The heat was killing me as I drove down R.A de Mel Mawatha in Bambalapitiya in search of rock artiste Prasanna Abeysekera’s residence. Prasanna’s instructions given to me the other day to find his residence gave me a hint of what he is made of. He gave all indication that he was sure of himself with regard to which direction he was going in life. The word meticulous would best describe the mental map he drew in my mind about where he lived. A little maneuvering on R. A de Mel Mawatha, a few toots of my horn coupled with a change in lane and presto! I was there in no time.
He hadn’t aged much from the last photograph I saw of him. This man can confuse you if you make an attempt to guess his age. But one thing was certain. He welcomed me into his residence with all the hospitality possible. I could feel it as I settled myself on a divan and he in a moon chair. I was all excited to begin an interview with one of Sri Lanka’s pioneer rock n’ roll musicians and so was my photographer friend Sassanda. This is yet another personality in the series ‘Different Strokes’ who is self-made and is not a campus product.
He said he was crazy about rock n’ roll music as a kid and listened to records on this kind of music whenever a rare opportunity came his way to do so. The first phase of his life was as a schoolboy at Royal College. He was labelled as a model kid by his school teachers. But he changed drastically as his kid years came to an end and teenage years took a grip of his life. That’s the time when the Hippie culture was gaining momentum. He was bitten by the hippie ‘bug’. That bite was so infectious that he started following their lifestyle. He said that he began taking dope as a result and terms the experience, now a part of his lifestyle, as something positive. “Dope puts me in touch with the real world,” he explained while adding, “Most people are on auto drive”.
In 1976 he started a band called Cancer with his friends. “We played our own music. We didn’t want to play songs by other musicians. We wanted to have a good time and make a lot of noise. I think it is safe to say we were the first band in Sri Lanka to play our own rock n’ roll music,” said Prasanna whose expertise is playing the guitar.
As he talks I study his face. It’s pleasant, but there is a sort of an invisible hand between him and me that he has created. He gives me the indication that he is a very private person. My photographer clicks away pictures and Prasanna suddenly turns towards the camera. “Don’t you think you’ve taken enough pictures? The clicking sound of the camera and flash are all becoming a disturbance now. If you have a telephoto lens you can go to a distance, mute the sound of the camera and take more pictures,” he said.
The clicking of the camera stopped. We continued our chat. “I never did a job. Even my music never brought me income. I was lucky to have a wife who was employed,” recalled Prasanna. He remembered his first rock n’ roll show. It was sponsored by his own sister and human rights activist Sunila Abeysekera and one of her friends.
The music that his band Cancer produced went well with the crowds. He recalled how he and his friends would hire Lionel Wendt and have shows where tickets were priced at Rs 5 or 10. “We got more crowds than now for our rock n’ roll shows,” he said.
Other more ambitious musicians at present are associated with music to make money. As for Prasanna he does it to express himself. He likens his association with music to someone taking his daily dose of medicine. “If you become a professional musician you’ve had it. There is a good chance then that music can get boring because then you’ll play requests by fans and not get to play the songs you like,” said Prasanna as he explained why he remains an amateur.
He had no regrets when he said that the band Cancer ceases to exist. At present he plays for a band called Sakwala Chakraya which comprises young musicians. As for Prasanna he is now more into playing blues music. When others blame the wind, this is a guy who adjusts the sails in his life’s boat.