By Somasiri Munasinghe –
Sunil Perera, the iconic Sri Lankan singer, entertainer, musician, fearless political and social critic, passed away on August 5 due to complications relating to Covid-19.
He contracted the dreaded disease a few weeks ago and returned home completely recovered. In a viral video, he is seen singing Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Why Me Lord’ in gratitude. Unfortunately, a few days ago, he was rushed to a private hospital with breathing complications, where he passed away. He was 68.
I don’t know why mehema wenne ayi? is the only question bothering my mind as I hear the sad news of my friends, relatives and innocent people falling to the Covid pandemic in Sri Lanka, among them great personalities like Sunil.
In a Facebook post on September 8, a friend in Toronto says that she heard Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s popular 24-hour 99.1 FM radio playing Sunil’s song Kiyanne Gothala, describing him as an artist who used music to attack political injustice and lawlessness in his country. This may be the first time that a Sinhala melody was played by a mainstream Canadian radio.
Sunil was a member of the Gypsies started with five high school-age brothers from a family of ten siblings. Soon, he became the frontman and the voice of the Gypsies with his own brand of music, humour and controversial views on politics, social and domestic life. He was a cultural icon despite raising eyebrows of the mainstream musicians who accused him of sullying the purity of native music and culture. The latest victim of these purists is Yohani Silva.
Sunil said the same thing that Nanda Malini sang in high-flown Sinhala. Nanda’s protest songs made our eyes wet, while Sunil’s melodies sung in lowbrow Sinhala could make us take arms against corrupt governments. In a way he was our Victor Jara, without the gruesome tragic end.
I first saw the young band on stage at the agricultural exhibition at Colombo St. Joseph’s College in 1973. I also saw singer Dalreene floating on the college pool on a plastic lotus to get onto the stage.
The Gypsies sang the band’s early songs, and one comment I still remember is Sunil saying that the band was facing accusations that they were destroying the native music. The allegations continued throughout, but the band stuck to their guns.
The early seventies was the golden age of Sinhala pop music with an explosion of musical groups in many genres like baila, rock, native pop and calypso.
There were bands like Jetliners, Spitfires, Savages, Gabo and the Breakaways on the English front, while Moonstones, Dharmarathne Brothers, La Bamba, La Ceylonians and Los Muchachos dominated Sinhala music.
I don’t remember Sunil’s Gypsies appearing at either of the first two rock concerts in Sri Lanka in the early seventies. There was a race to stage the first rock concert between Kumar Navaratnam, who had a hard rock band called Graveyards, and Gabo. During the flower power era, Kumar was into heavy metal playing Grand Funk Railroad and Three Dog Night, while Gabo mainly was into saner Santana-type music. His rendition of Soul Sacrifice on drums was the craze at the time. Gabo was the first to stage the rock concert, a poor man’s version of Woodstock, by beating Kumar by one day.
One of the early English protest songs I heard was one sang at a rock concert by Ramesh Weeratunga, the son of Kokiladevi Weeratunga, strumming his box guitar. He sang about the corrupt politicians attacking the then SLFP government, and reports suggested that the CID questioned the singer. Crackdown against even the slightest hint of dissent was the same then and now.
I don’t remember Gypsies appearing on the stage of any of these rock shows. Their music was different, and the band was free from scandals because the Gypsies were family, and it was managed by their father, who also owned a successful confectionary brand name Glucorasa. Money was not a problem, and fame was theirs for the asking, and they knew what the fans wanted. Their music was like jujubes; colourful, sugar-coated, sweet, and you could never say enough, but tastes always differed!
A musician who is still active today from those early halcyon days of Sri Lankan pop is Sohan Weerasinghe.
Soon Gypsies became a household name with catchy tunes midway between baila and pop, and their satirical numbers questioning social injustice and political oppression earned them both fans and enemies. Sunil was assaulted by the sons of a powerful minister at a Colombo hotel in the 80s over a song he sang, but nobody could shut the flamboyant showman’s mouth.
Who can forget Sunil’s songs like the one about a husband giving alibis to his wife for a boozy night out with friends, a boyfriend counting how many kisses he planted on his girlfriend, a ruined birthday party because the host had too much to drink and fake intellectuals trying to impress people at a party?
The reggae-type peace song ‘Lowe Sama’ he sang along with dozens of other singers at the height of Sri Lanka’s dreadful war was one of his best attempts at ethnic harmony. The melody was sung in Sinhala, Tamil and English to highlight unity among the ethnic communities. He was a Catholic, his wife was Buddhist, and his eldest son is married to the daughter of singer Dalreene who is Muslim.
Gypsies’ recent melodies were highly political, with apparent references directly targeting the present-day politicians.
His terrific presence on stage and his comedy skits, often assisted by the late singer and sidekick Ronnie Leitch, could take us back to the days of Vinoda Samaya’s trio Annesley, Bertie and Samuel. The advent of television placed the Gypsies on a totally different pedestal.
Kuru Mitto (Aliens) was the craze of the 80s. Three little men dressed in the space gear danced on the stage, adding a touch of outlandish glamour and meaning to Gypsies’ song. The people took it for granted as a Gypsies’ original, but it was a copy of a Dutch song. The secret was out as an SLBC announcer on a scholarship to Germany listened to the original and began playing it over Sri Lankan airwaves.
I remember meeting the ‘Sri Lankan aliens’ at the Observer editorial in the early 80s when they came for a photo feature connected with a Sunday Observer article.
Many music makers of the present generation, like Bhathiya Santhush and Nalin Perera, credit Sunil for their inspiration. In a recent interview, Nalin of the Marians fame said he was inspired to follow a music career after watching Sunil singing Kuru Mitto on stage.
Sunil married Geetha Kulathunga while she was still a minor. The marriage happened under strange circumstances. The singer was taken into Homagama police custody on October 2, 1981, charged with kidnapping the underaged girl. The marriage was registered at the insistence of Sunil’s parents at 10.30 in the night.
In a TV interview, Sunil spoke about his wife in glorious terms saying that any other woman would have left him long ago for his silly mistakes. Geetha admitted that there were few strains in their marriage, mainly arising from the pressures of his show-biz career and said he was a remarkable husband who had the courage to admit his flaws and patch the cracks.
Sunil toured the world with his band. He was the only Sinhala musician who could attract all the Sri Lankan ethnic communities for his house-full performances in Toronto. He has adoring fans in Canada and became a friend of many families who still grieve his untimely death.
By looking back, I think Sunil would have become an honest and caring politician if he did not take up music as his career. For a brief time, he dabbled in politics calling for a viable third option to get rid of the lot who robbed the country but never continued. In his last melody, Sunil sang of the nation being mortgaged to China and India, appealing to the politicians to leave a safe and free country to the next generation.
I never met Sunil personally but have been a fan of his music and admirer of his courage. It is hard to find a Sri Lankan who has not danced to songs of Sunil, who was always decked in his trademark fedora, oversized cross, and jacket. It is apt to wish Sunil eternal rest by quoting from Kris Kristofferson’s song, which he sang a few days before his passing. “Help me Jesus, my soul’s in your hand.” Rest in peace, maestro. There won’t be anyone like you!