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Sri Lanka Residency - Week 2

21 February 2017

It’s 7.20am and I’m sitting on the balcony of a stunning villa up in the hills of Kandy. I awoke around 6 to a beautiful chorus of birdsong and a call to prayer coming from a nearby mosque. Our accommodation for the first half of this week must be the AirBnB find of the century: a 4 storey air-conditioned villa with balconies, incredible views, atrium, garden, en suite rooms, and other amenities I’ve yet to explore – all at the equivalent cost of £20 each a night.

It’s very hard not to wax rhapsodically about the morning soundscape, so I apologise in advance. The birdsong in particular struck me as symphonic. Rather than a chaotic cacophony of chirping, it sounded more like a carefully structured and richly diverse symphony with moments of harmony followed by beautiful solos – one bird in particular singing a clear series of tones in an almost comical rising crescendo. All of this is accentuated beautifully by the natural reverb of the surrounding hills and valley below – and, of course, the sun rising out of the dispersing morning mist. It must be quite something to wake up to this every day.

Sunrise in Kandy

The past week has been almost overwhelming in the sheer wealth and range of experiences. Sri Lanka is a constant feast for the senses. One evening after dinner in Hikkaduwa, I walked down to the beach and stood with the waves lapping at my feet as the stars appeared overhead, a mixture of Sinhalese and Western pop music drifted out from the various nearby hotels and restaurants, and the smell of coconut, lime, and spices filled the air. I’ve found myself having to pause several times in the last week just to try to take it all in.

On Thursday 16th, Zoe and I set our alarms for 5am so that we could walk from Sunbeach Hotel to the harbour where we’d been told by our host at the hotel, Chaminda, that we’d encounter the fishermen singing as they dragged their boats ashore. He told us that while although they were singing in Sinhalese, he didn’t know what the words meant. Arriving at the harbour around 6am as the sun rose, we could hear the chant of what sounded like “El-la”, “Ay-la”, and “Hey-la-la”. It seems that one fisherman takes the lead, calling “El-la” while the others – 2 or 3 on either side of the catamaran – respond with some kind of variation as they heave the boat backwards and further up onto the shore. Zoe approached one of the fishermen and asked what the words meant – he seemed to be avoiding answering the question and laughed instead. Are the words some kind of fisherman’s secret code, something dirty (as Neil suggested), or just meaningless – similar perhaps to the vocables found in Gaelic and other traditional music, e.g. “na haoi rithill eatha hò” or “tra la la”….? In any case, the song – as far as I can tell – is specific to the region, just as other fishermen’s songs will only be heard in other specific parts of the island. I was fortunate enough to capture some of the singing as well as Zoe’s conversation with the fisherman:

On Saturday, we visited the nearby town of Ambalangado which is famous for its history of mask and puppet making. The Ariyapala and Sons Mask Museum was particularly impressive with its range of Kandyan dancing masks. It was exciting to later see these in action during a performance at the “Government Sponsored” Kandyan Cultural Centre. At the back of the museum is a workshop where a small group could be found hand-crafting and painting the masks. The atmosphere in this small workshop was oddly tranquil in stark contrast to the aggressive, unrelenting energy of the Kandyan dances.

On Monday, Joshua, Mary, Lewis, Zoe, and I made our way to Kandy for a three night stay. After a changeover in Colombo and a stunning rail journey through the mountains, we arrived in Kandy’s city centre where we were greeted with a call to prayer being blasted out through loudspeakers and a small army of tuktuk drivers vying to take us on to our next destination. Climbing into two tuktuks, we made our way through the city. What I took for high pitched bird chirping filled the air and increased in volume, to the point where we had to cover our ears. Speeding higher up into the hills, we eventually reached our villa.

On our first full day in Kandy, we decided to visit the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens – a spectacular 150 acre collection of wonders that had me maxing out the memory card of my camera. At one point I caught a glimpse of something very large flying overhead, and then I spotted what turned out to be a fruit bat. Then I spotted another, and then another, and then a few more…

Fruit bats at Peradeniya Botanical Gardens

Their screeching was quite something to hear, and it was later, with a certain degree of horror, that I realised what I’d initially taken for cacophonous bird chirping during the previous night’s tuktuk journey, was in fact the sound of thousands and thousands of fruit bats.

Returning to the bustle and buzz of Kandy, we made a visit to the nearby aforementioned Kandyan Cultural Centre. Hawkers and the not entirely trustworthy Tourist Police were everywhere and the calming effect of the Botanical Gardens was quickly replaced by increasing anxiety and, it has to be said, a sense of intimidation as we were encircled by a group of men each desperate to relieve us of our rupees. Eventually, we made our way inside the Centre and took our seats in the balcony as the daily Kandyan Dance routine commenced.

The general consensus in our group was that the music was exhausting, at least to our Western ears. The drumming, while rhythmically intricate and often – at least for me – the most musically interesting part, was (as the music dictates) relentless, and following the noise and chaos that we’d fought our way through outside of the building, it was hard not to disregard the extremely tourist-pandering series of dances as yet another assault on the senses.

Kandyan Dancing and Drumming

Following on from this, we made our way to The Temple of the Tooth – considered Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist shrine. The temple is home to the legendary Buddha’s tooth which, according to my guide book, “arrived here in the sixteenth century after various peregrinations around India and Sri Lanka”. The Temple is breathtakingly beautiful and frequented by a strange mix of worshippers and curious tourists. Upon entering the first hall, we encountered a small group of elderly women knelt chanting quietly in front of a statue of Buddha. The shrine itself is on two floors and in front of the Hewisi Mandapaya (or Drummer’s Courtyard) where sombre pujas take place three times a day. We had arrived in time to experience the 6.30pm puja with its impressively minimal yet dynamic drumming.

By the time we left the temple, the sun had set and I could hear the fruit bats gearing themselves up for another full-on screeching session. The driver we had hired for our 2 days of touring met us nearby and whisked us back up into the hills before the fruit bats could reach full velocity.

Our second day was considerably more physically demanding but no less inspiring. This time the driving was shared by two locals: Lassa and Danu. Leaving the villa early in the morning, we made our way to the magnificent citadel of Sigiriya. This vast rock structure which rises dramatically out of the surrounding jungle was reportedly built between the years 477 and 485 and once had a Royal Palace, terraces and ponds at its summit. Almost halfway up, we encountered the Lion Platform – an impressive entranceway to the summit. What remains of the Platform are two huge stone lion’s paws (artists’ renderings of the original lion’s head can be viewed in the museum at the site entrance). The view from the summit must be one of the most impressive in the world: vast plains, mountains and a huge white Buddha statue emerging out of the jungle in the distance. But to climb and wander around the structure itself is arguably the more awe-inspiring part of the experience; to try to imagine the lives of the people who first built and inhabited this place so many centuries ago.

Following a quick lunch we made our way to the Cave Temples of Dambulla. We had noticed that over the two days, our drivers seemed reluctant to take us directly to our requested destinations and were keener to stop off at places which, by miraculous coincidence, were operated by their friends. We indulged them in a couple of these stop-offs before noticing that it would inevitably conclude with some kind of sales pitch or opportunity to sell us wares which could easily be found in shops throughout Sri Lanka. The cynics amongst us (i.e. all of us) suspected that the more time spent in places like Sigiriya was less time for the drivers to take us to their mates’ businesses where they’d receive some kind of commission on any purchases. As such, they were clearly unimpressed that we were more interested in making the climb to the ancient Dambulla Cave Temples than entering the much more recently built Buddhist Museum with its gaudy artificial exterior.

Ignoring the drivers’ disgruntled expressions, we climbed up the steep steps to the caves. The heat was absolutely baking and we were all soaked in sweat by the time we reached the main entranceway at the summit. There are 5 caves, each bigger and more impressive than the last. The Cave Temples complex itself dates back to around 103 BC. One aspect which appealed to me was how the statues, artwork, and particularly the murals were all designed to fit the dimensions of the caves rather than the other way around. I think that we were each quite deeply moved by the beauty of these caves, and felt more than vindicated by our decision to ignore our driver’s recommendation.

23 February 2017

I’m now sitting on the Kandy – Colombo train which is winding its way through the mountains. Although the last couple of days have been incredible and I’ll never forget the amazing experiences we’ve had, I must admit to feeling some relief to be returning to Hikkaduwa. There is so much to process – sights I never ever thought I’d see in my life and sounds that conjure a myriad of compositional possibilities – and that goes for the last week and a half, not just the last 2 days. However, I feel like I need to sit for a while and take stock, to have some stillness, before moving on. And apart from that, I need to get on with some work!

So, to wrap up this blog before it becomes a full-scale thesis, some further thoughts on the work I want to develop and a list of my main areas of interest for this residency:

  • The musicality of the Sinhala language

  • Soundscape – Sri Lanka in general

  • Soundscape – specific to Hikkiduwa and the surrounding area

  • The Sinhala language’s place in the soundscape

  • Radio:

  • Its history in Sri Lanka

  • The variety of stations

  • Sinhalese folk/traditional music

  • DJ presentation style

  • Altering the medium/mediator

  • Degrees of separation:

  • Language

  • Travel – 1st, 2nd, 3rd class

  • Prices – local, informed white man, uninformed white man

Finally (!!), my plan is to compose a short piece once a week using a sound or sounds I’ve recorded within that period. This is the first. The original recording is of a small bakery tuktuk playing a recorded piece of music – a bit like an ice cream van.

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