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PROGRAM NOTES

Baila Music from Sri Lanka: The Gypsies


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PROGRAM

The Gypsies

Sunil Perera, guitar and vocals
Piyal Perera, percussion and vocals
Derek Hepponstall, bass and vocals
Ranil Vas, guitar and vocals
Gordon Athula, drums
Dushan Jayathilake, keyboard and vocals
Radika Rajavelu, vocals

Guest artist: Hemapal Perera, mandolin

Song (Artist) Track
Linda Langa Sangamner (The Gypsies) 0:00:00—0:04:18
Irene, Josephine, Roseline, Angeline (Wally Bastiansz) 0:04:18—0:09:40
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (Wallace Willis) 0:09:40—0:14:35
Lankawata baila gena wally bastiansz (Wally Bastiansz) 0:14:36—0:18:35
Piti Kotapan Nonay (The Gypsies) 0:18:36—0:23:35
Athamita Kasi Panan
Vocalist: Radika
0:23:41—0:27:02
Such a Night (Lincoln Chase)
Don’t Be Cruel (Otis Blackwell)
Vocalist: Derek Hepponstall
0:27:15—0:31:10
One Love (Bob Marley/Curtis Mayfield) 0:31:11—0:34:28
Yaman Bando Wesak Balanna (Wally Bastiansz)
Vocalist: Radika
0:34:30—0:37:38
Nanani Nanane (Derek Hepponstall) 0:37:40—0:41:45
Ojayee 0:41:50—0:46:30
Bambara Kannale (J. P. Chandrababu & G. Ramanathan) 0:46:40—0:50:45
You’re My Best Friend (Wayland Holyfield) 0:50:56—0:55:04
Surangani (traditional kaffringna)
Hemapal Perera, mandolin
0:55:07—1:01:50

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PERFORMERS

The Gypsies

The Gypsies is perhaps the most experienced band actively performing baila music in Sri Lanka. It was formed in 1969 by Anton Perera, also founder of a confectionery company, and originally consisted of his five sons: Sunil, Nihal, Piyal, Nimal, and Lal Perera. Anton turned a portion of his house in Ratmalana into a recording studio and recorded the band’s first album there. In subsequent decades, the group’s lineup changed, but members of the Perera family continued to lead the band. Currently, this leadership is provided by Sunil and Piyal Perera.

The Gypsies released five LPs in the 1970s, including Dance with the Gypsies. The band’s first audiocassettes in the 1980s included its novelty hit “Kurumitto” (dwarfs), a cover version of “The Smurf Song” by Dutch musician Father Abraham (musician Pierre Kartner). One of the Gypsies’ most popular songs is “I Don't Know Why?” which addresses corruption in Sri Lankan politics.

The band’s first engagement outside of Sri Lanka was a three-month stay at the Delhi Taj in India. This was followed by international tours to countries with significant Sri Lankan communities, including the United Kingdom, Singapore, the United States, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada. Today the Gypsies are often in demand for high-end wedding celebrations, both in Sri Lanka and abroad.

Sunil Perera, guitar and vocals

Born in 1952, Sunil Perera became a founding member of the Gypsies after he completed school in 1969. He was educated at two of the premiere Roman Catholic institutions in Sri Lanka: St. Sebastian’s College, Moratuwa; and St. Peter’s College, Colombo, where he got his start in music as a member of the school band. Among many other honors, Sunil was named Sri Lanka’s Showbiz Personality of the Year in 1990. Under Sunil’s leadership, the Gypsies was named Dance Band of the Year in 1989 and 1990. Sunil is married and has two sons and two daughters.

Piyal Perera, percussion and vocals

Born in 1959, Piyal, like his brother Sunil, was educated at St. Peter’s College, Colombo. He has performed with the Gypsies since 1975, first as a percussionist and later adding vocals to his role, and today leads the group with Sunil. Married with two children, Piyal is also a director of the confectionery company established by his late father, Anton Perera.

Derek Hepponstall, bass and vocals

Born in 1956, Derek Hepponstall is a full-time musician who played with a number of bands in Sri Lanka and overseas before settling down with the Gypsies in 1995. He hails from a large musical family and was educated at Wesley College, Colombo. Derek is married with two children.

Ranil Vas, guitar and vocals

Born in 1965, Ranil Vas is a full-time musician who began his career with the Golden Reeds in 1982, playing in several other groups before joining the Gypsies in 2005. He studied at St. Sebastian’s College, Moratuwa, and is married with one child, who is also a music enthusiast.

Gordon Athula, drums

Born in 1961, Gordon Athula played with Ultimate Upeka, Eternal Soul, and number of jazz bands before joining the Gypsies in 2008. He is one of Sri Lanka’s most experienced and sought-after drummers.

Dushan Jayathilake, keyboard and vocals

Born in 1981, Dushan Jayathilake is the youngest member of the band. He graduated from St. Xavier’s College, Marawila, playing with such bands as Sunshine before joining the Gypsies in 2004.

Radika Rajavelu, vocals

Born in 1981, Radika Rajavelu is a full-time musician and the main female vocalist of the Gypsies. Before joining the band in 2004, she performed with Quest and Clear Waters Duo. Educated at Holy Family Convent, Dehiwela, she is well known for singing in both Western and local languages with equal ease.

Hemapal Perera, mandolin (guest artist)

While an expert in early baila music, Hemapal Perera is also one of Sri Lanka’s leading exponents of Hindustani (north Indian) classical music. Born in 1942, he lost his eyesight at the age of five, and began studying flute and tabla at the age of 11 with J. M. Amaranath. He is a long-time teacher and performer of flute, mandolin, guitar, violin, and tabla with Sri Lankan National Radio and the Institute of Aesthetic Studies of the University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka.

Wally Bastiansz

Three songs on this podcast were written by the legendary baila songwriter and performer Wally Bastiansz (1914–1985), who played a leading role in developing and popularizing baila in the 1940s. Bastiansz, a traffic police officer, got his start in music by playing in a marching band. Also an accomplished guitarist, banjo player, and violinist, he transformed well-known standards, such as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Inky Pinky Parlez Vouz,” into classic baila songs.

Bastiansz’s original songs dealt with everyday life and average people. One of his hits, “Nurse Nonsa,” was an ode to a hospital nurse (said to represent his own sister); another covered the trial of a jilted lover, Eric Bacho. He recorded for the HMV, Sooriya, and Philips labels. Born Ogustus Martheneus Basatiansz, his stage name of “Wally” was an adaptation of his childhood nickname, Olie.

—Adapted from gypsies.lk/Biography.htm; wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gypsies; sinhalachord.com/2011/05/v-hemapala-perera-sinhala-artist.html [all accessed 8-19-11]

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BAILA MUSIC

Baila is a popular Sri Lankan music and dance genre whose roots probably lie in the island’s Afro-Portuguese performance traditions, which flourished from the late sixteenth to early twentieth century. Baila songs are in a 6/8 meter—that is, two beats, each divided into three beats, a meter that lends itself easily to syncopation. The original repertoire is understood to have a core set of seventeen or eighteen melodies of Portuguese origin. Its identity is strongly tied to its instrumentation: whether synthesized or acoustic, baila features combinations of such instruments as the banjo or mandolin, violin, guitar, rubana, and conga drums.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Sri Lanka’s performance milieu was affected by European and North American racial politics. By the 1850s, writings by both Sri Lankan and English residents reflect how blackface minstrelsy influenced perceptions of people of the lowest racial strata, i.e., Africans and those of mixed African-Portuguese ancestry. As their music became more popular, these groups came to be represented as innately musical, fond of dancing, carefree, and chronically poor—all stereotypes taken directly from minstrelsy. These stereotypes probably help explain the development of baila’s two dominant forms: the gentle, fit-for-the drawing-room “chorus baila,” and the more raucous “disco baila” for the purportedly low-caste.

Chorus baila is drawn from the Iberian side of its lineage, incorporating instruments typical of mariachi bands, such as trumpets, which can be heard (played by keyboard synthesizer) on tracks 5, 6, and 9 of this recording. The songs usually consist of verses sung by a soloist with refrains sung by a chorus. Generally considered to be graceful and moderate, this style is associated with a type of dance known as the kaffringna. An old chorus baila or kaffringna tune can be heard on track 14 of this podcast.

With the rise of regional broadcasting in the 1930s and 1940s, baila drew on music from Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States. Disco baila—aggressive, fun, and freewheeling, with an emphasis on raucousness and sarcastic, unromantic attitudes—was greatly influenced by a 1970s American version of Trinidadian calypso. This is the kind of baila one hears at all-night popular music shows (sangita sandarsanaya) and that constitutes the climax of an evening at the nightclub, bringing everyone onto the dance floor for one last high-energy fling.

Three songs on this podcast were written by the legendary baila songwriter and performer Wally Bastiansz (1914–1985), who played a leading role in developing and popularizing baila in the 1940s. Bastiansz, a traffic police officer, got his start in music by playing in a marching band. Also an accomplished guitarist, banjo player, and violinist, he transformed well-known standards, such as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Inky Pinky Parlez Vouz,” into classic baila songs.

Bastiansz’s original songs dealt with everyday life and average people. One of his hits, “Nurse Nonsa,” was an ode to a hospital nurse (said to represent his own sister); another covered the actual trial of a jilted lover, Eric Bacho. He recorded for the HMV, Sooriya, and Philips labels. Born Ogustus Martheneus Basatiansz, his stage name of “Wally” was an adaptation of his childhood nickname, Olie.

Some performers use the music of baila as a framework for other means, such as storytelling; commentating on popular events, moral issues, and good citizenship; tributes to teachers; and theatrical word-dueling or other verbal competitions. In “wade [waada] debate baila” competitions, performers extemporize on a melody and a topic of the judges’ choosing. These events begin around 10 pm and go on until dawn. A collection of contest winners, known as the “All Ceylon Baila Champions,” tours as a group and is especially busy during the two festival seasons in Sri Lanka: the Christmas holidays and the Hindu and Sinhala New Year (April–June).

—Adapted from Anne Sheeran, “Sri Lanka,” in Alison Arnold, ed., South Asia, vol. 5 of The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music (New York: Garland, 2000); wikipedia.org/wiki/Wally_Bastian [accessed 8-19-11]; and spoken comments by Sunil Perera.

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CREDITS

Podcast, notes, and slideshow coordinated by Michael Wilpers, public programs manager. Web design by Liz Cheng, audio engineering by Andy Finch, photographs by Neil Greentree, and text editing by Joelle Seligson. Special thanks to ethnomusicologist Anne Sheeran for her contributions to the performance and workshops. Our deepest gratitude goes to the Gypsies for granting permission to podcast their memorable performance at the Freer Gallery.

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