By Laksiri Fernando –
During the Sinhala-Tamil New Year celebrations in Adelaide (Australia) this year, there was a dance performance based on Sunil Edirisinghe’s Ra Ra Ra Bombiye. Similar performances have been held elsewhere this year and before where Sri Lankans live, and some are in the YouTube.
This reminded me of what I knew about a song as a child in early 1950s, probably popular since early 20th century. It had a strong regular rhythm like the present.
Ta Ra Ra Ra Bombiye
Suddho Enawa Jalliye
Dora Wahapanko Nangiye
When I listened to Edirisinghe’s song, the tune was vaguely similar, but not the same. The lyrics were much different, written by renowned lyricist, Sunil Sarath Perera. However, there was a similarity between what he was saying in the present song, and what I have heard when I was a child. In both, there was cultural adaptation and indigenous resistance.
Origins of ‘Ta Ra Bombiye’
The first line and sounds (tune) that I knew of in ‘Ta Ra Ra Ra Bombiye’ were not of Sri Lankan origin. However, Perera has adapted the first line creatively perhaps to mean ‘drinking toddy’! I first came to know of their overseas origins some years back when I was reading through George Orwell’s ‘Homage to Catalonia.’ The republican soldiers were singing the song beginning with ‘Ta ra ra boom-de-ay’ perhaps to ease their tiredness and war fatigue during the Spanish civil war against fascism in late 1930s.
But the real origins were much earlier, as I know now through Wikipedia. Although the authorship popularly goes to Henry Sayers, sung initially by Mamie Gilroy in Boston in 1891, Sayers had admitted later that he adapted it from the black singer Mama Lou. What had become most popular was the version sung by Lottie Collins in music halls in London in 1892. It is very much similar to the tune I knew.
Then how did it come to Sri Lanka? Is there a connection between ‘ta ra bombiye’ and Uragasmanhandiya?
Sri Lankan Adaptation
R. L. Brohier in his ‘Seeing Ceylon’ gives an important clue to the Sri Lankan adaptation. He refers to Uragasmanhandiya in the Galle district, off Kosgoda. He says,
“For a decade and two years from· 1900 this open, rolling country, four miles from Kosgoda railway station, was the venue of the annual camp of instruction of the Ceylon Volunteers. It was then known as Uragasmanhandya-a name which inspired the first line of a marching-song, Ta-ra, ra-ra Bumbiah…. Uragasmanhandiya!”
Now in terms of my little song of early 1950s, what appears is that while adapting this British (military) volunteers’ marching or recreation song, the Sinhala folk or baila singers expressed fears about these soldiers or white men, roamed around villages in the coastal belt, and warned young women to be careful.
What it literally said was: ‘Hurry, hurry, close the door sister, white men are coming from Uragasmanhandiya.’
Brohier says, the Ceylon volunteers were there at Uragaha only for annual camps. But after the Boer war in South Africa (1899-1902), over 5,000 Afrikaner prisoners were brought to Ceylon and many were stationed in Uragasmanhandiya, apart from Diyatalawa, Ragama, Hambantota and Mount Lavinia. Some of them were on parole, therefore they roamed around the villages with some money in hand.
Therefore, it is also possible that the song that I knew during my childhood was referring to these ‘Suddhas’ (white men) of Afrikaner origin. While local men freely moved and mixed with them, the women were carefully protected from these ‘whites.’ I have heard some stories about them from my aunts as some of these Afrikaners were in Mount Lavinia, though well before my time, not far from where we were living in Moratuwa. The Mount Lavinia camp was basically a hospital/recuperation centre and nurses and attendants were going from Moratuwa to treat them.
I also remember some other songs, cannot be of Sri Lankan origin and so far I have no clue to trace their real origins, other than suspecting them as Afrikaner mixed with English. Two of them goes like ‘Jin gan goli goli wachcha, jin gan go…’ and ‘Cerus ponder, cerus ponder, cerus ponder get set set….’ I may be completely mistaken. What I most remember are the tunes and hope somebody else might be able to throw some light.
Adaptation and Resistance
The cultural adaptation and indigenous resistance in Sri Lankan society (like in any other healthy society) are most represented undoubtedly in Sunil Sarath Perera’s lyrics for the new ‘bombiye’ song. In the first verse, it goes like the following.
Ra ra ra bombiye
Muwa weyan nangiye (beware my sister)
Ra ra ra bombiye
Muwa weyan malliye (beware my brother)
Japan mandolin nadakara (playing Japanese mandolin)
Awurudu ai handiye (new year is around the corner)
In essence, the whole song asks the youngsters (young sisters and brothers) to beware or be weary of culturally vulgarized new year celebrations coming in different forms and shapes. The essence of the song is in the fourth verse. It goes like: ‘from time to time comes, different songs and dance’ (kalen kaleta kiyawai neka neka baila). Then says, ‘act with wisdom, to protect the country and language’ (desa basa rakumata nuwanin wadakerapalla).’
To me, it does not appear that Sarath Perera or Sunil Edirisinghe is completely against cultural change or adaptation through ‘other’ influences. What they say is for the youngsters to be mindful or act with wisdom to protect the country, culture, traditions and language. This ‘protection’ or development is an evolving process. Nothing should be done blindly.
There are undoubtedly new dimensions of cultural adaptation and retention. Most challenging perhaps are the circumstances that faced by those who migrate to other countries for work or for good.
There are two weekend teledramas, ‘Nathaliya’ and ‘Vesuvius Kandu Pamula’ (Beneath the Mountain Vesuvius) now televised on ITN and Rupavahini respectively. Nathaliya is a teenage girl born to a Sri Lankan (Tamil) father and a Norwegian mother, in fact performed by such a young person. The other teledrama, ‘Vesuvius,’ though less poignant, depicts the challenges of adaptation by rather some migrants in Italy.
Setting aside the artistic value, perhaps not that great, what is amazing is the participation of Norwegian and Italian actors in these teledramas. The dialogues in Sinhala, Norwegian and English are another novel aspect of ‘Nathalia.’ This kind of ‘inter-mixing’ is something actually going on in many countries where Sri Lankans are now living. Therefore, both dramas might shed some light on the new dimensions of cultural adaptation and retention, although the main themes are different to each other in the two productions.
Although during the last nineteen years of TV history, nearly a thousand of teledramas in Sinhala and Tamil have been produced, except perhaps Sandya Hewamanna (Stitching Identities in a Free Trade Zone: Gender and Politics in Sri Lanka), no one has seriously used teledrama as material for social analysis to my knowledge. There are only a few teledrama reviews available and an admirable one is by Roel Raymond (‘Seven Iconic Teledramas’).
The power of teledrama in raising awareness on the ‘unity of humanity’ while ‘recognizing cultural diversity’ cannot be disputed. This is quite useful in ethnic or national reconciliation as well. Entertainment mixed with knowledge or awareness might be the best. In this context, what comes closer to what I have been talking about as ‘cultural adaptation and indigenous resistance/retention’ is Vihanga Thathsiru’s children’s teledrama, ‘Bonchi Gedara Indrajala’ (Magic in the Bean House) televised on ITN in 2016. To me, this is another or a new version of old ‘Ta ra ra boom de ay.’
In 71 creative episodes, the story reveals several dimensions of cultural intermixing through human contact of different ethnicities (English and Sinhala in this case), amazing name and word similarities, what the author calls ‘dreaming in dreaming’ (hinayak matha hinayak), Sinhala folklore, and pure ‘tongue in cheek’ dialogues. The English fairy tale, ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ has been an inspiration. The whole drama unfolding throughout the series is both creative and artistic with superb humorous acting by a group children; Pradeep Dharmadasa performing as the iconic teacher, who creates the stories for his students.
The impetus for his imagination is the two students in his class, one white (Jackie) and one brown (Andre), with probably two different ancestral origins, one local and the other foreign. A grandmother Lily lands with her grandson Jack in Kiridiwala, Devundara, in ancient times after shipwreck. They mix with the local community harmoniously and grandmother Lily becomes known as ‘Gam Meda Lily.’ The first to meet them was Andara whose name now goes as Andre even among Sinhalese.
How did they first communicate? The author says: ‘if your eyes are honest and open, they (Jack and Andara) realized that they can understand the language they speak’ (as deka awanka nam, kathakarana bashawa therum gatha haki bawa dedenama therum gaththa). Perhaps this is true of first communications of all languages. Otherwise, there are no god given intermediaries between languages. Through this story, the authors and actors demonstrate how societies adapt and resist cultural influences from outside.
The teledrama ‘Bonchi Gedera Indrajala’ is an imaginary story. However, what I have outlined before in respect of ‘Ta ra ra bombiye’ during my childhood or now sung by Sunil Edirisinghe is not imaginary, but real and historical. All tell a story of how societies adapt and resist cultural influences from outside.