Inheriting the gift of music
Q: Could you describe your childhood?
A: 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?
A: 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
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
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.
You are very well known as a fusion artiste. How did you get
involved in fusion music?
A: 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?
A: 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
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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.