SPB magic, live in Jaffna

The massive concert marked five decades of the charismatic singer’s career

It was 4.30 in the evening on Sunday and thousands had already queued up outside the municipal grounds here for a show that was to begin two hours later.

Jaffna has had its share of high-profile visitors from abroad, mostly politicians and diplomats, but none that has held a huge audience captive for five hours.

The excitement began that morning, when playback singer S.P. Balasubrahmanyam’s chopper landed in Jaffna. Eager fans had gathered near the landing area, looking skyward and holding their mobile cameras up. “I cannot repay their love,” SPB said on his Facebook page, sharing a photograph he had taken of the crowd.

Sell-out performance

Virtually every wall and lamp post in Jaffna town had a poster of SPB with composer Gangai Amaran. The long-time friends — 44 years, they said on stage — were in Sri Lanka for ‘Nanbenda’, a concert that presented glimpses of SPB’s sparkling career spanning 50 years. The singer has been touring different countries to celebrate the milestone with his fans and in Sri Lanka, he performed in Jaffna. The Tamil-majority town was torn apart in the island’s brutal civil war that ended in 2009. This was the first time SPB is in Jaffna, where he has fans across generations.

“Inda mannukku vanakkam!” (my salutations to this soil) the singer said, even his speaking voice evoking loud applause. “My salutations to all those who are not with us now, but are watching over from above,” he said to the nearly 10,000 people in the heartland of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province where several thousand lives were lost during the ethnic strife.

The stage was set by the sea and the evening breeze swept over the grounds. A drone camera hovered above, buzzing away like a giant dragon fly determined to make a point. Adjoining the place was Jaffna’s newly-built police station where a few cops stood enjoying a ringside view of the performance.

If you go by the list, the show began with Gangai Amaran’s team, including Deepan Chakravarthy, S.N. Surender and Surmukhi, presenting the Ilayaraja super-hit ‘Janani…Janani’, followed by warm-up numbers. For the crowd, however, the concert began when SPB appeared on stage.

Classic tunes

He began with ‘Nada vinodangal’, the popular Salangai Oli number, setting the tone for the rest of the evening. The pace accelerated with ‘Megam Kottatum’, whose drum beats, for many of us, define the sound of the 1980s. ‘Vandanam’ from ‘Vaazhve Maayam’ soon followed with SPB doing even the hiccups — for the drunk protagonist played by Kamal Hassan — with the same vigour heard in the original three decades ago.

That is what stands out when SPB performs live. While most others are struggling to get pitch-perfect, SPB sounds like he is in a studio, his voice simply refusing to acknowledge the fatigue you would associate with 40,000 songs over five decades. The same charm as he belts out “Anjali…Anjali” in the higher octave, from the only A.R. Rahman song of the evening.

About three hours into the show, SPB presented a medley with samples from some of his most-loved numbers, varying the pace and style.

Shah Jahan, who works in a hotel, had made his way to the venue right on time. “I somehow wanted to make it today and hear him live; nobody sings like him!” said the 20-year-old.

“We wanted to organise a show that would entertain people in Jaffna. The world always looks at them as victims of a war, but they are also real people who like to sing and dance. We wanted something special for them,” Loganathan Suren, a manager with the local organiser Iyngaran Media Solutions, told The Hindu. The organisers want the engagement to continue, perhaps by way of professional training across the Palk Bay. Gangai Amaran announced that he, along with SPB, would work towards setting up a music academy in Jaffna, where visiting artistes from India would work with aspiring musicians. The audience responded with evident restraint, as they did most of the evening.

They appeared to savour the music quietly from their seats. Listening to SPB sing ‘Idu oru pon malai pozhudu’, under a moon-lit sky and wrapped in a gentle breeze, was enough to feel content.