It’s a Thursday night at Qbaa, and there’s barely standing room. Usually, there’s no quieting the din, but when Umaria Sinhawansa takes the mike everyone stops to listen. She’s only 22 years old but the young singer claims the spotlight with complete assurance, her lovely voice running up and down the scale with an easy grace. This might be her first time performing in a lounge bar, but Umaria has toured the world, performing both on her own and in collaboration with local favourites Bathiya and Santhush. She’s performed across Europe, Australia, Cyprus, U.A.E, Turkey, India and China – where intriguingly, she is apparently a hit on Yunnan T.V.
When we do finally sit down with Umaria it’s at the BnS’s studio in Nawala. She comes in half an hour late but dressed to kill; her long straight hair framing large eyes that she likes to accentuate with dark eyeliner. “Both my parents are musicians, so I guess it’s in the blood,” she says explaining that she was reared on a diet of great female vocalists like Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross.
Growing up Umaria was one half of a package deal. Her sister Umara, the older by four years was a singer and Umaria wanted nothing more than to be like her. She and Umara performed their first gig when she was only 11, singing in front of a large gathering on parliament grounds. (Her early start ensured that Umaria had already clocked a decade of experience before she ever took the mike at Qbaa.) She’s been a part of the Sinhala music industry for nearly as long as that. In 2007 and 2008, she was the youngest artist to ever be nominated for the Best Singer Award at Sarasaviya Film Awards. Competing internationally, she won a silver medal at the Pan Asia Music Festival. In 2011, the sisters won a bronze in Ukraine at the Crimea Music Festival.
“I think that not many people have the opportunity to get into this industry as easily as my sister and I did,” says Umara. “I think me and my sister are blessed in that sense to have had the backing and encouragement from my parents as well as to be accepted into this industry.”
Her first hit – ‘Pethu Pen Pethum’ featured in the film ‘Asai Mang Piyambanna’ – came when she was only 14 years old. She remembers being an academically minded child who didn’t anticipate the success the track brought her way. “I got so much of exposure,” she says, “I wasn’t focused on how much money I would get, it was about the opportunity of working with BnS.” She has since had other tracks become local hits (including 2010’s ‘Gum Nade’). Bathiya and Santhush, her collaborators on the songs and the men Umaria considers as good as her brothers, walk through the studio while we’re talking – one on his way out, the other on his way in. The duo are easily among the most successful Sri Lankan acts and Umaria says she learns something from them every day.
A one-time student of Muslim Ladies’ College, she finished her schooling at Gateway College and now hopes to enrol for a CIM course. She’s seen enough of BnS at work to know that canny marketing can make an artist. “You can learn a lot from how Bathiya and Santhush market themselves and how they approach different markets,” she says. “You have to consider yourself a brand – I want to be known for the music that I do. I want my brand to be exclusive.” Umaria dresses the part – she says she sticks to her mother’s oft repeated advice that a performer needs to make a statement. “She always says, ‘dress to kill,’”says Umaria. She then confesses, “I have a special place in my heart for shoes.” (Her collection currently features a fairly staggering 80 pairs.) Her mother is still the person she likes to go shopping with.
For now, Umaria’s most fervent hope is to “go international.” Though she’s uncertain about how to accomplish it, she’s begun writing her own material but says she’s yet to release it. Most comfortable writing in English, she’s also got a set of signature covers she’s known for performing with the Anura Siriwardena-led band The A Team – tracks like ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, ‘Son of a Preacherman’, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ and ‘The Lady is a Tramp”.
Umaria, who has never received any vocal training, interprets these songs almost entirely by instinct. She says her introduction to a track usually involves listening to it on repeat a few times and then just winging it – the last is a special perk of performing live. Still, she has bigger aspirations for herself. These appear fairly detailed, though she’s reluctant to share the details. “I set goals for each year,” she says. When she was 21 it was buying herself a car. Her far more ambitious 10 year plan involves stepping onto the Grammy stage. Umaria is confident she’s right where she belongs: “I love my music and I love to sing and it’s my passion. I was born to do this and I want to do this for the rest of my life.”
Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 5 May, 2013. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by Indika Handuwala.