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Throughout the history of mankind, there have been instances when people embarked on quests and ended up achieving the unexpected. It was one such quest to discover a Sri Lankan identity in an alien land that led students of Berklee College of Music, USA to celebrate Sri Lanka, on the Independence Day 2016. The video titled ‘Berklee Celebrates Sri Lanka’ was recorded in USA and released in Sri Lanka to coincide with the Independence Day.

The project, ‘Berklee Celebrates Sri Lanka’, brought together over 50 performers representing 17 different countries such as The United States of America, Colombia, Luxembourg, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Japan, South Africa, Kenya, the United Kingdom, France, Madagascar, Ecuador, South Korea, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Turkey, all working as one unit to create a musical masterpiece by fusing both old and new musical traditions packaged in the form of a music video to celebrate the rich culture and heritage of Sri Lanka.

Sanchitha Wickremesooriya
Sanchitha Wickremesooriya
Berklee gives culture shock (9)
Shannon Jacob

“February 4th was a very random thing. It is that feeling you get when you arrange a piece of music and hear it play that drove us.  We felt it is perfect for February 4th since 17 different countries come together and it was like a party, which is what Sri Lankan music is all about. We are very happy with the feedback. It was crazy. There were lots of supporting messages and emails,” said Berklee alumnus, Sanchitha Wickremesooriya.

It was the rich cultural diversity of the Berklee College of Music and the relative place of Sri Lankan culture and identity in that great melting pot of cultures, along with the subsequent culture shock that resulted in the conjuring of the project ‘Berklee Celebrates Sri Lanka’ initiated by Sanchitha Wickremesooriya, Shannon Jacob and other students at Berklee College of Music, USA.

“You kind of feel that you are losing your identity and gaining others. At the same time people didn’t know what Sri Lanka is. Everybody thought I am Indian,” shares Sanchitha. “This kind of made me want to show who I am and where I come from, the project came out of my frustration.”

His class on Indian ensemble was educative in more than one way. He got to sing with Contemporary Indian musicians like AR Rahman, Clinton Cerejo and Vijay Prakash. He also had the opportunity to sing to a dance by Indian dancer, Yogini Gandhi.

“Indians work really hard to showcase their culture at Berklee. Indian culture is really big there,” informs Sanchitha. He revealed that the highest viewed video on Berklee channel is an Indian video with 4.5 million views. “This motivated me to go ahead with the project.”

He started working on the project in 2015 August, with the original idea being, bringing the Berklee College of Music to participate in the EDEX Education and Career Fair in 2016.  It certainly was no easy feat. “I had to do a lecture on Sri Lanka to the whole admissions team. It was nerve wrecking, but they loved it.”

According to Sanchitha a western music college has never come down to Sri Lanka to conduct a workshop. “I wanted to give the Sri Lankans a chance to realize the opportunities available for them since I know that there are quite a number of people interested.” Only four Sri Lankans have ever attended Berklee since it was established in 1945.

“Sri Lankans have lot of talent but we are not moving at the pace the world is moving. But the whole point is about going there, studying and coming back to help people here.”

The music video was originally envisioned as a strategy to market the Berklee College of Music to the Sri Lankans. It was originally scheduled to be released in December 2015 as a promotion prior to the EDEX exhibition. He contacted Shannon Jacob, another Berklee Alumni, currently serving in the admissions team, who embraced the project enthusiastically and arranged the baila and papare, a chunk of the music video. “Berklee loved the project proposal, unfortunately they could not make it this year.

However, next year Sri Lanka is a definite maybe.”
It was then decided, to go ahead with the project and release the music video. Shannon arranged the music while logistics, business and raising funds were done by Sanchitha. “It is my friend Thilina from Sri Lanka who picked the songs.” They felt the need for variety in Sri Lankan music in order to showcase Sri Lankan Culture. The video consists of a chant. The original melody of the chant is from the song Avasara ganne ma by Saman Panapitiya from the group Mathra. “We changed the original words to be more inclusive of all the cultures since the original song was Buddhist.” Nalinda Peiris, one of the original members of Nadro, played the drums.

The three dancers in the video are from Boston Conservatory, a dance academy that merged with Berklee College of Music. They were trained by Dilhan Pinnagoda, the Kandyan dancer. Uthpala Eroshan played Gatabere and Dilhan played Yakbere. The baila songs include Irin Josephin by Wally Bastian and Kundumani by Freddie Silva. A workshop was held for students of Berklee prior to the recording by them. Vyoni de Mel of Lakrasa Cuisine provided everybody with Sri Lankan food for the event.

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