Inheriting the gift of music

By Lakna Paranamanna
Q: Could you describe your childhood?
I am the eldest in a family of five siblings and I was born in Hulftsdorp. My ancestral home in Etul Kotte but we were living in Hulftsdorp since we lived with our paternal grandfather. My father was late George Makalande; he was a lawyer and my mother, Sita de Lanerolle, was working under her father V.D. de Lanerolle, as a journalist at Lankadeepa.

Music was like an inheritance in my family because most of my relatives have played active roles in the field of music. My great grandfather, John De Silva, composed music for many stage plays. He composed many recitals in collaboration with Indian composer Vishwanath Louji. I was constantly exposed to these occurrences, and music was no stranger to me.

My earliest childhood memories are of my aunt, Anne Makalande Perera, playing the piano in the evenings. She was a music teacher so I used to visit her from the time I could barely walk. I would watch with awe when she taught the students how to play the piano and listen to those endless music recitals. My favourite recital which my aunt used to play was Colonel Boogie’s March. Aunt Anne was my first teacher and the main reason for my increasing passion for music. When I was about five years old, we moved back to Etul Kotte and by this time I had started schooling at Ananda College.

Q: How did you embark on your musical career?
I started playing the piano when I was barely four years old, with my aunt. But, after we moved to Etul Kotte, I started attending music classes under Chitrani Balasooriya. I studied under her for about three years. But, somehow, I started learning music with my aunt again. She was such a great pianist and she could play any type of music; pop, jazz, classical or modern.

When I was about seven years old, I took my first steps towards becoming a performer. I performed at family parties and gatherings and this gradually became a tradition at our family gatherings and I too enjoyed it immensely since my audience always enjoyed my performing sessions.

When I was about 19 years I started playing for a band, Pioneers. It was a pop band of five members. Then I played for Arabesque and another popular band at that time, Amazing Grace. In 1978, after joining Raja Jalaldeen and his band, I toured Italy, Africa and the Middle East, performing for almost four years. Then, in the early ’80s, I returned to Sri Lanka and joined another band, Orpheus. We played at Taprobane Hotel, now known as Grand Oriental Hotel, and backing Dalreen Suby.

It was also during that time that I got involved with the advertising field. I composed the first jingle for an Anchor advertisement. In 1985 I directed music in Sva Sangeetha; a programme which featured many amateur and senior artistes of those times like Rocksami, Ananda Dabare, Douglas Ferdinand and Dhamma Jagoda.

The all-time favorite ‘We Are Sri Lanka’ was first sung at this concert and I arranged the music. I also composed the main theme music of Svarasanga Wannama, which was first performed at this concert. It was a concert piece of fusion music and was performed using local drums, piano and the symphony orchestra of Sri Lanka, conducted by Lalanath de Silva at that time.

Q: You are very well known as a fusion artiste. How did you get involved in fusion music?
Sometime after I returned to Sri Lanka, after my four-year foreign tour, I started researching local folk music. As fate would have it, I also met Sarath Fernando, a popular oboe player, who introduced me to Tissa Abeysekara. He invited me to direct music for the Sarasaviya Film Festival in 1987. I directed a fusion music extract titled Kandyan Dance, which was composed by Nimal Mendis. Kandyan Dance was performed with six getabera players, a guitar, and drums.
Tissa Abeysekara was really impressed by the performance and invited me to work with him on his creations. Afterwards I conducted a lot of fusion music concerts such as Image SL. I also formed a fusion band named Khrome in 1988, with Alston Joachim contributing on bass, Shiraz Nuramith on drums and Ravibandu Vidyapathi on the getabera.

Q: This was a new experience in the local music arena. How did the audiences respond to this new trend?
There was a very positive response from the crowds, and that was one of the main reasons which encouraged me to continue. A few years ago, I received the opportunity to perform a fusion music piece at the Sydney Opera house and there was a huge response to the performance. The new trend was accepted by the music lovers.

Q: Could you tell us about your experiences in directing music for films?
I started off with Prasanna Vithanage’s Anantha Rathriya (Dark Night of the Soul). I won the Critics’ Award from the Sri Lanka Film Critics’ Forum for the music direction of Anantha Rathriya in 1996. I also directed the music of Prasanna Vithanage’s Pawuru Walalu (Walls Within), for which I won the Presidential Award for Best Music Direction in 1999 and also the Critics’ Award in 1999. In 2001 I directed the music for Aswasuma by Bennett Rathnayake. I won the award for Best Music Direction at the Sarasaviya Film Festival for Aswasuma in 2002.
The last film for which I directed music was Aksharaya (Letter of Fire) by Ashoka Handagama. It was a very special experience for me since I really enjoyed composing music for that film. I think it was because there were no set of rules that I had to follow while I did my compositions. I was free to compose without any particular element. So, in that music, I brought out some Spanish elements too.

Q: How did you get into composing music for tele-dramas?
I started with directing music for Bennett Ratnayake’s Grahanaya tele-drama. Then, in 1996, I directed the music in Pitagamkarayo, which was directed by Tissa Abeysekara. I used the horanava (local folk oboe) for my compositions in this tele-drama. I won the OCIC Award for Best Music Direction, for Pitagamkarayo in 1996. So far, I have directed music for about 20 tele-dramas.

Q: Among the compositions that you have created so far for tele-dramas and films, which one is your favourite?
I think it would be the compositions I did for Pawuru Walalu, mostly because of the period in which the film was based. The film was set in the ’60s, which is a period of my life that containsvery fond memories. Those days people were happy, not because they were economically sound, but because they had the ability to enjoy the simple things in life. When I was composing music for Pawuru Walalu, it took me back to those times, filled with fond memories.

Q: Could you tell us about your wife? How does she support you?
She is Nirmalie Makalande, and I first met her in the late ’90s. She was an oriental singer and she was also working as a news reader at a radio network. She was studying under me for some time because she was keen on learning Western music. We got married in 2002.

I should emphatically state that I get immense support from her for my music career. When I start composing music there are times when I don’t get up for almost one whole day at a stretch since everything else in the world is distant to me during those times. At times like that she is very supportive and understanding. She understands that this field needs dedication and sacrifice in order to create something remarkable.

Q: You are also very popular as a jazz musician. Given the choice between jazz and fusion, which one would you choose?
I started playing jazz music in 1978, about 30 years ago. I also perform for Jazz Unlimited. But given the choice between jazz and fusion, I would definitely choose fusion because fusion gives me the ability to be myself. Jazz isn’t our own form of music, but fusion gives one the ability to create something new by blending local music instruments with Western instruments.

Q: In the case of the Harsha and Khrome CD, which is your favourite composition of those featured?
It was my debut album which featured my creations and my favourite is Seven Seven Four. I wrote this piece just after my father passed away. I was feeling really empty after his loss and I was having this terrible headache. When I was thinking about it, suddenly I felt a gush of rhythms come into my mind. So the emptiness that I felt was transformed into a melody. That is why I have dedicated it to my father. It is my favourite out of the album.

Q: What inspires you?
The same question was put to Lenard Bernstein, the Conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra. I think that the reply which he gave was the best way of explaining how a musician would be inspired to create a piece of music. The best way is to let go of one’s ego. Bernstein had referred to ego as a membrane in the osmosis process. The thinner the membrane is, the liquid flows to the less concentrated side through it quicker and easier. Likewise, the more we lessen our ego, at least while we are in the course of composing something, a musician or a composer is very easily inspired.

Q: What are your future plans?
Currently I am working on the compositions for my second album and I am planning to release it by next year. I am also composing an opera – Ravana’s Dream. This opera would be produced using a lot of children and Ravibandu Vidyapathi is also playing a major role in it. The reason why I chose this theme was that, while doing research into history, I realised that King Ravana was a true Sri Lankan who he didn’t get the place he deserved in history.

I felt the need to shed some light in that regard and that is why I thought of creating an opera in his name. I have almost finished arranging the music and we have already started practicing the parts. I am hoping to release it by the end of next year. I would also like to take this opportunity to invite youngsters with musical talents to join us in Ravana’s Dream.








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