With white sarongs draped around their waists and white turbans on their heads, two bare-chested traditional Sabaragamuwa dancers perform on stage. In the background is a contemporary jazz trio improvising music that echoes and weaves through the ritual chant.
This is a juxtaposition not often seen in Sri Lanka, making the Baliphonics group compelling enough for Jan Ramesh de Saram, cultural coordinator at the Goethe-Institut, to invite them to perform at the Colombo centre. The band traces its roots to Musicmatters, a school in the city that is widely acknowledged to be producing some of the most creative music on the island.
Each quarter, Musicmatters also presents Big Ears, with performances that are original, exciting and constantly evolving. Responding to and inspired by its Sri Lankan context, the music is unique to this little corner of the earth.
According to De Saram, the small school and its constellation of local and foreign collaborators have laid the foundations for the Colombo music scene of the future. “Their portfolio has expanded constantly in the form of countless ensembles, acts and musical ideas being formed and tried out,” he said. “Apart from the Baliphonics, the Serendib Sorcerers bring back reinterpreted folk melodies while Kinesthetics 0800 creates an electronica live band experience. There are other ensembles, with intriguing names such as Doe Eye, Transcoastal Collective, Tomcat, Magnum etc.”
Among those driving the movement at Musicmatters is Sumudi Suraweera, the school’s co-director, who has a PhD in ethnomusicology. Suraweera and classical pianist Eshantha Joseph Peiris started Musicmatters in 2010 to introduce an alternative model for Western music education in Sri Lanka.
“Musicmatters fills a void in Colombo’s western music education and performing platforms,” said Lakshman Joseph de Saram, a composer and artistic director at The Chamber Music Society of Colombo. “When it comes to presenting live music, they have been constantly innovating and blending a wide range of styles and ideas, culminating in a quite intoxicating genre-bending annual festival of music.”
Currently, Musicmatters has 13 bands associated with it including Baliphonics. In its most current form, Baliphonics consists of a duo on double bass and drums and two ritual artistes. The Bali ritual that gives Baliphonics its name draws from a tradition that has been passed down through families in Sri Lanka’s Raigama region. Suraweera, who’s part of the ensemble, wants to see the music survive even as the ritual fades into memory. It may seem like an uneasy marriage, but the performance feels vibrant, deceptively chaotic and and entirely true to its roots.
One of the most established bands of the lot is the progressive rock outfit Thriloka. The quintet focuses on improvising music inspired by traditional Sri Lankan sounds. Their most recent project was a loud, melodic 20-minute track inspired by the Kuweni Asne lament of the Sri Lankan upcountry Kohombo Kankariya ritual.
Another unique collaboration involves a nine-hour drive from Batticaloa in the Eastern Province to Colombo as Lavanya Mahadeva, Kisnaveni Palasingam, Selvaraj Rajiv, Baskaramurthi Satheeswaran and Meiyanathan Ketheeswaran meet up with their collaborators to form The Musicmatters Transcoastal Collective.
The bands all have dedicated genres. The Serendib Sorcerers embrace an improvisational, traditional jazz based on melodies from Sri Lankan-Sinhala folk music. Sakvala Chakraya produces post-colonial trance-punk while the Amila Sandaruwan Band plays experimental pop-rock in Sinhala. As for the Brahminy Kites, the folk music of North India is among their diverse influences.
Musicmatters co-founder Peiris feels the school’s output is the result of some deliberate choices. “Musicmatters has strived to provide a space – both intellectual and physical – in which our teaching staff can experiment, absorb influences and rehearse free from the usual commercial constraints,” he said. “The sheer variety of musical collaborations that have resulted from Musicmatters-facilitated encounters are a testament to the viability of this concept.”
Peiris said the school has had some success raising funds on Kickstarter to support recordings, but the focus is on the live performance experience, for both listeners and collaborating musicians.
Experimental musician and sound artist Isuru Kumarasinghe is part of the project. He has had no formal training and is passionate about the music he makes. “There are a few artists here in Sri Lanka who are interested in doing something different,” he said.
Musicmatters has provided a platform for Kumarasinghe to meet likeminded people. “When I met these people and we started to interact musically, that was a new thing for me. And I wasn’t alone. I know everybody has learned so many things from each other. It’s about gathering and sharing. I think this experiment is really beautiful and very interesting.”
Published in Scroll.in on November 13, 2015. Words by Smriti Daniel.