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W.D.Amaradeva: Creator of Modern Sinhala Music

Dec 5, 2010 5:50:50 PM- transcurrents.com

by Dr.Carlo Fonseka

Amaradeva is the creator of modern Sinhala Music. His biography is its history. He set out to discover the genuine idiom of Sinhala music, the highest development of which to date is the art song. He sensed that in this Indian isle called Lanka the foundation of its music had to be based on the Indian raagahadhari tradition. It had to derive its sustenance from Lanka’s folk music. Its enrichment had to come from judicious interaction with other musical traditions of humankind. His is the recipe that empowered Amaradeva to elevate the minor musical genre "song" to the level of serious art.

Amaradeva has composed and sung some of the best songs – the musical gems – ever created in the universe of Sinhala music. Dr. Lester James Peries the Founding Father of Sinhala cinema, judged that Amaradeva’s voice "is the greatest musical instrument we have in this country". The magic of his voice, the exquisite permutations and combinations of notes that comprise his melodic creations, the pristine perfection of his pitch and his impeccable phrasing add up to make him an absolutely unique vocal artiste.

In its strictest sense "absolutely unique" means "the sole existing specimen". And that precisely is what he is. In the Kingdom of Sinhala Music Amaradeva has long been the anointed sovereign. It is true to say that the more we know him the more we love him; but the more we know of him, the less there is that is both original and significant we have to say about him. So all one can do at this point in time is to ask rhetorically: "When comes such another?" and answer: "Never".

Magsaysay Award

When honoring Amaradeva with the Ramon Magsaysay in the field of Creative Communication Arts in 2001, the Foundation recognized "his life of dazzling creativity in the expression of the rich heritage and protean vitality of Sri Lanka Music". To pay homage to Amaradeva the undisputed Sovereign in the world of Sinhala music at this stage of his life is surely in Shakespearean language: "To guard a title that was rich before/ To gild refined gold, to paint the lily/ To throw perfume on the violet/ To smooth the ice or to add another hue/ Unto the rainbow …". This is, indeed, "wasteful and ridiculous excess".

Biology of Music

Accordingly in this essay I propose to take a different tack and explore the question why we love Amaradeva. Given my background of knowledge and experience in biology – pure (physiology) and applied (medicine) – that is something I feel qualified to do. There must be reasons grounded in biology for the emotion we feel for him. We love him for his music. Jay Chou, the best selling Chinese pop star recently said: "… even when my female fans approach me they don’t tell me that I am handsome. They tell me they like my music. It is my music that has charmed them". What then is the biological function of music? What is music good for? Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882), the Father of Modern Biology, gave the answer.

Biological Evolution

That Charles Darwin’s name is inextricably associated with the theory of biological evolution is common knowledge. His famous book "The Origin of Species" was published in 1859. One implication of the theory of evolution is that we humans – Homo sapiens— are one of the 193 living species of monkeys and apes. That we humans are part and parcel of the web of life is implicit in the Buddhist world view. This is reflected in the oft repeated "May all beings be happy, healthy and well". In the orthodox Western outlook, however, Man is a unique being specially created by Almighty God in his own image. In an inspired moment of poetic truth, Shakespeare made Hamlet to exclaim, "what a piece of work is Man … the paragon of animals". That was about 250 years before Charles Darwin marshaled the scientific evidence that man was a member of the animal kingdom.

Sex Appeal

More relevant to our present purpose is the book Darwin published in 1871 titled "The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex". In this book he suggested that some features of every animal have evolved to make it sexually attractive to members of the opposite sex of its species. The classic example of this biological truism is the peacock’s tail. Careful observations by zoologists show that peahens choose their sexual partners by the size and shape of their tails. This makes biological sense because the larger the tail the healthier the male bird and therefore the better its chance of siring healthy offspring.

According to Darwin what their tail is to peacocks, the ability to sing is to humans. That good singing is sexy will be denied only by the 4% or so of every population who manifest the condition called "amusia". In Shakespeare’s phrase these unfortunates are "not moved with concord of sweet sounds". The sex appeal of good singing is too well known in this age of sexual liberation to require elaborate documentation. Elvis Presley was a living legend. Thousands of young women yearned to be with him.

The evolutionary biologist Dr. Geoffrey Miller of the University of New Mexico has studied this phenomenon in depth. He cites the case of rock guitarist and singer Jimi Hendrix who had sex with hundreds of young female fans for the mere asking. The singer Robert Plant said, "I was always on my way to love. Always…". For the edification of those who are doubtful about the reason for the sexual demand for good singers let it be pointed out that just as unhealthy peacocks do not grow gorgeous tails, unfit people cannot sing well.

There is evidence of the sexual appeal of singing from certain other species too. Zoologists have discovered that several species of birds, whales and one of Man’s closest evolutionary cousins the gibbons also indulge in singing as part of their courtship. There is ample reason to conclude that the females of these species respond most favorably to the best singers. To quote another Shakespearean insight, "The man who hath no music in himself … is fit for treason, stratagems, spoils …". But he is certainly not fit for love.

Uniting power

Another function attributed to music is that it serves to bind bands of people together into united tribes. In the modern world national anthems bind people together. Traditionally soldiers have marched to war to the beat of drums. In the remote past music appears to have played a very important role in determining the character and direction of whole civilizations. In ancient China, Egypt, India and Greece the role music played in shaping society was well recognized and appreciated.

If music in fact served to bind members of a tribe together then the more musical a tribe the more closely its members would be bonded and this solidarity would have conferred on them an evolutionary advantage over less musical tribes in the struggle for existence.


Finally let us see whether, and if so to what extent, these Darwinian insights are applicable to Amaradeva. In 1927 he was born into a culture which was essentially Victorian in manners and morals. (In Britain Victorian morals were dominant from the middle to the end of the 19th century. Overt Victorian morals were so austere that even piano legs were not left unclothed). Men with a strong sexuality were labeled "beasts", and their sexuality was a source of guilt and shame to them. So they endeavored to repress their sexual feelings. The emphasis was on the utmost rectitude in matters of sexual behavior and morals.

In the Sri Lankan world of music unlike in the West, the human counterparts of peacocks with splendid tails were not expected to reap the biological rewards of their magnificent singing. Restraint was the name of the game they played. Renowned musician Dunstan De Silva has recorded that "audiences raved over Amaradeva’s violin playing and singing".

At a private sitting at the residence of the Indian High Commissioner, one of India’s famous vocalists Suchitra Mitra had been moved to ecstasy by Amaradeva’s singing. She had said "Amaradeva just goes on singing in perfect "sur" and "tal" that music gushes out from his throat like water from a fountain". That there were hundreds of thousands who shared Suchitra Mitra’s feelings cannot be proved; but it is true.

As to Amaradeva’s role in uniting the nation to which he and we belong by the magic of his music, there cannot be any manner of doubt. The melody he created for Dalton Alwis’s lyric "sasara wasana thuru" and the exquisite style with which he performed it vocally made Amaradeva the noblest promoter of patriotism in our nation. His song "rathna deepa janma bhumi" has assumed the unofficial status of Sri Lanka’s national song.

Amaradeva says: "I routinely sing it as the last item in my musical concerts; and audiences invariably, spontaneously and enthusiastically join in as I sing it. On such occasions I feel one with them". When Amaradeva feels one with us, we feel one with him. So we love him because we love ourselves

(Amaradeva’s birthday is the 5th of December. This birthday eulogy for Amaradeva has been composed by the Chairman of the Arts Council of Sri Lanka,Dr. Carlo Fonseka)