I first meet Sumudu Jayatilaka in her music. In ‘Supergirl,’ a melody meant for sunny skies and red balloons, where she tells me that she sometimes wishes she could fly away. In ‘Angel’ she lets me in on a secret – no one can ever doubt her, more than she doubts herself. These are, in some sense, intimate confessions to make to a stranger, but honest emotion is part of what makes Sumudu’s music appealing.
Sumudu and Dinuk (bottom): Both excited about today’s concert.
“It’s very personal. I think with song writing you have to put yourself into it to do it well. Everything in that album has been part of my life,” she says. “You take the personal bits out of it so that people can relate to it. If you listen to the album you get to know me a little better than if you just heard me singing at a concert.”
The album reveals the melange of musical influences that Sumudu was exposed to growing up – her parents loved country music and so does she. From her father she inherited a love of film soundtracks, particularly the ones racking up the tension in Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers. Her introduction to jazz came via the musicals where Frank Sinatra danced his way into her heart. She began singing at an early age and was the lead vocalist for a jazz band by the time she was 14 – “that’s when I really started listening to music,” she says.
Born and raised in the UK, Sumudu was still an adolescent when the BBC came calling. She was invited to perform an original piece and then invited back to sing again. “That was when I started to realise that music was a big calling in my life,” says Sumudu. But she was also a nerdy kid who was good at science just like her parents who were both doctors. Enrolled at the University of Sheffield, she completed her medical degree and prepared to follow in their footsteps. However, post-graduation and a year of work, she decided to switch tack. “I was always singing through that and it was about having this double life, which is what ‘Supergirl’ is about really. Eventually the music took over and it’s much more of my calling and I’m happier to be doing it.” It isn’t a decision she’s ever second guessed.
Despite the vulnerability you might see in her music, Sumudu is quietly, supremely confident in her ability. It is one reason why she got the gig singing live before Queen Elizabeth II, the Prime Minister of England and an estimated television audience of 60 million at the Millennium Dome as 1999 gave way to 2000. She was chosen after an audition where she was required to sight read (i.e sing without having heard the song but by looking at the notes alone) a piece by composer John Tavener. “They needed to know that someone was going to crumble. It was a big deal, everything was timed in reverse. That moment was not going to happen again,” she says. It helped that Sumudu didn’t feel at all jittery. “If I think I can do something, I don’t get nervous, if I think I can’t do it, then that’s different.”
At that time, her parents told reporters that she had never had voice training but she was already an accomplished multi-instrumentalist who could play the piano, violin, guitar, flute and accordion. Those same skills are on display in her 2011 debut album ‘Waiting For You’ for which Sumudu recorded her own songs and laid down some of the instrumental tracks as well. It’s what has made her a rarity in an industry filled with Auto-Tune addicts. She counts herself lucky to have landed in a partnership with Kipper, a producer who’s worked with her idols like Sting, James Taylor and Stevie Wonder. “It was just a brilliant experience,” she says, “You’re carrying these songs around in your head, and it was wonderful hearing them come alive.”
Kipper is a benevolent force in her life, but he’s not the first. Singing has always come so easy to her that Sumudu admits she’s never really had to work at, a confession that finds its way into one of her songs. “I do feel very lucky since a lot of it was while I wasn’t even really applying myself…‘Angel’ is really about all these wonderful people who have looked after me – whether it’s Bacharach saying come and sing, or the BBC – it’s about all those people who’ve decided to see more in me than I was showing them at the time.” (She sang ‘Alfie’ for Burt and Hal David at a special tribute concert held at London’s Royal Albert Hall, sharing the stage with Dionne Warwick, Elvis Costello and Sir Bob Geldof.) Now, however, no one could doubt her commitment. Sumudu is all in and holding nothing back. “I think if I didn’t have the music, I don’t know what I’d do. Music is my life now.”
It’s always special to play here– Dinuk
With only three days to go before they perform together, Sumudu Jayatilaka and pianist Dinuk Wijeratne meet for the first time. Yet they’re far from strangers – Sumudu says they’ve been chatting and exchanging songs online for a while now – “it’s all been cyber related.” As if to prove what can be accomplished over email, the two have managed to agree on a set list inspired by the song writers, composers and performers who have inspired them; it’s an unapologetically eclectic mix – from the Beatles, Joni Mitchell and Duke Ellington, to George Gershwin and Henry Mancini. Peppering the list will be original compositions by both artistes.
Playing alongside the duo at ‘A Jazz Evening with Dinuk and Sumudu’ tonight will be Patrick Bleakley from New Zealand on double bass and Dr. Sumudi Suraweera from Sri Lanka on drums. Dinuk says he’s also very much looking forward to hearing what Sumudi and his hybrid drum kit (which incorporates the Sabaragamuwa drum known as the dawula) will bring to the performance.
Though Dinuk and Sumudu have visited Sri Lanka often, this performance is still occasion for celebration. For her it will be a milestone of sorts: “I’m so happy to be in singing in Sri Lanka for the first time. It’s just a wonderful circle. It feels right, it feels exciting. I really can’t wait,” says Sumudu. For him, though he’s played here before, Sri Lanka will always be special. “I’m excited to be playing here,” says Dinuk, “because this is where I’m from. I just want people to have a good time.”
Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 17 February, 2013. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Indika Handuwala.