by Tilak S. Fernando in London

The venue was Prince of Ceylon, the well known Sri Lankan Restaurant in West London. On this particular Friday evening, unusually there was a house full of customers enjoying Sri Lankan gastronomy and drowning themselves with, Lion Larger, the Sri Lankan beer. A melodious voice of singing in Sinhala, English and Hindi engulfed whole of the restaurant turning the entire environment to a subtle romantic backdrop. Nishantha Mahanăga, in his new assignment on 'Friday Evenings at Prince of Ceylon', was in full in full 'swing, serenading the diners ; simultaneously exhibiting his many other refractive musical talents.

For those who are familiar with Sinhala music, especially the well known Marians Band in Sri Lanka and their hit songs Thambili paata thamibili Gediya or Api Hita Honda Kollo, Nishantha Mahanaga needs no introduction. He was a founder member of Marions' Musical Group in Sri Lanka led by Nalin Perera. Having worked for twelve years, 'in partnership' with Nalin, from the very inception of formulating the Band, Nishantha left Sri Lanaka contemplating on his six year old son's future. Having caught a glimpse of Nishantha singing, accompanied by his wife Sharmalee and his six year old son Yohan bravely rendering a solo in Sinhala, I approached Nishantha to try and interview him for my Face2Face series. He very humbly agreed and the following are excerpts of the interview with this Sri Lankan musical icon Nishantha Mahanăga.

Q: Nishantha, I had heard about you quite a lot and later seen you in London performing on several venues, especially with the Evolution X Band. How did you or what made you to turn to music in life in the first place and not to any other discipline?

A. Tilak, I started playing with a guitar at the age of 9. It's the gospel truth. May be in my previous birth I could have been a musician(as Buddhists we believe) and have brought forward some of the 'overspill' talents I possessed to this birth. I used to play the guitar and sing Calypso songs as a kid. That was the beginning, and I never looked back on music ever after. Later on my musical guru was Gamini Dharmagunaratne.

Q I have seen your son Yohan singing today very bravely here. Do you think he also has brought some previous karmic talent forward or is it part of your musical genes that is being augmented ?

A. With a broad smile, well ! how can I answer that question ? Let's assume that he is his father's son. Yohan who is only six years old started singing at the age of 5 and he can already play three strings on the guitar.

Q. How did progress in your professional musical career?

A. I formed my own musical group in 1983 with four other artistes and called it The Nightingale Band. We performed all over Sri Lanka, especially in all the big hotels in Colombo covering weddings, dances etc.

Q. When did you join Marians Group?

A. Nalin Perera was a close friend of mine and I suppose for better scope and fame I joined Marians. Because of this special privilege I enjoyed the work as much as became popular with Marions Ban. Nalin and I worked hard, burning midnight oil, to find ways and means of making the band popular, which I am proud to say we did as a team and I worked for a period of 12 years.

Q. Did you sing as well in them apart from playing musical instruments?

A. All five songs in our first hit record carried my voice as well. The most popular songs in that were ' Thamibili Pata Thambility Gediya vagee, Hita Honda Kollo and Palamuwa Sinaha see'

Q. Now, of course, it is very easy, fashionable and one could find many sponsors abroad who would like to organise bands and invite Sri Lankan artists to hold overseas shows. During your time, I mean 12 years ago, how was it? And how far and wide have you travelled with the Marians Group?

A. We did tour quite a lot in fact. All of the Middle Eastern countries barring Saudi Arabia, Italy, France,Germany and Japan (3times) and ,of course, London. All those were very successful tours and we enjoyed every trip and show and I must say they were a real experience too.

Q.Why did you leave Marians Band, and for that matter leave Sri Lanka altogether when you were doing so well musically?

A. The answer to that question is two fold. (a) I could not have achieved much in Sri Lanka and it would not have been possible to achieve my goal. (b) I had to think of my son and wife Sharmalee's future secondly. When I think of it all I feel really sorry for Sri Lanka.

Q. Why do you feel sorry for Sri Lanka?

A. What I meant was, had I remained in Sri Lanka I could not have achieved my goal? Sri Lanka would not have been able to afford that opportunity to me as a talented artiste as long as politics ( not party politics, I mean) are involved.

Q. You mentioned twice now of your goal in life, what is it ?

A. Well! Some people reading this may laugh at my answer. But my final goal in life is to make an International hit in music in the future. I can assure you that I am definitely going to achieve that goal in my life time

Q. That's a very encouraging, bold and brave statement ! Why could you have not achieved this from Sri Lanka because not every International artiste comes to London to internationalise their music, song or singing ?

A. Tilak, Can you honestly tell me whether talent has any place in Sri Lanka in the midst of all kinds of politics? In that context can we compare our Lankan artistes with popular artistes in other countries? Do you think our people get the type of recognition let alone the financial rewards for their talents and achievements, even when one becomes a mega star ? Take Sunil Shantha, Ananda Samarakoon and H.R.Jothipala as typical examples. Had they been recognised properly for their cultural talents they should not have had to die as paupers! Ananda Samarakoon was the artiste who composed our national anthem and what recognition and compensation did he get, and Sri Lanka as a nation even today uses his song as the national anthem, namo namo maatha !

Q. But then, look at Panditha W.D.Amaradeva. He has reached the pinnacle of his career and has been recognised not only in Sri Lanka but recently received a foreign award as well, if I am correct !

A. Awards, to me Tilak, are like photographs or pictures. Of course, the general public or his followers may admire him, adore him and worship him like a semi-God but what about the recognition, to its true meaning, from a cultural view point ? How has he benefited as a national icon? Sad to say though, Panditha Amaradeva appears on stage sings to audiences, picks up pittance as his charges and goes home and sleeps. That, to me, is his lot. I may sound a bit arrogant but I do not want to be in that position. My aim is to enter the international market.

Q. Do you think you could become internationally famous with a Sinhala hit song ?

A. An International hit should not have a language barrier. A hit could be an instrumental, vocal, a wrap or a mixture of things. There are so many Hindi songs which have come to the Western pop charts today. Nothing is impossible !

Q. What would you say your specific qualifications are to achieve this marathon goal ?

A. Tilak, the most important ingredient towards any success in life is your self confidence and determination. If I can be modest in this instance and say that I can compose music, write lyrics and sing too, having undergone a voice training course in India, I know that I can do it. Most importantly, I have this element of music in my blood stream which keeps on nagging me day in and out to do something worthwhile and be recognisable. That is the self inspiration I get every morning when I wake up and every night I go to sleep. I am already working on those lines.

Q. I have seen you playing with Evoluton X band and have in fact written about them and mentioning about you also in the article. Now I see you go as "Skills". Is it a new format or are you on your own now?

A. You are correct Tilak. When I came to London I played for Evolution X band and I am very grateful to Lilani Perera, the Manageress of Evoluton X who afforded me that golden opportunity. Coming back to " Skills", it is a small unit of my own, a family unit in fact, I might call it, comprising my wife Sharmalee, son Yohan and myself. But I still play for Evolution X like in the past when invited to do so. As you may have already seen on posters I am playing with them during Sinhala Avurudu performances, this time under a different name Sigiri Live Band.

Q. This is the first time I saw your wife Sharmalee singing with you on an official platform. Is that what we are going see in your new " Skills" arrangement ?

A. Yes, Sharmalee is also voice trained in India. She has a good voice and she is a great help musically too, apart from being my beloved wife who supports me all the way in everything I am trying to achieve in life. Then of course, my son is my best mate in the business today. I want to see that he climbs to greater heights in the musical world than I have done up to now, and especially, I do not want him to lose out musically the way his father had to in Sri Lanka.

Q. You have a very new concept here. Guitar, microphone and an electronic gadget and three vocalists that to perform. Is that it ?

A. Good question Tilak. What I am doing is moving with the times utilising all the latest technology available today. If one is equipped with a computer and a musical keyboard one can do wonders making maximum use out of modern technology. Another aspect is that an entertainer should be able to fathom the right audience and perform accordingly in any given situation. In simple terms, is there any point in talking to an Englishman in Sinhala? Likewise, when you are performing you will have to identify the mood and the needs of a particular audience and very importantly be versatile to meet that challenge on the spot. In my case, I can bravely say that I am able to stand up to any such situation or challenge.

Q. Coming back to your two future dreams again, the international hit and your son's future, how confident are you on your son's musical achievements in the future taking into consideration that he is only six years old and you are talking of a long range forecast?

A. As I said before, I am quite confident about my international hit. I am already working on it. But, in life nothing can be certain of, philosophically thinking. In such a situation if by any chance I cannot accomplish my dream to the full during my life span , I am quite certain that my little boy will do it for me. I am a strong optimist and I would not have taken the risk of uprooting from my base in Sri Lanka in the first place if not.