Sound of Pop
The litmus test to measure the ‘celebrity status’ of a visiting foreign celebrity would aptly be the eye-popping enthusiasm expressed at the mention of their name. The men behind the Sri Lankan band BNS clearly pass that test and more.
True to their reputation, Bathiya Jayakody and Santhush Weeraman, wizards of Sri Lankan pop music, had the entire community in Muscat swaying to their music recently. Despite their star status, conversing with Bathiya and Santhush is a humbling experience. Not only do they walk you through their music, but chart out the entire history (catalogued precisely with dates and years) of the evolution of Sri Lankan pop music - in which, one learns, that these young men played a fascinating role and fate complied.
Sri Lanka began its tryst with pop music at a much later stage, towards the late ‘90s, points out Bathiya. With a colonial history, the music in Sri Lanka predominantly consisted of Western music, Oriental music and local folk music. There was a gap that needed to be bridged at that time, and the musicians took the opportunity to break the mould and introduce a new genre of pop music that was already trending in the Indian subcontinent.
While both Bathiya and Santhush trained in classical Western and Sri Lankan music, they wanted to introduce a genre of fusion pop - where they could integrate elements of both, western music and local Sri Lankan music.
In 1998 (when they started off) while the novelty of their music struck a chord with a generation that was growing up exposed to different genres, the steady privatisation drive that was taking hold of Sri Lanka’s media outlets contributed as well.
“Around the time of privatisation, media did not have their own content and global content was expensive to buy,” says Bathiya. “They were looking for something that was locally available but at the same time they wanted to bridge the gap in terms of international music. “That’s where our music became a phenomena across the country. So between 1999 to early 2000s, every channel across Sri Lanka had our faces on screen. “
The duo became pioneers of a new sub culture that was to take the Sri Lankan music industry by storm for the next couple of decades. They were the first ones who used modern technology in their music – with synthesisers and electronic beats – and also propagated the wide usage of a colloquial lingo mixing Sinhalese and English.
Then of course, there was the fashion and merchandise boom that came along with youth of the country wanting to copy their casual styles. Looking back, the musicians confess they didn’t see a lot of it coming; they too were swept up by the storm that their music unleashed in the country.
“We didn’t know we were doing anything,” says Bathiya adding, “We were just two youngsters who were having fun, experimenting with our music and then six months down the lane we realised that our music was an explosion amid the youth. It was a cultural revolution at that time.”
Music as a bridge
BNS went on to produce music that struck a chord with international artistes. “We created a platform for the international community to understand the essence of Sri Lankan music,” says Santhush.
Explaining the essence of this ‘international sound backed by local ingredients’, he says, “If you listen to our songs, you will hear local elements - for example the drum beats - which are deep-rooted in Sri Lankan culture. At the same time there’s influence from folk music and we synergise these with western elements and modern sound technology.”
“This the reason,” points out Santhush, “why foreign artistes who aspire a global flavour will find a connection with our music.”
Over the last decade, Sri Lankan pop music has become mainstream music and a new generation has evolved. The initial resistance that Bathiya and Santhush met from the cultural police vanished.
Today, within Sri Lanks’a entertainment sector, the music industry is economically predominant. And within that, the brand equity of BNS is enormously valuable. The pioneers of Sri Lankan pop sound have no airs about their commercial success.
They dismiss a floating myth about music that is commercial successful. “Why is commercial bad? Why is pop bad? People have this tendency to say that some things which are not commercial are the best,” says Bathiya.
To which Sathush in his calm demeanour adds, “I think a song has to be created for a lot of people to listen to. It has to be a song that people like…That is why our songs are commercial, very commercial”.