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Sunday, 11 March 2012





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Signature of Sri Lankan female voice:

Inimitable musical personality

Music fills the infinite between two souls - Rabindranath Tagore

Deviating a little from the continuing series of columns on Sinhala literature, in this week’s column I examine the unique musical personality in Neela Wickremasinghe who marks her 45th year in the field of music and her singular contribution to the field of music in the post-independent Sri Lanka in general and representing unique Sri Lankan female voice in particular.

Neela Wickremasinghe’s trailblazing career in music should be studied against the backdrop of socio-political evolution particularly in the immediate aftermath of independence. Neela occupies a seminal position in the evolution of Sri Lankan music and successive attempts made by pioneers such as W.B Makuloluwa and Lionel Ranwala in the revival of indigenous music in general and folk music in particular. Particularly W.D Makuloluwa researched extensively in the repository of Sri Lankan rich folk songs and folk music and introduced them to formal music education.

Signature voice

Having mastered the North Indian classical music, Neela Wickremasinghe entered the field with the song Dethata Valalu. C de S Kulatilake wrote the lyric for the song and composed music for it. The song Dethata Valalu was a result of research on Sri Lankan folk songs and folk music. Neela contributed to a series of programs such as Meyasiya produced by the SLBC‘s Music Research Unit under C. de S Kulatilake.

What is noteworthy is that Neela converted the semitone in folk songs into refined notes deriving the folk music motifs from the original folk song. It is pertinent to look at the originality of tones in folk songs and the difference in folk music. The original folk songs are outside the traditional keyboard or piano and obviously the originality of folk music motifs lie in those semitones which cannot be reproduced using traditional instruments of music. What C. de S Kulatilake did was to measure up those semitones outside the octave using cents system introduced by ethnomusicologist Alexander John Ellis and got the nearest tone on the keyboard to convert folk songs into folk music in refined tones.

Cents system

In 1885, Alexander John Ellis introduced the Cents system in a paper entitled ‘The musical scales of various nations’ at a meeting in London of the Society of Arts. At the end Ellis received the Society’s Silver medal, a distinguished award. With the aid of live demonstrations, Ellis offered detailed statistical data by means of his recent device, cents system, a system which allowed the precise delineation of the pitch measurements expressed as hundredths of an equally-tempered semitone.

Until Elis works, individual pitches and the intervals between them were more typically described by means of frequency measurements like A=440 (vibrations per second). Precise enough for representation of individual pitches, frequency measurements are unsuitable for the study of whole systems because frequency increases from the lowest to the highest tone, doubling with each octave. The researchers cannot describe intervals in general using vibrations per second, since the same interval has a different reading each time it occurs across the whole pitch spectrum. By contrast, the cents system divided the octave into 1,200 cents, 100 for each equal-tempered semitone. Algebraic mathematics was used to factor out the problem of frequency; now any interval was fixed in numerical representation, irrespective of its specific pitch level.

What is obvious is that Neela Wickremasinghe established her signature Sri Lankan female voice with the song Dathata Valalu with folk music motifs. Apart from the song becoming an instant hit, it marked a vital juncture not only in Neela Wickramasinghe’s career in music but also in the application of folk music in popular domain. The song, among other things, demonstrated that diverse sources of music could be used in the production of popular music and songs. Although Neela, subsequently, rendered her voice to repertoire of songs under diverse directors of music, she always represents her signature female voice which, over the years, has become part and parcel of her inimitable musical personality.

At home in many traditions

A prominent factor that distinguishes Neela Wickremasinghe from most of the Sri Lankan contemporary songstresses is her ability to be at home in diverse traditions. Comparing her songs such as Suusetabaranin Saraseela, Daskon Saki Sanda (which is a duet with W.D.Ameradeva) and Parameedam puramu Api dedena, one can observes that those songs derived their music motifs from diverse sources and traditions of music.

In rendering her voice, it is obvious, that Neela Wickremasinghe has extensively used her knowledge of North Indian classical music and diverse techniques. She markedly deviates from folk music tradition she was initially trained in, in rendering her voice to the song Parameedam puramu Api dedena. However, Neela uses entirely different technique in songs such as Master Sir. Nimal Mendis directed music for the song. In rendering her voice to Parameedam puramu Api dedena , Neela demonstrated her mastery in diverse traditions of music; significantly she deviates from folk music, North Indian classical music and even the popular song’s structure. In this instance, Neela maintains her signature voice by being faithful to the expectation of the song. In other words, she has devised a technique to achieve the expected objectives of the song.

Psychoacoustic effect

Generating sound perceptions in the minds of the listeners in addition to creating a zest is a rare attribute of a talented singer. It has been observed that many singers though they have been trained in North Indian classical music, have often failed to psychoacoustic effect on the minds of the listeners. Neela Wickremasinghe is unique in the sense that each and every song that she rendered her voice to has generated zest leading to the generation of sound perceptions.

Exploiting the emotional and sentimental properties of a melody is a salient feature that Neela identified herself with. For instance, in songs such as Daskon Saki sanda Ikman Gamanin, Neela’s voice evokes ancient sound perceptions associated with the legend. Fluent in North Indian classical music, Neela Wickremasinghe sports attribute of a well-trained Hindi singer yet with characteristic Sri Lankan female voice. Neela will celebrate 45 years in the field of Sri Lankan music when she holds her sole concert Master Sir on March 17 at the Nelum Pokuna, Mahinda Rajapaksa Performing Arts Theatre.



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