The collapse and rebirth of Sri Lanka’s music underground
This article is taken from Issue 129. Get your copy now via the online store.
“There is uncertainty,” exhales Lalindra Amarasekara, visual technologist and founder of Colombo-based creative studio Cyber Illusions. “Right now, it’s not about creating art. It’s come tot he point where everybody is thinking about survival and what the next few months will be like.”
Last year in Sri Lanka, job losses coupled with economic contraction precipitated by the pandemic caused inflation to hit a record high of over 11 percent, escalating the prices of basic goods. On 1 September, 2021, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared an economic emergency. The World Bank estimates that 500,000 people have already fallen below the poverty line.
“I see people asking for rice, saying that they have no one giving them jobs,” explains Nigel Perera, producer and co-founder of Sri Lankan electronic imprint Jambutek Recordings. “It’s hard for someone to keep doing something creative. People are just trying to keep their families afloat.”
The military was granted the power to sell essential items at prices set by the government, but this has not eased tension among citizens. There are now legitimate fears that the country could be declared bankrupt by the end of 2022. “The resources are mismanaged,” sighs poet and experimental ambient musician Imaad Majeed. “We have water [and] power cuts every day. Things are pretty dire.”
Sri Lankans have become accustomed to hardship. In 2009, the country’s brutal, 25-year civil war finally ended having claimed more than 100,000 lives and displaced millions, though the true number for both remains ambiguous. In 2010, in an attempt to change its global image, there was a drive to publicise the island country’s sandy beaches, pristine blue waters and lush forests. Beachfront clubs, and parties in resorts and high-end hotels started cropping up, pumping out saccharine remixes of Top 40 hits to oblivious clubgoers who were largely unaware of the destitution surrounding them. Besides a few rock bands and commercial pop DJs, there was no real music scene made by, or for, Sri Lankans hungry for a new creative movement. By 2012, though, that was changing.
Good Music Movement was a blog before its co-founder Ravi Bandaranaike evolved it into an event series. Focusing on musical styles outside of the mainstream, GMM injected new life into a stagnant nightlife scene catering to Western tourists. Simultaneously, Asvajit Boyle was meeting like-minded Sri Lankan creatives at the artist residency, Sound Camp. Alongside Perera, Boyle started Jambutek Recordings, the country’s first digital label. Their catalogue comprises agile, bass-heavy beats which shift into taut, wiry slices of rapturous glitch-hop, house and techno; each release crafted to pop and fizz with menace and rooted in the dark atmosphere of the club. Around the same time, DJ-led collectives like Bang Bang and Booka Booka also came to the fore, playing nu-disco, house and techno. The community was thriving and the foundations were being laid for a scene with real longevity.
But creatives had to fund everything themselves or seek international support. The Sri Lankan government didn’t offer any help. “We have an Arts Council,” Majeed says, “but they do nothing. They just support propaganda. Everyone relies on different means – some commercial, some independent.”
In 2010, Sumudi Suraweera and his co-founder Eshantha Peiris self-funded Musicmatters, a music school in the city that nurtures and produces some of the most exciting talent on the island. “We wanted to offer a space that was more creatively inclined. We also wanted to see if we could create some kind of scene for alternative music, because, at the time, there was only the mainstream.”
Musicmatters had two main goals: to help young people develop their musical skills, and to assist older people who wanted to learn instruments as a hobby. The initiative led to a festival, a label called Fish Climbs Tree Records, as well as an event series. Over time, the school became the primary focus. “Without being able to secure any funding, it was an unsustainable model,” Suraweera admits. “That made us realise it’s more realistic to have the school as the infrastructure.”
Musicmatters has helped students find opportunities at Berkeley and Yale, while giving others a space to explore their creativity. They have helped develop dozens of bands, including double bass and drums duo Baliphonics, folk-influenced five-piece Serendib Sorcerers and electronic live band Kinesthetics 0800. “We attract young adult students who were part of the education system,” Suraweera says, “but they didn’t quite fit anywhere. They got out of school and didn’t really have a path. They were searching for a place to study or play music, and take it further.”
Organisations like Goethe-Institut and Border Movement also stepped in to fund projects, one of which was the seminal Pettah Interchange – where Boyle and fellow young creatives took over abandoned and neglected urban spaces. Pettah Interchange would fill these derelict buildings with immersive sound, light and video installations, bringing audiences a sensory experience unlike anything they’d encountered before. With this blank canvas in front of them, young artists raised under the shadow of war were free to experiment however they pleased.
Pettah Interchange was notable for both its striking visuals from Cyber Illusions and its ability to transform venues. Like the Rio Cinema and Hotel, a sprawling and dilapidated complex in the heart of Colombo’s Slave Island district; the Old Town Hall Market in Pettah, a bustling marketplace turned performance space; and Pettah’s abandoned Gaffoor Bulding, where an intense audiovisual experience was delivered in the underground car park and restaurant. Bizarre, otherworldly characters, backdropped by bright colours, were projected onto walls and painted on bins by artists from both Sri Lanka and Berlin.
“It became a testing ground,” says Amarasekara. “It inspired you to work with the aesthetics of the space and the story behind it.” From 2012, until its eventual closure in 2017, Pettah Interchange became a calendar highlight. And, crucially, it helped place Sri Lanka as an exciting creative hub in South Asia.
In 2017, this bubbling and influential scene was operating at its heights. DJs like Sunara, Asvajit and Nigel Perera were much in demand, Jambutek’s releases were eagerly anticipated, and Cyber Illusions became renowned for their unique approach to visual art. They were pushing the envelope in sound, design and lighting, proving what artists from South Asia were capable of when given the resources. But it wasn’t to last.
The rise of badly-executed events, which doubled as cash-grabs, led to an oversaturation of events and eventually tragedy. In 2018, the poorly ventilated (and still under-construction) Wadduwa Sunset Beach Hotel hosted a party called Heaven’s Gate, promoted by a private company. The floor was barely tiled, the walls unpainted, and the oversold event was held inside a room that couldn’t hold the nearly-2,000 people that turned up. It was August, and temperatures soared past 35 degrees. Four people died from a combination of extreme heat, lack of oxygen and alleged drug use.
In response to these parties, the police and incumbent government, led by President Maithripala Sirisena, started a war on drugs. Capital punishment was reinstated for the first time in over 40 years. An anti-drug task force with increased police powers was deployed to curtail the use of narcotics, as well as the launch of an island-wide anti-drugs campaign. Like his predecessor, who was famed for saving the country from civil war, President Sirisena wanted to be known for saving the country, too. But as his power waned, his authoritarianism increased.
He went as far as attributing a 2019 terrorist attack to an international drug ring, despite local militants claiming responsibility.
On 21 April, 2019, three churches in Sri Lanka and three luxury hotels in Colombo were bombed. Two smaller explosions took place in the suburbs of Colombo. A total of 269 people were killed, with at least 500 injured. The government called for a state of emergency, giving the military and police licence to search, arrest and detain citizens for 24 hours without a warrant. The country fell into a hushed quiet. Less than a year later, the pandemic struck, turning the world on its head. Sri Lanka’s bubbling underground music scene was flattened.
Since the onset of the pandemic, Sri Lanka’s tourism industry – which contributes more than ten percent of the country’s GDP – has nosedived. In turn, over 200,000 people have lost their livelihoods. Events and parties have almost completely stopped. Releases have slowed down, and a once-thriving scene has nearly disappeared. Quietly, though, people are ensuring that nightlife continues to evolve.
“[Asvajit and myself] observed how the pandemic was affecting artists’ livelihoods,” Majeed says. “Not being able to play regular gigs, not having the resources to create an album or a music video – there was something to be done.”
Thattu Pattu – the name borrows terminology from both local languages, Sinhalese and Tamil, to create a loose translation of “knock” and “catchfire” – is a new collective formed to support the next generation of artists. Co-curated by Asvajit Boyle, Sumudi Suraweera, Thomas Burkhalter and Imaad Majeed, the group selects eight artists to award funding. “We pulled people together based on how distinct their voices are and how much they want to nurture the flame,” Majeed says. “Our platform allows these different voices to resonate [collectively] but also gives space to each of them.”
With a precarious future and lack of government support, creatives in Sri Lanka are looking at how to restructure themselves, to figure out new ways to approach their scene. “It’s about how do you do it, in a decentralised way,” Majeed says. “You can’t have one movement. Artists are going to express themselves from all these different parts of the country and we have to find a way to pay attention and acknowledge all of it.”
Ultimately, hope is the energy that underpins – and fuels – Sri Lanka’s creative community. They’ve faced challenges that most would surrender to, but instead they have channelled their misfortune into resilience, carving out new paths and spaces in which to thrive. This is evident in the upsurge of independent venues and club nights where people of genders, ethnicities and classes are welcome. Eelam Tamil rappers are emerging from the fringes of the island, raising awareness for the plight of their people over tight, skeletal beats. Underground queer festivals are beginning to appear. “There’s so much more variety now,” Boyle smiles. “There has been a lot of progress – so many more people are doing what they want to do.”
“You can’t have one movement. Artists are going to express themselves from all these different parts of the country and we have to find a way to pay attention and acknowledge all of it”
The foundations for a bright future are beginning to take shape. Thattu Pattuis helping lift up the next generation through artists like Amila Sandaruwan, Isuru Kumarasinghe and Divanka & Shivy; Jambutek continues to release music; Cyber Illusions is a prospering company, with Amarasekara ensuring that no one lost their job during the pandemic; and Musicmatters have set up a scholarship programme for families who can’t afford their fees.There is optimism that the worst has already happened.
Despite the current perilous state of the country, these young artists are building structures that have a lasting impact. After all, if they don’t, who will? “It can only grow if we are consistent and evolve as we go,” Suraweera says with palpable confidence. “It can’t really go down from here.”