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Unrivalled talents and technique acumen :

The celestial voice that bears the tonal signature

Master Sir Concert

Master Sir, a solo concert by Neela Wickremasinghe to mark 45 years in the field of music as a singer composer, will be held on March 17 at 6 p.m. at the Nelum Pokuna, Mahinda Rajapaksa Performing Arts Theatre, Colombo 7. Neela will sing duets with Dr. Victor Ratnayake, Somathilaka Jayamaha, Amal Perera, Kapila Herath and Kamal Addaraarachchi.

Analysing Neela Wickremasinghe’s career which marks seminal developments in the field of Sri Lankan music in the post-independent Sri Lanka, a striking trait that one could distinguish in her is her sheer mastery in diverse traditions of music and the spectrum of her tonal mosaic.

Her voice which bears a signature Sri Lankan female voice, at the same time, possessing the properties of a versatile South Asian singer, has been employed with facility in songs which music motifs were derived from diverse sources of music and equally diverse musical traditions.

Throughout her trailblazing career, Neela preserves her signature Sri Lankan female voice, particularly when she sings songs with Western melodies. At such times, she is extraordinary in her ability not to be influenced by Western, Hindustani or folk music motifs. The modus oprandi of her orchestration seems that she wanted to be faithful to the expectation of the song and to exploit to the maximum the sentimental and emotional properties of the melody, thereby, generating zest and sound perceptions in the minds of listeners.

The ability on the part of a singer to generate sound perceptions in the minds of listeners is a rare attribute which most singers lack although they have been trained in the North Indian classical music. She is at best, in adapting semitones in folk songs, thus, converting them into folk music with refined notes.

One of the principal attributes in Neela Wickremasinghe’s voice, among Sri Lankan singers, is her signature Sri Lankan female voice. This is a unique trend in her voice which is amply manifested in her repertoire of songs irrespective of their sources of music; Western, Hindustani classical music or traditional folk music. Her unique Sri Lankan identity can be attributed to her initial training in Sri Lanka’s rich tradition of folk music with its singular tone mosaics.

A significant feature of Neela Wickremasinghe’s career in the field of music is that she entered the field following her studies and training in North Indian classical music unlike most of the singers who either studied North Indian classical music after the commencement of their careers or while in the field as singers.

Cents System

On March 25,1885, a 71- year-old Englishman, Alexander John Ellis read a paper ‘on the musical scales of various nations’ at a meeting of the Society of Arts in London. 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's work, individual pitches and the intervals between them were more typically described by means of frequency measurements such as 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.

These are the notes that C.de S Kulatilake measured up using Cents Systems. When a talented singer such as Neela Wickremasinghe renders her voice to a creation based on folk songs, she has to stick to refined notes.

In such instances, it is not the folk song that is being recreated but the folk music. In the exercise of converting folk song into an orderly-organised music, Neela was extremely successful. Neela’s success was due to her training in North Indian classical music and her ability to apply her knowledge for creations.

Milestone

Neela Wickremasinghe’s commencement of her career as a singer can be traced back to the days when the SLBC’s Music Research Unit under C.de S Kulathilake produced a series of programs on Sinhala folk music. Neela contributed to the research programs on Sinhala folk music and programs such as Meyasiya. Rendering her voice to the song ‘Dethata Valalu’ , a song based on Sinhala folk music, is a milestone in her career.

C. de S Kulathilake wrote the lyrics of the song and composed the music for it. In addition to becoming an instant hit, the song Dethata Valalu’ established Neela Wickremasinghe’s signature as a unique Sri Lankan female voice.

Significantly, she has applied refined notes that she had mastered in North Indian classical music, for research on Sinhala folk music. One may argue whether it is possible to reproduce the original form of Sinhala folk songs in terms of refined notes of North Indian music. The original Sinhala folk music motifs are in the notes outside the traditional keyboard.

Pix by Ranga Chandrarathne

C.de S Kulathilake measured the notes outside the traditional keyboard or octave according to theCents System and got the nearest key in the keyboard thus converting folk song into folk music.

Following the success of the song, Neela Wickremasinghe had the opportunity of rendering her voice to many songs and creations at the hands of different directors of music. Significantly, she was able to apply her voice to the popular song’s structure without ever being influenced by folk motifs with which she commenced her career.

The popular song’s structure is a marked deviation from folk music and is altogether a different turf. Comparing the songs Suusetabaranin Saraseela, Daskon Saki Sanda which she sang with W.D Ameradeva, Parameedam puramu Api dedena is an entirely different song. In Parameedam Puramu Api Denna, Neela Wickremasinghe aptly adapts her knowledge of North Indian classical music to suit the melody line.

In this instance, she deviates from folk music that she was initially trained under C. de S Kulatilake. When rendering her voice to songs such as Master Sir, for which Nimal Mendis composed music, Neela Wickremasinghe deviates from all three music motifs; folk music, North Indian Classical music and popular song’s structure. Neela retains her signature by being faithful to the expectation of the song.

According to musicology, generating zest would lead to the generation of psychoacoustic effect on the minds of the listener. For instance, popular songs may generate zest but they may not create sound perceptions in mind.

Neela Wickremasinge’s songs have the properties of generating zests and also generating sound perceptions in the minds of the listeners. She achieves this by intrinsic properties of her gifted voice and her ability to apply her knowledge of music in the practical context. It is a home truth that there are many singers who have studied North Indian classical music but fail to sing so as to generate sound perceptions in the minds of the listeners.

Voice colour with superfluities

Voice and the voice colour vary from one singer to another. Although almost all singers may have individual voices and voice colour, there are only a few of them whose voice and voice colours are exceptional in terms of musicology. Neela Wickremasinghe has one such trained and learned voice with an incomparable voice colour.

A distinguishing attribute of her voice colour is her ability to sing direct notes with some embellishments borrowed from Sri Lankan traditional folk music. Though her voice bears a typical Sri Lankan female voice, it has been trained in the Hindustani classical music tradition and she is at home with Sri Lankan folk traditions, Hindustani tradition and Western music traditions.

The folk motifs in her voice are manifested in some songs such as Suuseta Baranin Saraseela. She bears the same tonality in songs such as Master Sir, Apa Hamunovena Hemanthe, Viyo Gee Gayena hade, though their melodies are based on Western music.

Neela maintains her unique Sri Lankan female voice while sticking to their Western music melody.

Although Neela’s voice colour may seem to be almost equal to that of Sujatha Attanayake for a fan, the two voices are distinctly different from oneanother. Beyond doubt, Sujatha Attanayake is the best female vocalist with the widest tonal range and ability to apply North Indian Classical music techniques like Gamak, Than, Meend, and singing styles such as Khayal, Dhrupad, Tharana and Dhamar. One of the factors that Neela’s voice becomes unique is that she sharpened her voice and established herself in the then Radio Ceylon by singing experimental songs under the guidance of C. de S Kulatilake who experimented with Sri Lankan folk music and principally derived his music motifs from folk tradition of music. Songs such as Dathata Walalu and Badde Vatata were creations based on folk tradition of music. Neela Wickremasinghe’s voice was the most suited for songs based on folk music.

In the song Daskon Saki sanda Ikman Gamanin, Neela’s voice evokes the legend behind the song. This is also owing to her voice’s singular Sri Lankan-ness. Though she is well trained in Hindustani classical music and sang classical as well as semi classical songs, her stress seems to be on keeping the sweet tonality of her voice rather than the application of some of the techniques in singing.

For instance, the tonality of her voice can be seen in some of the songs such as in the duet Harimi Rajasapa which she sang with maestro Dr. W.D Ameradeva. In every melody, Neela tries to bring about a soothing effect by using her voice colour. This is a notable feature in her singing.

Neela shoves a course in the melody line bearing her tonality of voice through the numerous closed and opened notes. Some singers such as Dr. Victor Ratnayake uses to skip some closed notes in the melody line so that the listener should imagine of such notes or such closed notes are often implied in the melody.

Imaginary or psychoacoustic notes

In the theory of music these notes are known as imaginary notes (Anahata Nada-notes manifested or emerged in the mind). It is also known as musical memory. It is also described as psychoacoustic sounds or Viggnanamaya Nada in the North Indian tradition of music. However, the degree of this musical memory which generates psycho-acoustic sounds will differ from one person to another.

For instance, a person who is well versed in music has a rich musical memory than a mere listener who may recognise tonality of a song and would say that a particular song may like a one which he had heard previously. It is the musical memory that a player uses to tune an instruments of music.

In terms of tonal range, Neela’s voice has a tonal range which is only second to Sujatha Attanayake’s tonal range. Comparatively, Neela has a higher tonal range than the popular singers in Sri Lankan music scene. Sujata Attanayake has the widest tonal range among Sri Lankan singers.

Flexibility of voice

One of the norms in determining the ability of a singer is his or her flexibility of voice. Flexibility of voice can be described as singer’s ability to sing notes in wider range of the music scale. There are some singers who could not sing notes in the upper range and whose voice is almost confined to lower range of notes in the Concert C. Varied singers use their flexibility of voice for different purposes. Some singers use flexibility to demonstrate some music technicalities which are grotesquely described in text books to bring about diverse effects.

However, Neela’s strong point is that she uses her flexibility of voice in measuring up the emotional and sentimental value of the melody. She uses her Sinhalese voice even in the upper ranges and maintains her voice colour in songs with Western music compositions. A prominent trait of Neela’s singing is that she pronounces words properly as in the case of Sujatha Attanayake.

Though this may seem an insignificant aspect of singing, it is important in the light that some singers are unable to pronounce words with an apparent influence from either Hindi or English languages.

A prominent characteristic of her pronunciation of words in a lyric is that she derives emotive properties out of the words, which is a unique characteristic that is part and parcel of her musical personality.

Neela Wickremasinge’s qualitative type of her voice is inimitable in the sense that it has the outstanding property of a trained Indian singer with a signature of a Sri Lankan female voice. This identity is due to the commencement of her career with folk music.

Apart from her talents, one of the significant characteristics of her career is that she had not shirked her responsibilities as a teacher of music despite her position as a professional singer. She had never exploited her position to neglect her official responsibilities and duties as a teacher of music. She had not exploited or abused either her popularity or fame to enjoy undue privileges to neglect her duties and cover up them with political protection.

Strong personality

Although it is not directly linked to her musical personality, it should be stated that Neela Wickremasinghe revealed her physical disability (She suffers from Poliomyelitis or Polio) and appeared for an advertisements for the prevention of polio free of charge.

Given the fact that she is a popular figure and a woman, it is, indeed, rare that such gestures of goodwill and a great sacrifice on her part. Neela is a fierce critic of injustices perpetrated by a section of practitioners in the field of music even at personal cost and expresses her opinion without fear or favour.

Neela Wickramasinghe is one who distinguishes popular music from lumpen culture. A fact that vindicates her position is that she had never ventured into popular music market or reproduced distorted versions of her songs against the backdrop of distorting popular songs in the guise of ‘remixed’ version or rapping the original melody.

It is a well-known fact that those who are in the field of music or arts have media gangs (Madhya Nada) either to prop up their images as highly talented artistes or to cover up their inabilities. Neela Wickremasinghe has never tried to get cover up by such shameful media gangs. It is because she does not have a façade of inability to cover up.

 

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