Saturday Magazine
Prabuddha Singers – Who are they?

by A. C. I. Fernando
Sometime back there had been a controversy over ‘prabuddha’ and ordinary singers, the latter seems to be singing mostly to the so called gallery which is supposed to be comprised of those who do not care a dAmn for the lyrics or the vocal rendition of the song, except for the tune. Proponents of ‘prabuddha’, and defenders of ordinary, were snapping at each others’ heels little realizing that there cannot be any ‘prabuddha’ singers other than prabuddha lyricists, composers or listeners, and if you like prabuddha songs.

Music is a universal, empathetic, notational language that could be made use of to suit any mood, at any time, anywhere in the universe. However, the selection of the song and the mood depends on the listener. For a person elated by success or a windfall a fast beat baila by M. S. Fernando will appeal, whereas a man who is trying to calm down himself after an altercation with his neighbour may try to soothe his nerves by listening to Amaradeva’s "Samadhi Budhu Pilime". Though both these songs are an admixture of music lyrics and vocal cord resonance, the credit goes only to the singer. However, if we were to judge a singer we have to go by the quality of his singing.

This is one of the reasons why it is difficult to distinguish the praveen from the other singers. If we go through the various songs that are aired daily on the Sinhala channels we hardly come across good tenors, altos or sopranos. Of course, Rukmani Devi and Sunil Santha were exceptions. Some may ask "Row about C. T. Fernando? "But C. T. was always wriggling at low pitches. However, when he was at the correct pitch you soared with him. Marie Anderson, the American soprano, had sent a letter of praise after hearing his rendition of "Ambili Mame" over its waves, to the then Radio Ceylon, when her ship was in anchor at the Port of Colombo somewhere in 1950s. Another quality singer who could have made a real impact was Neville Fernando, but unfortunately his life was snuffed out at a tender age. How many of us know our quality singers who have made an impact on the world scene? One is Deva Soorya Sena who with his deep baritone voice popularized our folk songs and the other is Nihal Fonseka, who is a world class tenor in the Toronto Opera. By these remarks I do not completely disown praveena singers such as Amaradeva, Sunil Edirisingha, Somatilaka Jayamaha, Jothipala, Sisira Senaratne, Nanda Malini, Latha, Malini Bulathsinhala, N. Wickremasinghe etc., to name a few, from a galaxy of singers, who could be always listened to with relish. However, in my humble opinion their voices fall behind Sunil Santha and Rukmani Devis in quality.

Thus we see that unlike in countries such as India where there are world renowned centres for vocal training, and in Western countries where operas are enacted and choral singing is an art, here in Sri Lanka it is difficult to categorize singers according to their quality of voice and lung power. Here we find mostly Sarala Gee singers among whom some are classed as ‘ prabuddha’ by some categories of the so called ‘lovers of good music’! These ‘prabuddha’ singers own their pedestal because they are backed by lyricists of keen perception. The perspicacity of these song writers ramifies the length and breadth of our culture, so much so, that the sap they exude attracts us by ethos. The so called ‘prabuddhas’ owe a great deal to men like Mahagama Sekera, Madawala Ratnayake, Sunil Ariyaratne, Premakeerthi de Alwis, Sarath Perera, Hemasiri Halpita, Ajantha Ranasingha and a host of others.

This trend of appreciating a song mostly by words has become a sine qua non that today, the slogan is "song (words) not the singer". This enslavement to the prabhuddha lyrics led Prof. J. B. Dissanayake to criticize Prof. Sunil Ariyaratne’s words in "Sigiri Geeyak Obe Hadawate" as impracticable mutterings, little knowing, that the song reveals a high degree of imagination and pure sentimental love. Prabuddha readers were perturbed by this uttering of a professor of Sinhala. This lapse was highlighted by Prof. Sucharitha Gamlath in his "Sathi Sithu Mina" column in the Sunday Divaina.

A reader had written to Gamlath saying the best counter reply to Dissanayakas stance was to draw his attention to Fr. Jayakody’s wordings in "Sigiri Landakage Malwattiye La". Don’t know whether the good professor found fault with that too, little knowing that it was a lullaby. Lullabies are written to lull infants, and they need not have deep meanings, but only childish prattlings and a lifting tune to be crowned by the mother. They are not written for pundits!

Most of the incipient local singers in our Sinhala beams are brought to limelight by comperes and TV channels. They are thrust on the people at various open air shows. People too are trained to applaud anyone who happens to mutter anything to a microphone. Sometimes the singers themselves request this encore. Unless they sing over electronic equipment you could hardly hear them at a close gathering. What is singing if you do not get the pleasure of singing by working out your lungs and larynx?

Even such singers are classed as ‘prabuddha’ by some. This is because of the lyrics backing them. If by listening to a song you only try to engross in serious thought and deep meanings, then it is better to read magazines and books on philosophy!

You may have seen over the TV how some of the singers subject themselves to agony when singing. Sometimes you have to strain your ears to follow what they say. This was highlighted by none other than Premasiri Khemadasa himself. He also said that we could not aspire to create a quality voice as that of the girl he was referring to, this side of another 300 years. I may have detoured a little, but what I would like to say is this. Like whistling, singing must give the first pleasure to the singer. The listener must select the song according to his mood and taste. It cannot be forced down ,your ear.

If ‘prabuddha’ singers are those who are selective about the lyrics, then the vocal rendition of the lyrics does not make the singer a ‘prabuddha’ singer. He is only a singer of prabuddha lyrics. Due credit should go to the lyricist. If the music embodies what is said to make a harmonious scintillating effect on the tympanic organ, then the composer should be duly credited. Finally it is the clear vocal rendition of what is written, with nuances peculiar to the singer, that gives coherence to this admixture and makes an impact on the listeners intellectual milieu.

If you judge a song only by its depth of meaning, I think almost all our living or dead singers have had sung at least one prabuddha song in their lifetime. Take a song like "Suwndai Muwe Mal Peni" - the only song recorded by that singer. What happiness it gave to mothers with sucklings. The words and the lifting tune touched the cockles of the heart, and mixed with motherly love, they hastened to swell their bosom. Then take that perennial song’s Bilinda Nelawe Ukule" by C. T. It will be sung in Sri Lanka as long as we have infants. Some regard Nihal Nelson to be a singer of no class, but listen to his "Amma Kiyanne Katada Ada Amme", a song that brings tears to one’s eyes. His " Meka Gune Aiyage Badjau Dana Kamare" depicts a certain strata of our society. Even Amaradeva is fond of some of the songs of M S. Fernando. His " Ammada Birindada" is a gem of a song that pricks your heart.

Then how about Chritie Leonards Amma Kiya". Space is limited to go on. But mention must be made of Clarence Wijewardene and his repetoir. Who has not lend his ears to songs such as "Dilhani", "Dilipa Podi Puthu" and "Wana Devliya" " to mention a few. However, the quality of his voice does not come "lose to that of Annesley Malewana. Then if you have just fallen in love the feelings that swell in your heart when you hear Nanda Malini’s "Dedunu Paya Pata Wetenawa" are so endearing. Similarly what filial love one experience when listening to Somasiri Jayamaha’s "Podi Duwage Sinaha Welai". Further, if your inclination is for songs that depict lonely rural life then how heart rending it is when you hear "Re Pel Rakina" by Balasuriya and Edward, "Punsanda Reta Avidin" by Niranjala Sarojini and "Davasak Pela Nathi Hene" by Gunadasa Kapuge. These are only a few songs listed at random that can elevate or rouse your feelings.

Even our renowned, shall we say praveena singers, sing within limited amplitudes that suit their lung power. Most of these songs fall within Sarala Gee scales. Almost all the songs of Amaradeva could have been sung by singers of the calibre of Sanath Nandasiri, T. M. Jayaratne and Edward Jayakody to mention a few, and sometimes with much ease, Amaradeva, the literary man he is, is very selective in choosing his lyrics, and he is lucky to have been backed by some of the best lyricists. This does not mean we downgrade his versatility. "Karadiya" is enough to show his universality in composition. However, it is a moot point, that if the lyrics were in the hands of the above mentioned singers, whether the lyrics would have received the same high standard of musical composition as they got from the dexterous hands of Amaradeva?

If someone says he can enjoy only ‘prabuddha’ singers he is a sham, like those who will never see a better stage play than "Maname"! Such alignments, they make, to bring themselves in the same footing as that of the so called masters. For a person with a musical ear language ,colour and sentiments are not barriers to enjoy good music and song. One man’s meat is another man’s poison. So let each one enjoy songs according to his taste, mood and power of comprehension. This may vary with his educational background, the status in life and the depth to which he can go when discerning the meanings of words. Thus there are only quality singers; not ‘prabuddha’ singers,

When "Sathsamudhura" was running its first release I happened to meet a fisher folk known to me well. I asked him about the film. He said "Mahaththayo baluwa. Anikwa nam desare thunsare balanawa, namuth oka balala duke wedi karaganne mokatada?". His reply galvanized me. We were raving over the film. Wasn’t he a prabuddha among his class?