‘They use minimal instruments without drowning out the vocals. Their vocal ranges have done total justice to the original songs. Their taste in music and objective is clear by their choice of songs they use for cover versions. Youth who are dedicated towards quality in music, not only will sustain the industry and the fans, but contribute to the continuity of Sinhala music.’
That’s high praise coming from Palitha Perera, a former Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation Sinhala Service Director. The trailer done by Palitha Perera for Youtube-based band Api Machan is testimony to the band’s reach in Sri Lankan society. Since the day Palitha Perera joined SLBC in 1963 till the day he retired as the Director of the Sinhala Service he was only exposed to songs of superior quality which is why he was averse to the inferior quality songs that blare over bus speakers. The love-begging and laments that FM radio stations and concerts churn out in the form of song has resulted in a general deterioration of taste and quality in Sinhala music.
You discover their music in stages. Like the good old Sinhala classic where you notice the discreet Tabla part or the onomatopoeic drum beat, that mimic a bullock cart, you notice only on your 10th listen. There are layers upon layers of vocals and music. But in their case, with video to boot, the surprise is two-fold. The videos catch the subtle shrug or the ghost of a smile when they sing ‘Sinaha wewi sinaha wewi kal gewanna ba’ or the mischief in his eyes when another sings ‘Dangakara oya desa’.
By the time the Nation interviewed Youtube-based band Api Machan, their online video channel was 9000 plus strong and growing.
Their first choice for a name was Machan. “We’d always say Api Machan will sing this song like this, Api Machan will play this guitar part here, play cymbal there” said Dhanushka Edirisingha. Thus they ended up naming their Youtube-based band Api Machan.
“There were a lot of commercial songs going around that lacked depth. Even if we did a quality song of our own it would have got lost in the midst of all that,” said band manager Madawa Hewawasam, aged 39.
Besides, creating something of their own at the time would have meant that they would have to go commercial, spending thousands of rupees on production and promotion. “It came to a point that our own kids would sing these commercial songs at school,” he said.
Video Director, Thiwanka Mihiran, aged 27, explained why they picked Subhawitha Geetha (superior quality songs) to make covers on. “Subhawitha Geetha conveyed emotion through word and music”, he said. “The artiste didn’t have to wail like a woman to get a point across. Now artistes cry on video or sing crying to evoke pathos.”
Crude video are another trend that aims to capitalize on human requirement for exposure to sexual material. “Sri Lanka is on top of the list of countries that Google the word sex. Val (crude) videos cater to this market. If this trend continues all we’ll have left will be mal songs with Val video (crude),” said Mihiran.
“It’s a trend. If Chakithaya by nemes is became a hit it would have set a trend of its own and we’d all be listening to rock,” said Dhanushka.
Madawa explained that people listen to these songs as they have no other choice. They first wanted to create a fan base with superior taste. “We wanted to set our own trend,” said Dhanushka. “The more commercial songs were released the more audience taste deteriorates. We had to engage at least two hours of the listeners’ time to get them hooked, putting out enough content for at least two hours was our initial target. Our purpose was to detox the listeners by making available as many quality songs as possible,” admitted Madawa.
And indeed watching their videos while listening to their voices is mesmerizing. The songs they sing are often originally sung by a single singer and Madawa is a master at picking out lines for each member to sing. He is always spot-on when it comes to judging whose voice fits which line in the song, says the rest of the group. The result is great chemistry where no single voice vies for attention over another. Their Youtube channel is peppered with praise that their songs are like ‘a drop of water in a desert full of crap songs’.
“I’ve often been subject to Madawa’s abuse when we sing,” says Dhanushka Edirisingha, aged 34. He’s a guy with a Western accent and voice. In fact, the story behind how and why they were picked is particularly interesting.
“I picked Dhanushka because he had a Western voice and accent. And it’s natural, not contrived. Anyone can sing in a fake Western accent. But this is the real thing,” said Madawa.
In fact, it is Dhanushka’s reverberating hum that gives new meaning to the song ‘Mihirethi Wasantha Kale’.
Nisal Sutheekshana, aged 24, who was in the first 16 in the Derana Dream Star Season 6, is the flirty voice and no doubt, the face that most fans identify the group with. His stage presence goes a long way in most Api Machan videos. “Singing alone is not enough,” said Nisal. “You have to perform to grab audience attention.”
They wanted the voice of a druggie in the group and Harsha Withanage, aged 27, was their best pick. His beautiful base voice lends a new lease of life to Aradhana by Maestro Pandith Amaradewa. He also came fourth in Sirasa Super Star Season 6. Both he and Dhanushka have trained under Kasun Kalhara. He has also trained under Kemadasa Master when he was in grade 10. Next up is Norman Fernando, aged 37, with a knack for imitating the voice of the original artiste. As a result, he sounds different in every single cover. He also has looks to boot, that most female fans would swoon over.
Manuja Mahawattha, 24, is the icing on the cake after he was placed third on Derana Dream Star and can handle any variation. “He is like the bread that keeps the filling together,” said Madawa.
Madawa had faith that their videos would catch on, that they would garner a following of those who fell through the cracks of the commercial song culture. “Radios target the 15 to 30 age group. No one plays for 40s and 50s. This was our market in the beginning for people who stopped listening to songs because there were no songs of their taste,” revealed Madawa.
But, they were in for a surprise. According to Youtube analytics the bulk of their listeners are between 25 to 35 years.
Surprisingly, the majority of their fan base is made up of Sri Lankans domiciled overseas. “Only 48 per cent are home Sri Lankans and 52 per cent are Sri Lankans living all over the world,” revealed Madawa. Over nine per cent listening to their Youtube channel are from Australia.
Their deviation from commercial songs to Sinhala classics have been received well by their fans. “There’s nothing bad or wrong about commercial songs.
There’s just too many,” said Dhanushka. “Nobody makes an effort to deviate from the trend,” chipped in Madawa. “They only try to capitalize on the existing market.”
The disclaimer and information about the original artistes at the beginning of every cover is testimony to their genuine effort to acknowledge the rightful owners to all the songs they perform on video. They first attempted to get the rights of the songs but they were treated with suspicion. “Most of the original artistes thought we’d use this to make money,” said Madawa.
He claimed that they do not make money out of any of the covers they perform. “We don’t make any money out of Youtube. We don’t do gigs or weddings. It’s absolutely unfair for anyone to object”, said Madawa.
Madawa said that if they ever go commercial, they’ll make sure to pay the original artistes’ royalty. “Even if we play at a private function we will pay royalty”, he said.
When asked if they ever plan to throw in a female voice to the mix, Api Machan members snickered in unison perhaps because most of their Youtube followers, including girls, have warned them of the many dangers of throwing a girl in the mix. “Some have said that we would market better if we get a girl,” said Dhanushka. “Maybe we would, not as a permanent member, but perhaps we’ll feature.” After all, Boy Zone wouldn’t be Boy Zone if they took in a girl.
Their reggae remake of Adel’s Hello is the only oddball in their playlist. Any plans to change their genre and maybe move on to rap or hip hop? “We might not do hip hop and Jazz requires more discipline in the way of music theory. We might go into more upbeat songs, without changing the elements of our existing style”, said Dhanushka.
When asked whether this would affect their fan base, Thiwanka assured that they will not abandon what they are doing. “We will explore other genres while we continue what we’re doing right now”, he said.
Some fans are of the opinion that they should stick to doing cover versions instead of doing their own songs.
“Some original artistes accuse us of using their songs to earn money,” said Madawa. “They can’t fathom anyone pouring money into something that brings in no money. We do it because it’s our hobby.”
Their video locations vary from streams, beaches, mountain tops and school class rooms to dilapidated buildings. Whatever the location, their videos never fail to sooth the mind. Aerial footage has been shot using drones. “But that’s because flying drones is Dhanushka’s hobby”, said Madawa who explained that making music their way is like having an expensive hobby. “Nobody funds us and we don’t get any money in return”, he said.
When asked about how much a video costs, Madawa said: “We don’t set out to make a video. We actually go on a trip. And in the end if we feel like making a few videos, we do it. We set out to make about five videos, we came back with two.”
Having a three time President’s Award winning short film cinematographer on board should certainly help. Thiwanka is a professional Cinematographer, the man behind the much loved Youtube videos. He obtained his Higher National Diploma in Design at Sri Lanka National Design Institute in Katubedda, Moratuwa. He also has sound engineering training and a design diploma.
“We have never spent Lakhs on a single video,” revealed Madawa. They are still tweaking their newest original ‘Me nagaraya aluth wela’ previously slotted for Valentine’s Day release. “We sometimes tweak covers for weeks for perfection”, said Madawa who added that a few original projects are in the pipeline.
Sound recording is done in Madawa’s small studio. Some of their equipment is ten years old. “My sound card is the cheapest in Sri Lanka,” said Madawa.
“Some studios spend millions on a single production,” said Dhanushka. “They achieve their quality with expensive equipment and analog technology. Madawa gets it playing it by ear.” Of course, Madawa does not like to be disturbed during sound recording.
Madawa maintained that they try to make the videos as realistic as possible right down to the clothes they wear and to the instruments they play. In fact, a salient feature in all their videos is that the music does not drown out the songs.
“We use minimal instruments,” says Madawa.
Often the same instruments they play in videos are used in music tracks, with the addition of the piano and pads.
Api Machan has already received invitations from other countries. They assured that the band will always strive to maintain standards. When asked whether they have confidence to perform live on stage, Madawa said that they will continue to function as a Youtube band, but might do semi live performances, where they play a few instruments with a backing track.
Pics by Chamila Karunarathne