FINALLY to the Sooriya Show. I remember that the Navarangahala Hall was a fairly big venue. It was a “sold-out” concert. I was thrilled and very proud to hear that there were people coming all the way from Badulla (or “Bajula” to us, Lansiyas) , to see me “on-stage.”. I did not want to disappoint them but I was already feeling very hot & uncomfortable in my “full-suit”. The place was “packed” Gabo and the Breakaways were on stage, Vijaya Corea made the introduction and Desmond Kelly was ON. I sang my first song, a Neil Diamond “hit” of that era. NO response whatsoever, from the audience. I sang my second song, again, no response. Gabo was getting upset, I was getting upset. I could see Gerald Wickremesooriya & his Lady seated in the front row and they were starting to feel uncomfortable too.
What was I going to do? KNOWING PEOPLE ONLY KNOW, WE ARE WHO ARE. The audience looked like they were at a funeral. Who was this bloody suddah on stage, singing songs that mean nothing to us? Why did “ape Wickremesooriya mahatmaya” put THIS BUGGER on the stage? (typical SINGLISH comments). I then got an idea. When you are in Lanka, do as the Lankans do.
I raised the microphone to my trembling lips and spoke to Vijaya who was standing there in the audience. “VIJAYA, ENNDAKO STAGE-EKATTA, MAY YAKKATA TIKAK SINGALEN KATHA-KARRANDA!!”. The “funeral-audience” BROKE UP! Vijaya came up on stage and spoke to me in perfect colloquial Sinhala.
I replied in thoroughly broken-Sinhala, then signaled for Gabo to start my “Baila-Session” which he did, and, for the next hour and a half I had the entire audience in the “palm of my hand”. They shouted, stood on the seats, applause, applause, what any worthwhile entertainer would give his eyes-teeth for. By this time, I had my coat off, my tie off & was on top of the World.
The “Sooriya-Show” featuring Desmond Kelly was an unqualified success. I enjoyed it, the audience enjoyed it and Gabo & The Breakaways went AWAY saying ” Kawuruth gedera naa”, Gerald paid me and I think he did not LOSE any money on my show either.
Desmond (Kelly from Colombo).