It was something of a shock to experience the blast of humidity when steeping out of the airport in Colombo some 18 hours after leaving the almost sub-zero temperatures of Glasgow. Climbing into a small minibus, my driver took us on a knuckle-biting journey through the streets of Colombo and eventually onto the long stretch of motorway to our destination of Hikkaduwa on the south-western coast of Sri Lanka.
Having not slept for a long time, I found myself nodding off, but I was half-aware of the radio playing softly in the background. It struck me that the DJs sounded vaguely Gaelic and I had to listen carefully to check that I wasn’t in fact listening to a show on BBC Radio nan Gàidheal. The language was, of course, Sinhalese, and the music was a blend of pop and what might have been Sri Lankan trip-hop. At some point I fell asleep and later awoke to find that we’d arrived in Hikkaduwa.
After an unbelievably peaceful sleep, I had breakfast and met with the other artists in residence. I had met Lewis and Zoe shortly before departing from Scotland and we were fortunate enough to be on the same flight together. It’s exciting to know that we share some similar creative interests and there is great potential for collaboration throughout the course of the residency. Our conversations at mealtimes are revealing more of those shared interests and a strong compulsion to explore more of the island together.
Our first full day was spent exploring the local area and beach. There’s no denying the fact that this is paradise. I have to keep pinching myself, and I’m quite overwhelmed by how fortunate I am to be here. Zoe and I decided to venture into the jungle which is accessed across the road from our hotel. There are several houses – some original colonial – dotted throughout. At one point we heard a burst of thunder and then the heavens opened. A very kind lady who was out on her balcony waved to us to come over and take shelter. She disappeared into the house then shortly reappeared with 2 cups of homemade ginger tea – possibly the best tea I’ve tasted in my life. We chatted a bit about her family, about her children who were at the local school, and about the fruit and vegetables that she grows in her garden. Having been recommended by a friend from home that I try jackfruit, I enquired if she grew any, and she pointed to an enormous jackfruit hanging from a nearby tree. She then invited Zoe and I to lunch on Friday and told us that she’d make jackfruit curry. I’d heard a few times before I travelled that the people in Sri Lanka are incredibly friendly – and this kind gesture was a wonderful introduction.
So, after having had the opportunity to absorb my surroundings, I’ve been thinking about what it is I hope to achieve with this residency. In my original proposal, I had discussed my interest in the musicality of language in general and Sinhalese in specific – not necessarily the meaning of the words – but their tonality, rhythms, and timbres.
At this particular moment, I’m writing this in the courtyard of our hotel. Other than the constant sound of the surf, I can hear the breakfast dishes being tidied away. Out of view there’s a child talking (child-speak or some other language I don’t recognise), and nearby the staff are chatting with each other in Sinhalese. It strikes me how un-distracting those voices are. I don’t have a clue what they’re talking about, and their conversations feel somehow more woven into the fabric of the general soundscape than if they’d been speaking in English.
I think this is my starting point – to explore language’s place in the soundscape. At the same time, my mind keeps returning to the radio that was playing on the journey from Colombo to Hikkaduwa – the quiet, indistinguishable sounds that at first reminded me of Gaelic (another language I don’t speak, yet engage with constantly in my WHɎTE collaboration). These two aspects may or may not be connected, but I suppose part of the point of me being here is to find that out.