Sri Lankan music has a long history. In fact, it goes back to the era where the Veddas were the inhabitants of the island. Hence, starting from indigenous music to adopting different musical styles around the world, Sri Lankan music has undergone a vast development by now.
Indigenous music is the variety of music that emerged first according to history. Then, it has developed into folk music and the origin of music is marked by that. Along with that, history says that primarily there were four varied influences to the roots of Ceylon music. The roots are; folk rituals, Buddhist religious rituals, European colonization, and commercial and historical rituals. This factor is obvious and evident through the cinema of ancient times on the island. In fact, one can find a variety of music styles with songs in films back then.
Also, when it comes to musical instruments, mostly the ancient films prove that Sri Lanka has been familiar with both traditional and western musical instruments. The traditional instruments have a long way of development from hand-made raw states to properly shaped and improved states. On the other hand, the western musical instruments were an inheritance of the colonizers. This is clear since one can find different types of instruments that are unique to different regions. For instance, guitars, drums, violins from Portuguese, saxophones, and pianos from Dutch, and horns, tubes, cymbals from British clearly prove this fact. Thus, the formation of musical instruments in Sri Lanka is a mixture of three European regions and traditional origins.
Evolving from all these origins and especially from a traditional background with a long history, Sri Lanka still does have a rich music culture that experiments with more and more new dimensions in music.
Traditional Music of Sri Lanka
The traditional music of country music of Sri Lanka comes within the ancient communal origins where people attempted to entertain themselves and fulfill the rituals they had. Most of the traditional music is the creations of commoners living in those times and priests, not the professionals in the field like now. There are several types of traditional or country music. The most highlighted types are as follows.
1 - Pageantry
2 - Kolam and Puppetry
3 - Nurthi Music
4 - Sinhala Light Music
5 - Classical Music
Each of these types holds some unique features having music in common. So, let us get to know a glimpse about their significance as well.
Pageantry is a highly evolved musical tradition in Sri Lanka. One can find almost all the traditional and unique music varieties in pageantry. Mostly, pageantry celebrates the traditional music and musical instruments in the county while transforming awareness of them to the people in Sri Lanka. Thus, the pageantries are a formation of different types of musical sounds with beats that come as one. Though it seems like a loud showcase, hearing all these sounds together is nice to hear and soothes our minds. The main pageantry in Sri Lanka is the annual Kandy pageant, popular as the Kandy Esala Perahera, which is very colorful and musical with elegant dances as well. Further, there are both large and small scale pageantries in every bit of country with different aims and the music is the major of it.
2. Kolam and Puppetry
Kolam and puppetry are fully musical events of ancient times. They kept the busy lives of Sri Lankans entertaining. These events perhaps mock some societal events or political incidents just as comedies. However, Kolam music is a low country-folk tradition. People wore masks and acted mocking some characters or according to some comedy scripts in the forms of drama. These were then a remedy for the village folks since they were working hard throughout the day to earn for their lives.
Puppetry is also quite similar to Kolam, but human beings are not the actors but the puppets controlled by strings. Societal issues, familial arguments, political fights became the subjects of these demonstrations and they created humor to keep people entertained. Although in the present context, the Kolam and Puppetry are some rare sights, in the past they were there on a daily basis. Also, now there are professionals to conduct these musical events. However, back then, there were no professionals, but ordinary villagers glamoured up these events. Both these events have background music and songs than dialogues in normal dramas.
3. Nurthi Music
Nurthi music is the adoption of Indian music culture. This is a type of stage drama that has the influence of the theatre called ‘Parasi’. It emerged in Sri Lanka toward the latter part of the 19th Century. This is a musical style from North Indian music as well. Hence, Nurthi, as a whole, is from India. However, the name came from a Sanskrit word called ‘Nritya’.
The founder of Nurthi in Sri Lanka is Don Bastian of Dehiwala. He had been inspired by watching Indian dramas. However, John De Silva also had an interest in this concept and he developed the first drama, Ramayanaya in 1886. Nurti comes in a form of drama where the dialogues are all verses delivered musically. Thus, this is a major part of the music of Sri Lanka.
4. Sinhala Light Music
Light music once again was adopted from India that the renowned music artists in Sri Lanka visited there and learned about the genre and started producing that of Sinhala. But, unlike Nurthi, this is not a direct borrowing. They were just influenced by the genre in India and attempted to make something unique in the home. Hence, Sinhala light music is a successful attempt by our genius musicians who contributed to pioneering this genre.
The pioneer of introducing this genre to the country is Ananda Samarakoon because of whom we have a national anthem of such patriotism. Then, it was Sunil Santha who further developed the concept and produced some unique pieces of Sinhala light music. However, the great musician Pandith Amaradeva is another significant contributor towards developing this unique music genre in Sri Lanka.
5. Classical Music
Classical music comes out as a mixture of folk music, Kolam music, Nadagam music, Nurthi music, and other music types, essentially came out as something very precious and good to hear. Also, this music genre has the influence of 18 traditional dances of Sri Lanka that feature animals like elephants, peacocks, monkeys, horses, etc. Hence, classical music is the most highlighting Sri Lankan type of music which is still popular after decades.
Traditional Music Instruments in Sri Lanka
Traditional musical instruments in Sri Lanka are a combination of varied sounds and beats. No two instruments can make the same sound. Thus, their sound variations are unique from one to another. When in an orchestra, none of the other instruments apart from these categories can hit the vibrant sound of the traditional music coming as a combination of every single sound of them as a whole. Also, these beats are very Sri Lankan and the sounds emerge the patriotic Sri Lankan in any human being who belongs to this priceless land. Especially, unlike other musical instruments around the world, the traditional musical instruments in Sri Lanka are not to be found in any other country. Thus, traditional musical instruments mark the identity of Sri Lanka as well.
Sri Lankan music instruments have a classification of five, which is originally named ‘Pancha Thurya-banda’ that consists of 10 different items of drums, cymbals, trumpets, and flutes. The following instruments will give you an idea about it!
This belongs to the category called drums or percussion in the classification. Getaberaya is the main musical instrument of the typical Sri Lankan dance which is Kandyan dance. It is solely a creation of different parts of trees and the skin of animals. Besides, it is a long, knotted, double-headed drum with straps around the body for tuning purposes. It is an incredible creation of Sri Lankan drum makers and irreplaceable.
Yak-beraya or ‘the demon drum’ also falls under the category drums and this is the main musical instrument of low country dance. This is quite longer and wider than the getaberaya but the structure is similar, double-headed, and not knotted. It looks like a cylinder and is heavier than getaberaya. People use natural resources to make this drum as well and it gives a completely different sound. This type of drum has a strong connection with the form of art where dancers wear masks of the devil and do dances according to the beats of the Yak-beraya. They usually imitate different devils that the people on the island believe to exist.
Dawula is one of the other instruments that come under the category of drums or percussion. It is the major instrument of the other traditional dance type, the Sabaragamuwa dance style. When compared to the other two, this is smaller in size and different in shape as well. It has a barrel shape that is quite wider than the other two. Also, they use a hand and stick to strike the heads rather than both hands. But the structure is similar to the demon drum, yet the sound it produces is different. Each drum has a unique beat that makes each dancing style different from the other.
Thammatama is also a member of the percussion family, yet differs in shape and the art of use. Similarly, this is also a double-headed drum but facing upside with two separate drums combined together unlike other drums. The striking sources are not at all the palms of the hand but two sticks specially designed for the drum. This always goes as the companion of Dawula. However, the sound it produces is way too different from the sounds that the other drums mentioned above produce. This is a commonly seen instrument in pageants (Perahera Functions)
This is the smallest drum in Sri Lanka and the structure is quite different from all the other drums. This looks like an hourglass and has two faces on both ends. It is very convenient to play since one has to strike both sides interchangeably with one hand while holding the drum from the middle with the other hand. This is not as common as other drums but is used on occasions when needed.
Rabana is the most different drum from all which has only one face, unlike others. This comes in different sizes and the largest is the most popular and used in many special events. In fact, this is one of the unique drums for Sri Lankans since it has a connection with their day-to-today lives. This is common in Sinhala-Tamil New Year seasons, in weddings, and in special events. When it comes to the smaller one, it is a mobile drum that one can carry easily and play at any moment since it just needs both hands.
Thalampata belongs to the category called cymbals and it produces sound by striking two round-shaped metals strung together towards each other. This is the smallest of the cymbals and the sound is very tinkling. This is a commonly used instrument when it comes to traditional dancing. Also, this is a sort of essential traditional musical instrument when it comes to traditional events.
Horanewa is a part of the trumpet family which is an oboe-like double-reed instrument. This produces sound through air and one needs to blow it. This is one of the essential musical instruments among other traditional items. This always adds some unique texture to the sound when playing with all other instruments. This is usually associated with the temples and those events and is quite a mandatory instrument.
Hakkediya also belongs to the category called trumpets, and this is a nature-made instrument that is a conch-shell. Unlike other instruments, this doesn’t accompany every event, but there are some openings to announce the commencement. This gives the sound of a huge trumpet but is very unique. That also has to blow to produce the sound.
10. Wind section
The wind section is a type of flute that has a close association with the wind. However, this is not a commonly used instrument in dances but musical shows. It is because Sri Lankan dances are on beats not on music like other countries. Also, one can see this musical instrument in Eastern bands and some traditional events.
Origin of flutes is natural materials, as it is made with the use of bamboo sticks with 6 pierced holes on the top of it. This produces sounds by blocking the wind and is quite an artistic creation. With the development and all the evolutions that happened in the industry, one can see upgraded versions of flutes to metal or brass in different lengths these days. This is a mandatory traditional musical instrument in any kind of musical event, and the Sri Lankan school context. In fact, this is one of the instruments that is given to a beginner-level learner since it is quite easy to handle.
Best Places to Experience Traditional Music in Sri Lanka
Music is an integral part of Sri Lankan cultural shows. Anyone can see at least one musical performance belonging to any genre in even a small-scale event. When it comes to traditional music it is not that obvious, but one can get the experience of it from the very special and unique events in Sri Lanka. There are several such events happening annually in this country. Those events usually get crowded with both locals and foreigners, since they are so unique and rare. Not only that, they are as glamorous and delightful as nothing or any other event owing to the performances and especially to the traditional music one can find there. Below are some of the places in Sri Lanka, where you can witness the splendors of Sri Lankan traditional music.
1 - Perahera Functions
2 - Cultural Music Shows
3 - Drama Festivals
Need to know more about the delight of these events? Keep calm, and continue reading!
1. Perahera Functions
As mentioned above, these functions have a direct connection with one of the types of traditional music of Sri Lanka, pageantry. The specialty of these functions is that they consist of almost all the traditional musical instruments and their sounds playing together. These functions give the Sri Lankan vibe to any observer who witnesses the functions just with the music they deliver.
These functions are basically a part of the religion of Buddhism and are always connected with a temple when celebrating special occasions. One can find perahera functions during the festival times like ‘Vesak’, ‘Poson’, and ‘Esala’ which are essentially religious. Since these festivals celebrate the special occasions of the life of the Buddha, these functions take place as a tribute to Lord Buddha.
One of the main perahera functions that are truly famous and get crowded with thousands of people is Esela Perehera. It takes place in Kandy. The significant cultural attraction, Temple of Tooth Relic in Kandy organizes this event. Through this function, they showcase the tooth relic of Buddha by street touring it for several days. This is one of the best places to experience traditional music since one can witness all sorts of traditional beats come from professional and experienced hands. During the perahera season, it is only the traditional music that chimes around the city and it is a blessing to hear that tuneful sound. Also, the majority believe that the perahera season is the most beautiful period in Kandy. Thus, Esela perahera plays a major role in delivering traditional music to the spectators and the whole island annually.
Even Kataragama Perahera is one of the other occasions where the traditionality of the country gets highlighted through music.
2. Cultural Music Shows
Cultural musical shows give a totally different experience from the perahera functions since the sole motive of these events is to showcase the glamour of traditional music. Most of the crowd at these events are the ones who are die-hard fans of traditional musical instruments, orchestras, and beats. This is not a mixture of delivering all the traditional tones at once, rather organized events which flow from one type to another while giving importance to each instrument in the field.
Cultural shows are quite a common sight in hotels that give importance to the entertainment in the evenings. Most of the time we can see the collaborations of traditional dance along with these giving the uniqueness of the island fully at once. There are both solo and group performances, creating opportunities for the musical genius around the country.
Other than in hotels, there are several cultural centers around the country to preserve the musical heritage of Sri Lanka as well. People can reserve a seat in one of these centers when there is a musical show and get the experience. From these places, people can even learn about the uniqueness of traditional music along with the functions of traditional musical instruments as well. Thus, this is one of the best places to experience the traditional music of Sri Lanka.
3. Drama Festivals
One of the other such events where one can get the best experience of traditional music and traditional instruments is Sinhala stage drama festivals. Sri Lanka has a long history with stage dramas since the dramas were the only media to entertain people during some period back then. Hence, Sri Lankans are very familiar with dramas and still, people continue to watch stage dramas although there are highly developed electronic media platforms.
Usually, the stage dramas are rich with music; songs, poems, and background music. Most of the time they use traditional musical instruments and traditional music since they are live performances. Dawula, getaberaya, and thalampata are some common musical instruments in stage dramas. Thus, stage dramas are also delivering traditional music while giving significant importance to them.
However, this media has been evolving since the beginning and now some dramas use high technological methods to provide music as well.
The Popular Forms of Music in Sri Lanka at Present
Sri Lanka is on its way to adopting different genres of music in the world and experimenting. While trying to reach the world via music, it essentially prioritizes the music genres that are unique to the island. There are several genres of music in the country at present that get the attention of the majority as follows;
1 - Traditional Music
2 - Western Music
3 - Baila
The following sections will further enlighten you about these music genres!
1. Traditional Music
The traditional music of Sri Lanka is the most popular around the country since it is an integral part of the inhabitants. Yet, it is not an easy subject matter to absorb and usually comes down to the generations as an inheritance from the families. Hence, all thanks to the people who pay homage to traditional music, it still comes from generation to generation. Also, one of the other reasons for it to be popular is that Eastern music or traditional music is one of the subjects in school platforms and thus children get familiar with it. At the same time, as mentioned above, since there are annual events and functions that give significant importance to traditional music, the tendency to get it faded is low.
2. Western Music
The younger generation of today is quite into western music due to the vast technological revolution happening in the world at the moment. However, western music has been famous among Sri Lankans for several decades as a result of colonization. This is one of the favorable things that happened to the country because of colonization among hundreds of negative impacts. As mentioned above, Ceylon’s musical history has a vast connection with colonization since still anyone can see those European musical instruments within the country having a great significance.
Apart from that, nowadays Sri Lankan music adopts western musical styles and attempts to recreate them according to the country’s style. Not only the styles but perhaps Sri Lankan musicians also introduce the Sinhala version of songs or Sinhala versions to the existing melodies as well. The best thing is that most of the musicians in Sri Lanka attempt to mingle Western music with local music and introduce a novel genre of music. And yes, that is indeed interesting!
Baila, once again, has a great history in Sri Lanka. It too remains as one of the oldest music genres prevailing in the country. This is a form of music that the Sri Lankans adopted from the Portuguese. Baila belongs to folk art and it has a long history of development with the involvement of great musicians.
The pioneer of Baila in Sri Lanka is Wally Bastianz. It is because of him that Baila entered the mainstream culture in Sri Lanka. He adapted ‘kaffirhina’ rhythms to Sinhala lyrics and brought baila into society. The Late 19s was the peak point of Baila. Artists like M.S Fernando and Maxwell Mendis were the best Baila artists from Sri Lanka back then.
However, still, the fame for Baila is the same. People are interested in Baila and they give significant importance to this genre. Thus, that popularity preserves this endemic piece of art for future generations as well.
Great Musicians in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has the privilege of having dozens of great musicians in both older and younger generations. They indeed drove Sri Lankan music to another level. Among these great musicians, one can find the greatest of the great legends in the music field who have contributed endlessly to the development and the preservation of art & culture. Among many, we have chosen the following as such a few legendary figures.
1 - Premasiri Kemedasa
2 - Pandit Amardeva
3 - Sunil Santha
4 - Rukmani Devi
5 - Nanda Malini
The following sections will brief you more about these wonderful musicians!
1. Premasiri Kemedasa
Dr. Premasiri Kemadasa, whose birth name is Guruge Premasiri Kemadasa Perera was one of the greatest music composers in the country, unfortunately deceased. He was a musician who held the title ‘Deshamanya Kala Keerthi’ as well. Although he is no longer there for the betterment of the country, he has done a lot to the field of music as a musician. He was one of such composers who gave a new definition to composing music. He cleverly composed almost all sorts of music together. In fact, he always produced a fit to contemporary music composing folk music, Hindustani music, Western music, and many other genres of music. Still, the newly arising generations embrace his music vastly. Hence, he and his music are forever immortal in the field of music of Sri Lanka.
2. W.D. Amaradeva
Pandit Amaradeva was an allrounder, vocalist, violinist, and composer. He was able to shade the music culture of Sri Lanka in a way like no other. Local people even considered him as the ‘God of Music’. This is very rightful since he was a rare title holder ‘Sri Lankabhimanya’.
He was very much into traditional music. Thus, he experimented with composing Sinhala folk music with Indian ragas that produce a soothing type of music. Hence, many declare that Pandit Amaradeva made an irreplaceable contribution to the field of music in Sri Lanka. This popular declaration is evidently true as he was mostly addressed as the ‘Maestro of Sri Lankan music’. Even today people are so close with his works and prefer them over any style.
3. Sunil Santha
Sunil Santha, whose real name is Baddeliyanage Don Joseph John, was one of the pioneers of the development of Sri Lankan music. He was a renowned and influential music composer, vocalist, and lyricist in the mid 19th century. Almost all the 1950-60s old hits in the Sri Lankan film industry comprise his background music and songs that are still popular among all the generations. He was also an experimental musician. He contributed a lot to the music industry through his successful experiments. His songs are remarkable since they have unique sound compositions made out of traditional drums and various such musical instruments. Thus, he is indeed an immortal and important figure in the field of Sri Lankan music. He was a frontline in the radio music era as well.
4. Rukmani Devi
Rukmani Devi was a frontline actress back in the mid to late 19th century. She was a passionate actress who has covered around 100 films showcasing her immense talent. She was equally passionate about music as well. Most of the people addressed her as the ‘Nightingale of Sri Lanka’ due to the melodious time she possessed. She belongs to the gramophone era. Indeed, her voice was readily made for that. Even after her death and still, her songs are popular among the locals and they enjoy them. Her talent as a singer was very solid. This fact is evident through her winning the award, ‘Rana Thisara’ (Lifetime achievement award) one year after her death. No one could still replace the soothing voice of Rukmani Devi in Sri Lanka.
5. Nanda Malini
People consider this iconic figure as the ‘Goddess of Music’, the female version of Pandit Amaradeva in Sri Lanka. Fortunately, Sri Lankans are lucky to have such a live gem in the current music industry in the country. She is one of the most honored and best-known singers on the island. Her uniqueness is in her choice of songs. She usually sings songs based on contemporary themes such as real-life and social-cultural issues. Most of her songs arouse different emotions of people and impose national notions on their heads. Thus, she is the leading female vocalist in Sri Lanka. Yes, she will never be able to replace owing to the impeccable uniqueness she holds.
Future of Sri Lankan Music
In the present scenario, Sri Lankan musicians and vocalists are in the process of getting into the spotlight of the world through music. In fact, now one can see different genres coming into the country. New generations embrace them more easily than expected and attempt to accomplish something incredible through what comes in their way. Yet, the trend of adapting things and making them fit into the Sri Lankan context is still prevailing.
Although the generations constantly changed, they have perceived the value of what the country originally possessed and thus, prioritize it over any new genre. By now, Sri Lankan music has even gone a long way in the culture of remixing and taking the name of the country to the world through it. Hence, one can easily predict that the music of Sri Lanka is going to higher places competing with the whole world. Saying that the future of Sri Lankan music has a clear path of success that is not adopted or borrowed but comes with the dedication of the field and its experts.