Featured image courtesy Bands in Town

The timeless universal language, music?

Not the way I see it… in fact, a musical experience is much more likely to reflect a particular time, place, and way of thinking. But don’t just take my word for it; anybody you ask will probably associate different types of music with specific lifestyles and values. Whether they approve or not is a matter of social conditioning: one person’s baila is a another person’s baila, so to speak. But enough with the abstract thought.

Paved with good intentions, the road to hell

John de Silva probably meant well when he wrote the nurthi musical play Sirisangabo in 1903, subliminally teaching noble Aryan values while promoting modern Arya-Sinhala notions of race, creed, and nation-state, all with a dramatic back-story. Given the end goal to cast off colonial oppression, the justified means included creating links to the past glories of India, through use of Sanskritized Sinhala lyrics, and the importation of the Indian composer Visvanath Lawjee.

One paradox of nationalistic songs all over the world is that they all tend to express similar ideas of patriotism and similar musical preferences (in other words, all national anthems sound like generic national anthems when played by military brass bands). The idea of being part of a system of nation often seems more important than expressing any form of national individuality.

It’s hard to tell whether Ananda Samarakoon’s songs – with their obvious musical debt to Tagore’s Rabindra Sangeet – were trying to express an essential spirit of a potential new nation-state, or were simply reflecting pan-South-Asian anti-colonial sentiments, but they were certainly composed with the best of intentions.

Devar Surya Sena played his part in the anti-colonial movement of cultural nationalism, publicizing John de Silva’s songs – including a song named Danno Budunge, from Sirisangabo – as printed sheet-music in the form of Indian musical notation. He too, must have meant well when he adapted Rev. Senior’s inclusive Christian lyrics (titled “Hymn to Ceylon”) to an arrangement of the tune of Danno Budunge, harmonized like a Christian hymn.

In hindsight, manufacturing South Asian group identities was a great way to demonstrate solidarity against the British, but maybe the colonial powers had the last laugh after all; as they knew all too well, reinforcing group identities was a great way to divide people against themselves.

Fast-forwarding a few years, we might assume that the Ceylon government of 1961 had the country’s best interests in mind when they changed the lyrics of Samarakoon’s “Namo Namo Matha” to “Sri Lanka Matha” (in the Sinhala and Tamil versions sung in different parts of the country – before it was even named “Sri Lanka”), because the astrologically inauspicious “surya” syllable-combination “na-mo-na” was thought to be contributing towards political instability.

In case I haven’t made it obvious yet, the choices made in creating, promoting, performing, and liking songs are never simply a matter of personal musical taste. Also, good intentions don’t necessarily lead to greater good. A quick google search for “Danno Budunge” and “Sri Lanka national anthem”, will reveal the extent to which the good intentions of long-gone anti-colonial song-writers have resulted in more social division than, say, the current opinions of the Finance Minister or the UNHRC.

But enough speaking ill of the dead. Even among the living, we have people who mean well when they attribute Danno Budunge to the German opera composer Richard Wagner, and claim that the national anthem had been sung in two languages at independence.

Repeating history, disguised as learning from it

My thoughts here are not intended for those who actively propagate racist views (I’m writing in English, for Groundviews), but rather aimed at self-identified moderates and anti-racists who aggressively condemn such racism. I should mention that I don’t expect my musical opinions to be more valid than anyone else’s, just because I’m a trained musician. One great thing about music is that it can mean many different things to many different people. The only preaching credential I claim today is that fact that I’ve spent a few minutes checking my facts, and questioning things that I thought I knew.

Over the last few weeks, the claim has re-surfaced that the tune of “Danno Budunge” is from a composition by German opera composer Richard Wagner. This of course has been directly used to justify the song being sung in an operatic style, in response to accusations of cultural betrayal. Indirectly, the idea betrays a preference for western classical music and its associated class-based cultural values. But while this claim is easily contested (the tune is not found in any of Wagner’s compositions, and it displays melodic characteristics more easily attributed to India than to Germany), its truth is of less consequence than its implications. One such implication being that the people who criticized the opera-style version of the song are ignorant, uncultured idiots. Another being that recognition in the west is a sign of universal quality. Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned, musical taste is associated with specific values (regardless of whether nurthi songs were originally sung with vibrato), and facebook commentators were quick to allude to Hitler’s preference for Wagner, as well as poke fun at all the justifications based on international recognition. It’s not particularly surprising that proponents of Sinhala ethno-nationalism would be insulted by comparisons to the West – especially concerning a song which from it inception was embedded with anti-colonial Arya-Sinhala values -, but I find it puzzling as to why educated people promoting social tolerance think it’s a good idea to invoke the West as a standard of quality in the first place.

Cyberspace has also been abuzz with arguments for and against singing the national anthem in two languages, with both sides of the debate regurgitating streams of historical “facts”, as if a precedent is always a great reason to do something. That these “facts” are often misrepresented (e.g. the case of “Namo Namo Matha” being sung in Sinhala and Tamil in 1949, ignoring the fact that it wasn’t yet the official anthem), is of less significance than the implication that people with opposing views aren’t worth listening to.

Appeasing demons, reconciling inequalities

It’s always easy to demonize traditional wisdom whilst secure in the superiority of our progressive ways. Colonial missionaries, 19th century Buddhist revivalists, and 20th century anthropologists did just that when they labelled traditional forms of healing rituals as “devil dancing”, degrading them as superstitions not suited to the rationality of the modern age. And yet, traditional Sri Lankan ritual practices derive from a sophisticated belief system, based on ideas concerned with balancing different forms of energies. To achieve this balance, malevolent influences are appeased through cathartic strategies of song, dance, and comedy, in addition to offerings and invocations. A key concept here is the attempt to control the malevolent energies through flattery and empathy (rather than chasing them away with aggressive criticism).

Racist ideologies have many root causes; however, perceived threats to a fragile hand-to-mouth existence play a large role in the spread of such ideas. People in such circumstances are also less likely to have had the privilege of an education which encourages seeing things from different points of view (a.k.a. empathy). It should therefore come as no surprise when lower-income masses support the political scapegoating of ethnic and religious minorities. What is less understandable is why many of the educated middle-class, who have had the privilege of being exposed to multiple viewpoints, insist on demonizing racist opinions with shaming tactics, effectively shutting down any possibility of reasoned dialogue. This of course results in the ostracized racist ideas solidifying into hardline doctrine.

Alternatively, I suggest that we can learn a few things from the healing strategies of traditional rituals. When Sri Lanka’s inter-communal “getting-along” factor is in a state of imbalance due to a history of power inequalities, and when negative forces threaten to further disrupt the social eco-system, is it not worth trying to “appease” the negative forces by asking about what’s really bothering them? Before we criminalize racism, and create more hidden resentment in the process, could we not inquire into the root causes that allow top-down racist propaganda to be so easily reproduced on bumper-stickers? If we truly care about processes of social reconciliation, then I think we should at least consider the possibility of employing empathetic dialogue with all involved. “But those idiots won’t listen to us!”. That may turn out to be true anyway, but there’s certainly be no doubt about it if we continue to call them idiots, in English.

Keeping it simple, branding national culture

“We are just as unique as everyone else” seems to be the ironic motto of those who perform and promote cultural heritage on the world stage. One unfortunate side-effect of this is that the branding of cultural heritage is often reduced to majoritarian stereotypes. While we have come a long way from the “Wild Men of Ceylon” devil-dancing exhibits which toured the European “human zoo” circuit in the early 1900s, the tendency to brand Sri Lankan culture in terms of Sinhala traditions still prevails, even among the most tolerant-minded of Sri Lankans. We all do things with the best of intentions, whether we think we’re looking out for ourselves, our perceived race, our perceived nation, or our imagined global community, but we can all find room for improvement if we don’t want to alienate people by accident. To the extent that musical choices can symbolize values of inclusion (or exclusion), I’d like to encourage Sri Lankan musicians to experiment even more. Maybe next time Kishani can include some Sri Lankan Tamil folk songs at Independence day celebrations. Maybe Berklee College of Music’s next video celebrating Sri Lanka can include instruments, rhythms, dances, and lyrics associated with Sri Lankan minority cultures as well. Otherwise keeping things simple can make ideas memorable, unfortunately.