Of The Sleepless River
By Prasanna Ratnayake
31 July, 2007
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
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
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
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