It was in the early years of this millennium that my brother first dragged me to R&B. I am not a music person. The band X-it was playing but the name didn’t mean anything to me. I didn’t know anyone in the band, but I liked the music. I remember the percussionist and that’s because he sang two songs, Bon Jovi’s ‘Bed of Roses’ and Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World’. ‘What a wonderful voice,’ I thought. Someone told me his name. And that didn’t mean anything special to me either.
My friend and colleague at Phoenix Advertising, Chaaminda Ratnasooriya knew a lot about the local music scene. He was a much sought after lyricist. It was he who told me about Lelum Ratnayake. He took me to a restaurant down Castle Street, Checkers. He introduced me to the members of the band. This is how I got to know that ‘X-it’ was made of Kevin Almeida, Damien Joseph, Nadeeka Jayawardena and Lelum. I asked Lelum to sing those two songs again. He duly obliged.
During a break in the music, Lelum came to our table. I only remember one thing that he said that night: ‘There have been two exceptional voices in the Sinhala music scene, that of Victor Ratnayake and H.R. Jothipala’. I did not understand why he left out W.D. Amaradeva and I didn’t ask him either. I told him, ‘You have a better range than your father’. He just smiled.
We have met several times since then. Randomly. I enjoyed the album he put together with his brother Jayantha, ‘Esala Nil Sanda’. I heard him performing at the launch of the CD ‘Radical Romanthikaya’, a collection of songs made to lyrics written by Chaaminda. He was the least known of the young artists who have used Chaaminda’s lyrics (compared to Kasun Kalhara, Dayan Vitharana and Amal Perera for example). They are all highly talented and accomplished, but Lelum to me was not lesser in any way. In between I interviewed him for the now defunct ‘Weekend Standard’, the first in a series titled ‘Portrait of the Young Artist’.
Lelum launched his debut album recently at the Bishop’s College auditorium. The title was simply ‘Lelum’. He didn’t sing ‘Bed of Roses’. He didn’t sing ‘What a Wonderful World’. It was Lelum’s show, from beginning to end, in preamble to song, song, entertainment, the paying of homage in thepujaca pujaneeyanang manner (honor those deserving of honor), the telling of ‘as it is’ about his work and his life, eminently forgivable arrogance overshadowed by unadulterated humility.
Lelum and his friends kept things simple. No special ‘opening ceremonies’, not speeches. Just music, directed by his brother Jayantha. I felt that Lelum took a while to warm up or else the music was too insistent; perhaps I am not an attentive listener, but I missed the nuance he is capable of delivering. It only got better thereafter.
He acknowledged that he had learned much about music from the western world during the time he was a student in Canada. He had obviously incorporated a lot of that into his music. On the other hand, he is certainly no mimic. He expressed his gratitude to that exposure by a rendition of the Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’ in a manner that did not hurt the sentiments of Beatles-lovers and yet stamped on that song his vocal signature. The refusal to mimic and the determination to carve his own identity is understandable. He himself explained, in brief.
‘We have seen sons singing the songs of their more famous fathers, killing both song and father. Jayantha Aiya and I decided we won’t walk that path. But a few years ago he did sing some of Thaththa’s songs and that is because there were others who were butchering them.’
The ‘Thaththa’ was in the audience. Lelum expressed his gratitude to Victor Ratnayake for the music and the parenting, both in word and in the form of presenting him with a copy of his album.
‘No, Victor Ratnayake will not sing for you. This is not Victor Ratnayake’s show, this is Lelum Ratnayake’s show.’
It cannot be easy to step out of the shadow of a man who Lelum himself likened to a massive tree and so that assertiveness can be understood and pardoned. He has his own way of doing things and this includes the expression of gratitude. He called Jayantha and the two brothers sang. ‘Vara Malak Vaage’ (Like the Vara Flower) is apparently the first song they had recorded for V-2, although it was not included in their album. Showed genes as well as identity distinct from father.
He sang just one song of his father; ‘Muthu Varusaavata Themila’. It is probably one of the most difficult melodies to sing, but if one closed eyes and listen (as I did), it was impossible to think it was not Victor’s voice. That’s genes. Lelum demonstrated he was not second to his father and that he could do what the sons of other artists did (without murdering song or father). But that was just one of a set of songs he entertained the audience with. He has deliberately charted his musical course along other channels and into other oceans of creativity, even as he acknowledges the debt he owes Victor.
Two songs, stood out. The first, written by Sunil Ariyaratne, ‘Singali Nona’ was rendered in the Kaffringha style and the second, ‘Alcohol Vasse’ (Alcohol Rain), written by Chaaminda Ratnasooriya with music composition by Mahendra Pasqual. He addresses a specific set of people in this song:‘Alcohol vasse, madu paana diyambe, nissaara heenaye diviye vatinaakam soyanaa saumya minisune’(Soft [hearted] people, in search of life’s true values drenched in alcoholic rains, lost in intoxicant oceans and among desolate dreams). He could be addressing others too. The key word, saumya minisun or ‘Soft (hearted) people’.
Both songs exemplify the artist’s versatility and his discerning character when it comes to picking lyrics. Throughout, except for the short breaks he took to offer gift and necessary introduction to particular songs, there was entertainment. He came to sing, we came to listen. He lived the song, we listened.
That’s much more entertainment than one can hope for in these days of commercial breaks, endless harangues from mindless announcers and a fixation on frill and wrap with corresponding downplaying of substance.
Lelum Ratnayake is not just a voice; he is a voice with a world view and way of being. This was evident to the last detail that evening. He is acutely aware of roots and is unafraid to acknowledge. He doesn’t name names in thanks; he names relationships and in doing so Lelum speak of affinities that are larger than professional linkages and acquaintances that draw from the man his father is. He pays due homage to those who came before, the giants of an earlier generation.
He does not forget contemporaries and not just those who offer accompaniment. And he does not forget to mention ‘the 33 billion gods (he) believes in’! He doesn’t forget to bless us all with what to him is the supreme wish possible, ‘Budu Saranai’. He says, but he doesn’t have to, that he does not see identity in terms of faith or ethnicity or anything else. It is obvious. He has clearly drawn from the deeper tenets of the doctrine and one hopes therefore that until such time he is the undisputed voice of his generation, he is a voice that will inspire and will be followed. He is, after all, supremely at ease with who he is and where he comes from. He is therefore unafraid to step out and explore, gather what is best of what he encounters, and shed what is unnecessary from the baggage he has brought with him; truly a way of being that is recommended for these times and for the youth of today.