People and Events
An evening with Master, Sir

by Nan
Does my title ring a bell? It should.

There it was — a confluence of four TV cameras, cables and wires running all over, tall lights, a grand piano centre-room, and a mixed bunch of persons: old and young, artistes and helpers, TV crew by the dozen and yours truly with pen poised but soon lost in the music of our land, created by Nimal Mendis.

The people involved

It was on Thursday 7th that the Producer/Director of the Rupavahini Western Music Division, Sagara Lakmal de Mel, got his crew and equipment together to record an evening of music, mostly songs and film music created by Nimal Mendis, at the spacious home of Neil Kumbukage. Sagara has titled the programme An Evening with Master, Sir, scheduling its airing over Rupavahini sometime in December.

Sagara de Mel is a very young, absolutely dynamic and dedicated director/producer with music and production in his very blood, apparently. He moved around at speed directing the recording but never failed to smile and exchange a word with those present: artistes and a couple of onlookers. One swells with pride and hope for Sri Lanka as one observes such as Sagara Here’s talent, here’s dedication, here’s clever innovation with no thought of who’s important, who’s not, who needs to be paid pooja to.

Neil Kumbukage, in advertising, is the owner of NECO Recording Studio, Nugegoda, one of the largest recording studios in Asia. NECO R S has been pronounced only fifth in position to the biggest British recording studios by a British recording expert, no less. Neil said he was grateful to Nimal Mendis for his advice and his being egged on to going into the business of recording. His studio is used by many - for films, TV productions et al. I inquired about viability and profits. He laughed "I will not be able to cover my initial costs in my life since I bought the very best. But I give service to the film community of Sri Lanka and that is what I want. The recording studio is like a gift to the musicians of my country."

Dilup Gabadamudalige interviewed Nimal for the show and also accompanied on the piano some of the artistes. It was really good sitting and watching him, and appreciating his magic on the keyboard. Hope again rose high for this country of ours with dedicated persons like Dilup who now is at the stage of encouraging, nurturing and helping - in his own way of teaching them the hard way — younger stars in the music firmament like Bhatiya and Santush, who also were present and sang one of their rousing songs, along with Nevanthi. They told of the tribulations they underwent, and suffered all patiently, because they knew they had to make music.

Singers who assisted in the programme, all who have worked earlier with Nimal in his music productions, were Maurice Wijesinghe of the wonderfully powerful voice; Damayanthi Jayasuriya, TV artiste and film playback singer with 25 years experience; Nirosha Virajini whose voice at first hearing, Dilup said, reminded him of the bird song he so dearly loves. Accompanying guitarist was Jude Peries.

Paulmarie and Drumming Maestro

A highlight of the evening was the very clever, stunning really, duet on the thammitta drums by master drummer Piyasara Silpadipathi and his pupil, Paulmarie Mendis. They spoke to each other in their drumming, even argued, and moved outside the twin skin ‘plates’ of the drums to get music from the outside rims with their curved rattan drum-beaters. Piyasara Silpadipathi too was a close associate of Nimal and testimony to Nimal’s goodness and sincerity is the continued friendship and mutual respect that exists between the two.

Nimal Mendis

Nimal Mendis, residing now in France, is here on holiday with wife Ranjani and son Paulmarie. He visited Neil, and the Chairman, Rupavahini, who was present, inquired about new songs he had composed. Thus the idea that he record a session of his music. Though totally averse to grabbing the limelight, Nimal agreed.

And thus the gathering on Thursday evening. Dilup interviewed Nimal who valiantly answered in rusty Sinhala, with English interjections. That way of speaking seems to be catching on now, denounced in our young days as sankara Sinhala But times change. I’ve noticed that Rupavahini Sinhala newscasters deliberately dot their news reading with bits of English. Good idea — start this way at least, to get English spoken more.

I digress.

Nimal gave us tidbits of his life, hilariously.

At 12, he and a cousin, playing truant from school counted his cousin’s savings in a bid to migrating to Hollywood. Like Dick Whittington, they believed, we suppose, that the streets over there were paved in gold and more, that such talent as theirs would be grabbed by all the great studios fighting each other. They could manage tickets to India so they set about a plan of going to our neighbouring country and then, perhaps on a magic carpet reaching their dream destination. Nimal found his soft heart would not allow him to depart with no family goodbyes so he spoke with his sister. Woman that she was, she sneaked the news to their father. The plan, about to be executed, was promptly aborted. Back to school it was for the two precocious pre-teens.

Nimal’s next attempt to make music in the west succeeded. Again, he says, he cheated his parents by announcing the approval winning fact that he wanted to study accountancy and would be supervised by his brother studying at Oxford. So to England this 19-year-old went, with a monthly allowance of ten pounds sterling from his father. Study he did not do but went instead to a music publishing company which used him to deliver parcels. Maybe he made music while going about the firm’s business on Oxford Street. He says he avoided Sri Lankans at this time, not wanting them to see the delivery boy! Soon he was invited to play the piano at a club, so the day and night jobs brought him enough money to manage his own affairs, going into the study of accountancy too.

With four others he founded the band, the Kandyans. His first major composition came out at this time — Kiss Kiss Kiss released under the Columbia label. We remember how this song was top of our local hit parade for many weeks running. Needless to say, it was popular in Britain too. His anecdote about Kiss Kiss Kiss must be retailed here. The idea came from the non-kissers but doers, huggers and body revealers, and you-know-who, selling themselves along Bayswater Road that Nimal had to go along to reach his digs.

He next went away to Switzerland riding the motorbike pillion of a Swiss friend and stayed there one year, having earned enough by breaking his back plucking grapes in the south of France.

He was recalled home

His next songs were Kandyan Express, Cherry Blossom Tree, and others. Back to London again and a hit with Kandyan Dance. A string of records followed with an appearance with Sandra Edema in his song Feel Like a Clown on the British TV programme, Top of the Pops.

His best known song, almost his signature tune, is of course that masterpiece, still sung, ever appreciated: Master, Sir. He also composed the hauntingly memorable music for the tragic film Ganga Addara and for Ahasin Polowata, Seeta Devi, Yahalu Yeheli, Baddegama, Duwata Mawaka Misa and God King.

"I am not proud. I am a mere songwriter. As a Catholic, I know the talent I have comes from God," said Nimal. Of course he is not proud. He is, rather, an extremely kind, generous, modest and GOOD person with a wife the same and very supportive of him. One point: he keeps throwing invitations to all around, to come stay with them in Ruelle Sur Tonone in France and also in London with his son who works for the BBC.

The Music of the Evening

It was such a relaxed friendly atmosphere of camaraderie that we enjoyed that evening, immersed in fine music and song and prideful of the talent we have in abundance. As I said, the artistes present sang Nimal’s songs either accompanied by him or by Dilup. To me the high point of the evening was the rendering of Master, Sir by Maurice Wijesinghe, joined in the English verse by Nimal in his very powerful voice, sung with such feeling that it enveloped the listener and sympathetically conjured up images of labour with their innate dignity, often exploited and resulting in a trampling down of the labourer and his family, whether of Indian descent or Sinhalese.

The ten cents more which you have promised to pay me

Will buy my child an extra bowl of rice.

But, Master, Sir, I have my dignity

Treat me kind and nice

There’s a tong, long way for us to go

Before this tug-o-war can ever end

And when that day will be I don’t know

Master Sir, when can I call you friend?

Nimal said he wrote this song while farming in a bought for the purpose block of land in Norton Bridge. He used to carry the weeded grass for disposal on his head, spurning the usual wheelbarrow, while dressed in trousers, which astounded the neighbourhood. Gentlemen (i.e. men in pants) do not do such things, they seemed to say, contrary to Nimal’s strong belief in the dignity of labour and the innate dignity of our labourers.

The Leftists, strong at the time and partners in government, objected to the use of the doubly respectful appellation: Master, Sir. They asked why the term comrade was not used. No boss and menial to their way of thinking. To Nimal too there were no menials, but there certainly existed, and exists, hierarchical barriers and thus the Sinhalese man’s form of address of his boss as Sir and the Tamil estate labourer’s Master.

The less well known songs that were sung, but equally wonderful, were Mother Lanka, Dawn of Compassion, Earth Mother Crying and Sudu Unnahe. Dawn of Compassion, composed September this year is dedicated to Dawn and Jeya Wilson, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, because of what he said in the USA: — "let Sri Lanka show the world a new and successful way of conflict resolution. " Nimal adds that Sri Lanka, home to the four great religions of the world, all advocating compassion, could surely do as the PM prophesied. The song starts thus:

The dawn of compassion moving inside of me,

I see yesterday’s wrongs; it’s hurting my heart.

The dawn of compassion stirring my mind,

I find I know, forgive, and that’s just the start

Sudu Unnahe was the result of being attacked and shot at in London due solely to Nimal’s brown skin, which incident also induced him to return to his homeland and try his hand at farming.

The relevance of Earth Mother Crying (Earth Mother Dying) is universal and for all time, particularly apt for Sri Lanka, sorely wounded and gasping as she is, after the cursed twenty years senseless war.

Earth Mother crying, Earth Mother Dying

A purple haze of plutonium, a yellow cloud of uranium

The trees are all burning, the vulture keeps flying

Searching for corpses... rotting

Bombs and bullets and johnny mines;

Exploding limbs of yours and mine;

Deadly new viruses, germs and diseases.

Immune system... freezes

War and arms for profit, no credit for nature

To crush and maim their goal, and steat Earth Mother’s soul

Yes, the evening was inspiring; it was almost ethereal — spiritual yet sensual in its richness. We were entranced and lost to the mundane world. But down to earth things grabbed the attention soon enough.

One was the poor deal given to local musicians. The government helped somewhat but safety nets for their retirement years were not in place and even copyright was lacking, so also the prevention of pirating of their music and songs. Nimal said that from the copyright of his songs recorded overseas he still gets an income, but nothing from Sri Lanka. Yes, so it is with us, lamented our local artistes, yet smiling and almost indulgent of these almost heinous crimes.

"Get together, protest and demand. Together is the catchword here. Make moves to be known abroad," advised Nimal. "I can cry" he repeatedly bemoaned, "at the wealth of untapped great and good talent here." That was not all he said, easy enough to commiserate and advice. No, Nimal went much further. Promised any and all help he could possibly give, echoed and endorsed by wife Ranjani and son Paulmarie.
— Nan