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
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.
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
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
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.
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
Pix by Ranga
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
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
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
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.
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