Dr. Sumudi Suraweera | ( Pic by Ravindra Dharmathilake)

Sri Lankan born Dr. Sumudi Suraweera, from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand talks to The Nation about his research on Sri Lankan Low-country traditional drumming

Sri Lanka is one of the few countries with a very vast and rich cultural diversity. The culture is itself very unique and thereby contributes to the Sri Lankan identity. Ancient customs, traditions and rituals hold great significance. Among these Bali, Thovil, and Shanthi Karma have been an integral part of Sri Lankan culture from pre-Buddhist era, which nurtured dark arts for thousands of years. Although, even if the remains of such rituals are practiced in almost all parts of the country, its survival is not guaranteed.

Notebook-of-an-achieverThese rituals are believed to serve specific purposes. Based on this point, one may argue whether it’s righteous to practice these rituals without a specific cause. “In fact this is one of the major criticisms we get,” says the founder of the Båliphonics group Dr. Sumudi Suraweera. Båliphonics presents the music of the low-country Båli ritual tradition of Sri Lanka in a sublime collaboration with contemporary jazz and improvisation. Båliphonics group is a part of Musicmatters collective. Established in 2010, Musicmatters introduced an alternative model for Western music education in Sri Lanka.

Bali, Thovil, and Shanthi Karma have been an integral part of the island’s culture and even if the remains of such rituals are practiced its survival is not guaranteed

“I’m not sure how practical it is to watch these rituals and the rich music components which come along with it being forgotten. Our attempts are not to reenact these rituals, but attempt to save the components we can save.  This is not to degrade the values of these rituals,” he said. “If the rituals die, music in it will die with it,” he emphasized.
Fusion between Sri Lankan traditional music and Western Jazz music, as Sumudi said, is the way he is trying to find his identity. Young Sumudi moved to New Zealand with his parents when he was 13 years old. While he was in Sri Lanka he was a student of Colombo D S Senanayake College.  Even though they moved to a foreign country, Sumudi said that his family always embraced the Sri Lankan culture. As a child he always adored music, and this was the reason behind why he chose music as his field of study following his strong passion towards music in high school and university.

He said that he adored jazz music and recognized that he expressed himself at best with jazz drumming. Suraweera obtained his PhD in the discipline of ethnomusicology in 2010 from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand focusing his research on Sri Lankan Low-Country traditional drumming.

Speaking about the research he carried out he paid his respects to his main consultant for the research, late Sandoris Jayantha Gurunnanse. He also remembered maestro Piyasara Shilpadhipathi who supported him throughout his research work. As he said, limited resources were one of the main challenges he faced in collecting information. ‘It was not a simple process,’ he said pointing out that this is also a reason why these rituals should be preserved without waiting.

Baliphonics performance at the Jaffna Music Fest |  (Pic by Sakuna  M Gamage)
Baliphonics performance at the Jaffna Music Fest | (Pic by Sakuna M Gamage)

Båliphonics was also initiated with Sumudi’s research studies.  As a Sri Lankan who grew up in New Zealand, he believes that he has adapted to the diversities of both cultures. Although he grew up among New Zealanders, his passion for his mother country didn’t die. He reiterated that what he does now, is a reflection of his identity nurtured by two countries. Båliphonics group itself is a representation of this fusion. Two brothers, Susantha and Prashantha Rupathilake voice traditional chanting for the music provided by Isaac Smith and Dr. Sumudi Suraweera with double bass and the drum kit respectively.
Sumudi fondly remembered Eshantha Pieris, cofounder of Musicmatters who is currently abroad studying for his doctorate, who used to play the piano for Båliphonics. Smith, who has volunteered at Musicmatters as an instructor since 2010, is Sumudi’s colleague from New Zealand. He said that, Smith too is now well adapted to the Sri Lankan culture that he is quite absorbed in it.

Båliphonics has also performed outside Sri Lankan context at several occasions. They have toured in Malaysia and Singapore with this novel form of Sri Lankan traditional music and Sumudi is content about the feedback they’ve received. “Båliphonics were very well received and they were mesmerized by our performances,” he said adding that our traditional performances are sometimes seen magical in the foreign context.

Båliphonics, recently performed at the Jaffna Music Festival, succeeded in mesmerizing those gathered at the Jaffna Municipal Grounds too. Although the performance at the Jaffna Music Fest was time bound, he said that a usual performance of Baliphonics takes more than one hour and that it has a nice flow that encapsulates the audience.

Musicmatters’ main responsibility is the music institution located in Borella, where they conduct music programs for children to enhance their individuality and ensemble performances with a touch of theoretical knowledge. Since its inception, Musicmatters has earned a reputation for its enjoyable and practical approach to music providing its students with the opportunity to be creative and innovative. In contrast with the local music curriculum, Sumudi mentioned that students of Musicmatters are assessed for their creativity more than their theoretical knowledge.

“Our method goes beyond the traditional exam-oriented education system,” he explained while explaining how their students are assessed by their performance at the end. Speaking further about the music curriculums in the country, he criticized the local music curriculum for lack the spontaneity and creativity. As he said, “Music offers a lot more than other forms of entertainment and is transferrable to other components of education”. This is why building creativity and spontaneity in children is important.

Other than the music institute and the Baliphonics, Sumudi considers organizing the annual Musicmatters music festival as an important duty of the collective.  This year Musicmatters festival will be held in August for the fourth consecutive time.  Sumudi explaining the goal behind organizing this festival said that it’s done with the aim of promoting Sri Lankan music in the western world as well as to expose the Sri Lankan audience to music that is generally not accessible through mainstream media.  Various artistes from Germany, Australia, Singapore and United States of America will be among the usual participants.

“Our hope is to give Sri Lankans some kind of inspiration through this to be open to what they weren’t open before. And ultimately open up their minds in whatever the field of work they are engaged in, to challenge their accepted notions and to strengthen their thinking,” Sumudi iterated that experiencing various forms of music can inspire an individual to think outside the box.