CC Malayalam Blog

Join News Letter


Peak Oil

Climate Change

US Imperialism


Latin America










Gujarat Pogrom



India Elections



Submission Policy

Contact Us

Subscribe To Our
News Letter

Name: E-mail:


Song Of The Sleepless River

By Prasanna Ratnayake

31 July, 2007

In the past two months Hugh Masekela and Afroreggae have given sold-out concerts in the Barbican. But this note is not about jazz or reggae; it traces some reverberations and reflections these events evoked.

Hugh Masekela, the famous trumpet player, used his music as a channel of contribution to the freedom struggle of his people. He was a significant figure in the group of exiles who brought the evils of apartheid to world-wide attention. His rhythms, derived from South African traditions and integrated into jazz, were a soundtrack for the decades of resistance and rebellion that finally brought freedom to South Africa. Now 68, his passion and commitment have not declined and that spirit continues to resound powerfully through his presence and his music.

Afroreggae, the favela-based Brazilian project, has trained young people from impoverished and violent communities using percussion, dance and song, bringing the energy and creativity of these abandoned youths to new options at home and to an international audience.

Sri Lankan society also has folk art forms of resistance, protest and social concern — in the North, South and East. For example, in the South in the colonial period the Kõlam masked folk dramas criticised and commented on social problems in performances such as Police e Kõlam, Arachchi Kõlama and many others.

After the 1956 Sinhala-only political restructuring and the 1972 constitutional reforms, a soviet style Sinhala regeneration effort was initiated to transform the South. Projects to improve agriculture, local industries and so on created the environment for an upsurge of nationalist, ethnic and religious self-righteousness. In her concert of the mid-70s, Srãvanãradhanã (Invitation to Listen), and in Saththeye Geethaya (Song of Truth) of the early 80s, Nanda Malani’s songs supported this exclusive Sinhala project. Later in the 80s, her Pãvena (Soft Wind) added oxygen to the JVP anti-government uprising. Even those who disagreed with her political line appreciated her melodies and many of the lyrics of her songs.

In the late 80s/early 90s the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE) organised a concert called Nidinathi Nãdiyë Nadaya (Song of the Sleepless River). It was a huge event and included everyone from the highest profile performers to new groups of young musicians. Amongst them were Premasiri Kemadasa (the great Sri Lankan composer known for his classical as well as his popular music), Gamini Haththetuwegama (lecturer in English at the University of Peradiniya who introduced Street Drama as a mode of addressing social problems to the country), Sunila Abeysekara (actress of the late 70s, singer and human rights activist), Prasanna Abeysekara, (guitarist, singer and leader of a small Colombo band), Nidra Vittachchi (a singer in English), Granville Rodrigo (a great actor and singer) and Sunil Wijersiriwordane (a guitarist and cultural activist who had studied agriculture in Russia). One song was a localised rendition of Bob Dylan’s anti-Vietnam war Blowin’ in the Wind. There was even a performance of Bertold Brecht’s poem about Hitler’s Cabinet. The wide range of types of music, forms and voices — the cheerful, positive, profound, ironic and sarcastic mix — conveyed the optimism and determination behind the MIRJE movement. Unfortunately, it failed to build a country-wide movement and the tapes of this concert were not widely distributed. It seems that the only remaining record of this event is in the BBC World Service archives in London, taken out once in a while to play a song on the Sinhala Service.

In the early 90s, the singer Gunadasa Kapuge staged a concert titled Kampana (Vibration), an emotional evocation of the sorrows of the North-South war. He sang of the things that all Sri Lankans have in common; protested against ethnic, class, gender and caste discrimination; and mourned the thousands of people we have lost in the killings and disappearances, North, East and South. The encouragement these songs offered made them popular with all sectors of society and thousands attended his concerts, which were staged throughout the Southern part of the country. There was no chance of going to the North or East.

Jayathilake Bandara and many other performers contributed — as did Kemadasa’s fantastic song Killer — to the vision and the soundtrack of people’s hopes for a saner more peaceful future. The Gypsies’s peace songs of the early 90s were followed by the tremendously popular I Don’t Know Why in 2000, whose sarcastic lyrics observed the failures of management and the corruption which have condemned the nation to endless political crises and war.

Back to the Barbican — on the way home I am considering the failure of the many Sri Lankan peace initiatives: why is there no social language which allows those seeking a motherland and those defending a motherland to connect in a positive way? The theories and behaviour of the elites — national and international — bring nothing to the population as a whole. Despite the endless workshops, projects and reports, the peace industry in Sri Lanka has made no real progress. It has failed to connect to the realities on the ground and developed no link to the human resources or languages of popular society, struggle and creativity. The expensive projects and the overall impotence have only further revealed the underlying weaknesses of a society whose problems cannot be solved by bringing in outsiders; they cannot rescue us from this deadly paralysis which neither brings us together nor moves us on.

Why have our inspiring concerts, our protest songs and our activist musicians had so little lasting impact? Why have Sri Lanka’s decades of suffering failed to produce internationally recognised performers like Hugh Masekela and Afroreggae? Why is there no Sri Lankan equivalent to the venerable protester Thomas Mapfumo of Zimbabwe, or the young campaigners like Emmanuel Jal, rap emissary of Southern Sudan, or K’Naan from Somalia?

Many look to Nelson Mandela’s success in leading South Africa’s peaceful transition from Apartheid to freedom as a model to follow in their own circumstances. What the Sri Lankan peace industry fails to see is that Mandela did not rely on ethnic loyalties or tribal ties. His appeal and his wisdom recognised that the South African struggle was a political struggle; that all sectors of the population needed to work together to resist their oppression. This inclusiveness opened the space for artists, musicians, dramatists and other activists to contribute their skills and their passion for change — however dangerous it was to do so. Their efforts led eventually to international outrage, which in turn contributed to the end of the Apartheid regime.

Malcolm X once said that the social movement needs to be strong like the brain and gentle like the heart; the one for strategy, the second to mobilise and build the capacity and the spirit of resistance. The work of the Black struggle must be like electricity: moving everywhere, invisible but powering the light.


Leave A Comment
Share Your Insights

Comment Policy

Digg it! And spread the word!

Here is a unique chance to help this article to be read by thousands of people more. You just Digg it, and it will appear in the home page of and thousands more will read it. Digg is nothing but an vote, the article with most votes will go to the top of the page. So, as you read just give a digg and help thousands more to read this article.


Get CC HeadlinesOn your Desk Top

Subscribe To
Sustain Us


Search Our Archive

Our Site


Online Users