Music to Cause a Riot

I didn’t know romance until I found music. While many people walked in and out of my life, music remained my one constant. And the relationship I have with it is deeply intimate. But it was never music that was easy-listening that drew my attention or moved me. For me, it was a powerful medium that could push people beyond their comfort zone, and make them think of realities that they didn’t necessarily want to think about.

Our island has a rich history of rebel music that did just that. During the colonial era, Baila music was used by the Kaffir slaves to raise their voice against their oppressors. In the ‘60s, bands like Cancer used Rock ‘N’ Roll music to challenge the status quo. As Sri Lanka plunged into political turmoil in the ‘80s and the civil war escalated, even Sinhala classic music took a very political form.

Rebel music has only thrived in recent decades, seeping into versatile genres. Here are 6 anthems in the kaleidoscope of music that reflect the rebellious spirit of our nation.


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A band that has become synonymous with our island’s Baila music, you would be hard-pressed to find a Sri Lankan, in any corner of the globe, who has never heard of the Gypsies. Today this form of music is recognised as ‘happy music’, but the band delivers its brand of Baila with a strong political edge. Sunil Perera, the frontman of the band, has been known to “give it straight”, so to speak, to politicians who happen to be at events where they perform.

In their song ‘Lankawe’, a dream unfolds in a ‘utopian’ Sri Lanka, where Sunil Perera is a teacher asking questions from his students. Brilliantly satirical, questions like “who solved unemployment?” and “In which country do politicians travel by foot?” are highlighted. Questions like “in which country did people die on the yellow crossing?”, “in which country did doctors strike while the patients were dying?” and “in which country did university students kill each other?” mockingly reveal the boorishness of the general populace.

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Blues in Black

Back in 2007, Buddhi de Mal and Freedom Fira were still college kids, with a pocket full of music and an air of defiance. They started jamming the very first day they met, and that was the birth of Wagon Park. They have been colouring the local music scene with their own flavour of Folk and Blues Rock since. Their music incorporates both English and Sinhala languages. The lyrics, simple and straight forward, pack a mean punch and speak to the youth.

Their song ‘Blues in Black’ reminds our generation that “we saw one time when bombs went wild, we lived in fear as we speak”. It then brings to light that the fight isn’t over, because poverty is still rampant, with people struggling to survive the day. It talks about finding freedom over poverty and calls for a societal change. The song ends with asking us, the listener, to remember our childhood heroes; the likes of Aravinda de Silva, Duncan White, Clarence Wijewardena and H. R. Jothipala, who made a difference in our nation. Without knowing our roots, how are we to build a future anyway?

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Deviyange Bare

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The same year Wagon Park was born, in another corner of the Western province, a different kind of musical revolution was impending. Using Sinhala as their medium, the crew calling themselves Drill Team began making Rap music with sharp social commentary. The disenfranchised youth who couldn’t find any meaning in the mainstream music that was littering the sound waves had now found a voice in their music.

A song that pokes at what goes on beneath the whitewashed fabric of society, one of the issues ‘Deviyange Bare’ discusses is gambling. Too many betting centres catch our eye as we shuffle along the city streets. Several casinos have also come up recently. But the threat it poses remains at the periphery of our minds. Taking the form of someone narrating his story, the song raises awareness about the plight of a nation addicted to gambling. One piece of lyric that caught my attention was “miniseku pita nagi asaruweku…”, which means ‘a horseback rider on the back of a man’. This makes reference to a Sinhala classic song by Sunil Edirisinghe that also looks at the same issue.

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Deaf Blind Dumb

The first Grunge and Rock ‘N’ Roll ensemble to come from the hill country of our island, Paranoid Earthling has been on a mission to “question the growing unrest of the country through their rebellious music” since 2001. Their music often revolves around how the youth of our nation is impacted by Sri Lanka’s political, economic, cultural and social conditions. Growing up, their anthem ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll is My Anarchy’ was one of the songs that urged me to question ‘how things have always been’.

Complete with a rather unconventional music video, ‘Deaf Blind Dumb’ explores media censorship. It explores how governments and corporations control the flow of information to brainwash the masses into believing in propaganda and leave out inconvenient truths. The message is raw and captures the issue with the words “guns blow when you word-f**k the stereo, washing my brains with the speaker inside, this evolution’s going to the monkeys, army of religion shot your friendly fire…”. And it questions “well, is it just me or are we too blind to see, flag of democracy’s changing its colours?”

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Udangu Liyan Gotha Bandina

A name that is forever etched in the aisles of the history of Sinhala Classic Music, Nanda Malini is the Sri Lankan equivalent of Nina Simone. By mid-’80s, she had already played over a thousand concerts, and she has won numerous Sarasavi and Presidential Awards. Her music was so politically charged and rebellious towards the latter half of the ‘80s that her songs in ‘Pavana’ were banned from the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC), and so was the ‘Pavana’ series of concerts.

Her song ‘Udangu Liyan Gotha Bandina’ is written from the perspective of a flower and beautifully captures the class divide that was prevalent at the time. The flower speaks, “to aromatise a lavish dining table full of empty people, who sit and fill their stomachs and have pleasant conversations, I didn’t blossom on this land”. Instead, the flower dreams of the bliss of getting trampled and dying on a dusty road where the common people march to pay respect to a soldier who got killed in the war. So strong the lyrics of it, after so many years of listening to this song, more often than not, it still moves me to tears.

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There is a saying, ‘what we need is less advice and more music’. I share the same sentiment. Sometimes, when my perspective gets a little skewed about life, about the world we live in, and about the future we are creating together, music always helps me find my way back. I hope as you explore these songs, they will help you do the same.

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Author: Vimukthi Karunaratne
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