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Noel — The father of Calypso in Sinhala pop

Prasad Gunewardene
He was the man who introduced a new trend into Calypso style music and Sinhala pop from the beginning of the 1960’s. His innovative ideas caught like wild fire and is even seen today at night entertainment in hotels. The "Watch Out" today speaks of that pioneer musician who set that trend into the Sinhala music scene with much colour and glamour. He is the leader of the "La Ceylonians" Noel Brian Ranasinghe who has kept his band intact to appear even today on stage. He believed in originals like his colleague Clarence Wijewardene who specialised later in the electric guitar music while Noel followed the box guitar style.

Noel was the man who introduced the sarong, straw hat, cloth hat, garlands, waist band and barefoot performance to stage. This trend set by Noel caught like wild fire and it came to stay as the style of Sri Lankan Calypso music. This man Noel has contributed immensely to the revolution of the Sinhala music in bringing originals of the Calypso style. But, unfortunately no recognition has been made for his contribution as in the case of Clarence Wijewardene. When Clarence was alive he was left in isolation. But, when he died people began to praise him and talk about him. Such attitudes of those responsible for Sri Lankan artistes too looks a part of our culture. Today copy cats are destroying the intellectual property of Clarence. His beautiful compositions are copied and sung by men like monkeys who could even never come near his voice. This is a tragedy that is being ignored.

The "La Ceylonians" led by Noel was the first group that really took to Calypo and continued. Noel says history cannot be changed though it could be distorted."Come what may none can erase history", claimed this master musician who has many credits to his musical talent. When Sinhala pop groups faced threats in the early 1960’s from certain quarters as they became popular, Noel led the battle in front to safeguard the rights of those musicians. He was man who took up challenge in silence and emerged victorious. He shunned publicity for his achievements in any sphere. Noel added humour always when he said that there were none to copy or follow at that time unlike today where you see in music the famous phrase — "Monkey see, Monkey do" as monkey musicians are rampant in the country. Copying has become a menace. Even the lovely hit of maestro Amarasiri Peiris, "Apple Mala" (Apple Flower) has been rapped in a non-stop cassette by some monkey musicians and it is constantly played in private buses.

Noel’s originals "Dahaduka Vindala", "Malee", "Nelavilla", "Haro Hara" and "Hoiyya" are a few that would bear testimony of his musical credentials. He gave recognition to his country to be known as a nation of Calypso music. Sri Lankan Calypso groups came in for much demand overseas for festivals, promotion, entertainment at Sri Lankan events. Calypso plays the major part in hotel entertainment at evenings round the country. Noel’s contribution to promote Calypso here gave us a Calypso identity of our own unlike the trend and style seen in the Carribbean. The Carribbean Calypso trend has no beat improvement and it is based on a theme like our "Virindu". He earned the CNMT award for his original presentations but that too was denied for several years. The tragedy in Sri Lanka is that originality is never recognised but if it is copied by some monkey musician people tend to talk about the ‘copy cat’ and not of the man who produced it originally.

When Noel and Clarence alongside Neville, Priya Peiris, Joe B. Perera, Merril Fernando and the Dharmaratne Brothers revolutionised the Sinhala music scene in the early 1960’s, it was mud slinging all the way. Critics did not like the guitar and the new trend. But as time passed by the same critics came to these musicians to get compositions to become popular by singing to the box guitar and electronic implements. As it was in the case of Clarence Wijewardene, Noel too suffered in silence despite bringing honour to his country by performing the first in live in-flight music on board an aircraft from USA via Europe, Asia to Sri Lanka. Noel was also man who was instrumental in changing the pattern of music when Spanish, English, Italian and Hindi dominated the music scene here as no originality was much seen in the scene. He was selected for the World Song Festival from 1780 entries from 51 countries. He got through five qualifying rounds and won the semi finals in Tokyo, Japan in 1976. He was also given an award for the unique creations and contribution to music. These achievements speak volumes about the ability of this great musician.

There were occasions that certain interested parties tried to trap Noel in a bid to buy him over to prevent the enlarging trend in then pop group music scene. He was once offered 40 songs to record but he declined the offer. He knew it was shuttle move to put him up the ladder and bring down his colleagues. He believed in principle and policy. Noel believes that the Sinhala music scene would prosper much if originality is given the due place and recognition. Piracy ought to be eliminated from the face of the music earth to provide a fair path to our musicians who have contributed their lifetime to the Sinhala music industry. If not for people like Rupasinghe Master, Rukmani Devi, Wally Bastian, Amaradeva, Victor Ratnayake, Sanath Nandasiri, Clarence, Noel and others mentioned in this feature we would still be copying music and melodies from other countries. Last not but the least maestros like Khemadasa, Sarath Dassanayake are ever remembered. Space cannot accommodate many names of those who have done so much for the music industry. Computer music is an easy way to life but originals are difficult. Therefore, even at this late stage when copying has become a menace, let us recognise musicians like Noel Ranasinghe and others to give them their due place in the scene. Let not the fate that befell Clarence be the same for Noel Ranasinghe. Our pattern has been to rally round such great men minutes before they go six feet down the earth to praise their talents. Let us also stop the menace of piracy and copying their creations to prevent these great musicians from rolling in their graves as it disturbs them in their well earned rest.