He was a vocalist and a composer. He sang and he scored. He also wrote. His melodies survive reassessments when it comes to applauding him. The man, not surprisingly therefore, wielded different sensibilities and abilities. And in the end, music lovers in this country understood, despite the few who called him out for all the wrong, slanderous reasons, that what he gave went beyond just being revolutionary. His songs became landmarks, true. But none of them were ever uprooted from the land of his birth.
How can one assess him, though? Epitaphs for the dead are written by those who knew them intimately, after all. Consequently, the best answer to that I can give is that his contribution to our music industry made him known to both the young and the old, both those who were born during his time and those who came to be after he’d long gone by. His work, in other words, were beloved by all and detested by a few, and consequently, he is as alive to us as he was in his day.
I remember Annesley Malawana, in a television interview, referring to himself as a “jack of all trades and master of none.” He was being modest there. The truth is, those who entered the music industry in his day were, in more ways than one, masters in nearly every discipline. They knew how to write, how to score, and how to voice both. Annesley was a master in that sense. The same can be said of this week’s star, who worked with him: Clarence Wijewardena.
Clarence didn’t stop at the radio cut. He went for melodies and compositions that didn’t only draw attention to their words, but made us aware of the rich, vibrant work and research that had gone into them. They were simple (and thankfully so), but that didn’t stop us from noticing how effortlessly they’d been conceived.
No wonder that those songs stayed with us long after we’d first listened to them. In terms of orchestration and melody, they were as simple as they could have been. Clarence, one can hence conjecture, wasn’t satisfied with turning his work into academic treatises. He wanted a crowd and he desired an audience. That audience hasn’t died down. Not even today and not by a long shot.
He was born in 1943 in Haputale. His family later moved to Ratnapura. His father was an estate medical practitioner: perhaps allured by the field he was in, he would doubtless have encouraged his son to pursue a career in the estate industry. The lure of music however would have been too strong to resist, and while in his 20s he gave it up and began carving himself as a composer.
Clarence wasn’t alone in his quest. He formed his first band in 1965, getting together with Annesley (who became the lead singer) and Sunil Malawana (who took up the bass guitar). Sri Sangabo Corea, their manager, baptised them as “The Moonstones.”
In later years Corea would say this of the band: “it was just two people coming together with a common objective.” That objective wasn’t just to break into the local music industry (that could have been achieved without much difficulty, given that the sky was the proverbial limit for newcomers back then) but to create a precedent. A precedent which could only have been created, not (only) by a singer but by a bold composer. That composer had to be Clarence.
And so it was.
This was in the early sixties. By 1970 The Moonstones was over: with its fusion-oriented approach to music (Clarence emulated the Beatles by taking a sitar for a band that predominantly worked on Western chords and orchestration), it had instilled enough popularity in its members for them to strike out on their own. Fittingly, that same year Clarence held a concert titled “Breakaway From Moonstones” in Moratuwa, after which he became his own man for some time. That didn’t mean it was a complete breakaway, of course: the team got together again, took in some newcomers, and found an able and proficient manager in Sri Lanka’s record label pioneer, Gerald Wickremasooriya. They renamed their band: Golden Chimes.
The man wasn’t destined to be a standalone composer forever, though. The seventies was clearly a prodigious period for the cinema and in particular parallel cinema: which made use of both avant-garde and commercial aspects to the medium, and which managed to churned out directors who would achieve the impossible: wed the box-office with the critic. The foremost exponent of parallel cinema here, therefore, wasn’t long in coming.
That foremost exponent had a name: H. D. Premaratne.
I believe Premaratne was the ideal director for Clarence. And not for nothing. While the cinema had changed, certain critical mentalities hadn’t. For those who wrote from ivory towers and couldn’t see anything below, the likes of Premaratne and Clarence were nothing more than quirks, to be cleaned away. They were no more than populists who pandered to the common denominator, who (apparently) couldn’t contribute works of art that could withstand time. Clarence especially felt the brunt of this misconceived attitude: he could have found an able director even before Premaratne, but (based what I have been told) those directors were discouraged by the ivory tower Brahmins to not take someone of his calibre. The reason? Because he was “ruining our music.”
“Ruining” is a strong word. So strong that it compels justification. The truth of the matter was that Clarence experimented. He gave his most dazzling work in the sixties and seventies. Listen to them today – “Malata Bambareku Se” (which won praise from no less a figure than Amaradeva), “Wana Dewu Liya” (the first Brazilian-styled “bassa nova” song composed here), “Mage Palpatha”, and “Renin Piyabanna Akasaye” – and you will understand why they are loved even today: with their enviable fusion of West and East, and their almost iconoclastic, bold chords, they were meant to be grasped at once. In other words, the main reason why they became popular wasn’t their lyrics, but their orchestration.
That was why, tragically enough, he was accused (by commission or omission) of ruining and contorting our music. A ridiculous complaint, because he brought the West to our country without forsaking his roots. He went for (among others) the bera padaya and proved that with effort and research, you could redefine tradition to suit what was contemporary. There’s a polite term for that: fusion. But that hardly captures the versatility behind what Clarence did.
Which is why he needed to enter the film industry. H. D. Premaratne may have seen the kind of rebel he wanted in the man. And so, for his debut Sikuruliya, Clarence was taken. I believe Sikuruliya became more popular, and hence acclaim-worthy, because of its score: filled as it is by melodies that interweave the popular and the traditional (“Wasanthaye Mal Kekulai”, to give one example, wasn’t the conventional village damsel song resorted to by filmmakers before, but had a refreshing, pop quality to it), it ensured box-office dividends for Premaratne.
And when those dividends came, Clarence was again taken in, for his next film Apeksha. He became bolder and simpler there: “Okanda Wela” is a pure club song, free of frill and composed for probably the only person who could sing it well, Angeline Goonethilake. They say Premaratne had the magic touch: he never lost money in whatever film he directed. Well, I suppose composers are as magical in that sense as directors, which probably explains that other musician who scored it well with the cinema around the same time, Premasiri Khemadasa. Premaratne coincidentally would move on to Khemadasa with Parithyagaya and Deveni Gamana.
Clarence continued to score our films and sing in them. Khemadasa used his voice for K. A. W. Perera’s Janaka saha Manju, while Amaradeva (in an act which proved that, despite what some “bamunu critics” said, the young and the old could cooperate) agreed to sing his “Sasara Gewa.”
Spurred on by his experiments, and given that our country was entering a more open, free economy, several companies and public corporations used him for all those catchy melodies that adorned their brands: Bata, Edna, Keells, and the National Development Lotteries Board. In the meantime, he dissembled Super Golden Chimes (in 1979) and got together with new faces (including Rookantha Goonetilake and Raju Bandara) to form a new band, “Madhara” (in 1985).
Clarence met his end in 1996, at the age of 53. That was 20 years ago. He would have been 73 today. Had he lived.
What if he had? He would have gone on composing, writing, and singing. He would have, I’d like to think, guided the “New Wave” that swept our music industry in the early 2000s and ensured that it didn’t get uprooted. He wouldn’t have been able to stop the commercialisation of our medium but he would have articulated strong views against it. He would have been the best authority to criticise that spate of commercialisation, for he himself had tread cautiously on the thin line between business and art and knew, being the shrewd artiste he always was, how to keep his footing.
My friend Muzar Lye spoke of him the other day: “He didn’t ruin our music. When you listen to some of his songs, you feel that his music was more ‘national’ than that of his contemporaries, even though he brought in the electric guitar and Western orchestration. And while his career as a composer outpaced his career as a vocalist, he had a voice capable of opening up to almost every genre, from classical to baila. Not many singers can claim that ability.”
My friend isn’t alone with what he said. Others continue to make similar assessments and draw conclusions about this remarkable musician. Had he lived, he would have moved on. We don’t know.
What we know, of course, is what he gave us. That survives death. And remains with us. For now, and forever.