CONFESSIONS OF A GLOBAL GYPSY
By Dr. Chandana (Chandi) Jayawardena DPhil
President – Chandi J. Associates Inc. Consulting, Canada
Founder & Administrator – Global Hospitality Forum
Today, instead of chronologically narrating another episode of the story of my career, I will write about a music legend. Uswatta Liyanage Ivor Sylvester Sunil Perera left us this month, saddening generations of Sri Lanka music lovers around the world, including me. Many tributes have been written about him during the last few days. Therefore, in this tribute, I will focus on my entertainment collaborations with Sunil during six short years three decades ago. It was a period when I was closely involved with the western music scene in Sri Lanka.
First Meeting in 1972
In early 1972, when I was a trainee waiter at the Mount Lavinia Hyatt Hotel, I was asked by the Food and Beverage Manager to work at a special beach party. A new band formed in 1970 with a young, eighteen-year-old lead singer performed at that event. I was thrilled with the energy of their performance. For nearly 50 years since then, I was always entertained when I listened to the music of the band Gypsies, led by Sunil Perera.
Since then, I occasionally saw Sunil and Gypsies, performing at weddings, dances and music shows. They released a string of pop hits enhanced with dynamic stage acts and various props. Sunil was the mastermind in such innovative initiatives. Inspired by Sunil’s creativity I was convinced that hospitality is very much like showbiz. Entertaining and pleasing our customers is common in showbiz and hospitality. That concept had an impact on my decisions on the event calendars throughout my career as a hotelier. Event creation, planning, organizing, choreography and creativity in promotion, all are exciting and enjoyable work in the hospitality business.
Second Meeting in 1986
I spoke with Sunil for the first time at Le Galadari Meridien Hotel in 1986. Gypsies were performing at a wedding and I was the Director of Food and Beverage of this five-star 500-room hotel. Sunil liked to talk a lot. He was often out-spoken about his ideologies. Topics for our quick chats after that included music, entertainment, shows and my desire to make Le Galadari Meridien Hotel the centre for food and beverage events and entertainment in Colombo.
I was concerned that after the wedding season (June and July) there were four months when the banquet business went down considerably. I commenced brainstorming with my team of managers and supervisors, finding creative ways to fill our large banquet rooms with additional events. Among other ideas, I decided to get into music show production to increase the income of the departments I managed. This concept was fully supported by our in-house musicians and bands including Sohan and The X’Periments, Apple Green, Dream Team, Burn, Noeline, Dalreen, Suriyakumar, Judy, Kanthie and a few others. Gypsies were not a part of the in-house musicians I had under contract, but Sunil fully supported my showbiz ambitions and music show initiatives.
The first show I produced with input from a galaxy of musicians was ‘The Musical Stars of 86’. It included several weekly competitions for aspiring musicians from all main cities in the country. We ended the season with a grand finale show which featured the winners of the weekly competitions and the leading western musicians in Sri Lanka. Sunil helped me as a judge and a performer. His support was encouraging.
A Seminar for Musicians
In 1987, led by musicians under contract at Le Galadari Meridien Hotel and Sunil, the western musicians of Sri Lanka formed a dynamic association – Sri Lanka Association of Musicians (SLAM). Noeline Honter was the first President of SLAM. I worked closely with SLAM to organise a seminar for professional musicians and also produced their first fund-raiser show. I invited Sunil to join the seminar panel, which included, Noeline Honter, Sohan Weerasinghe, Harold Seneviratne and a few other well-known musicians. Surprisingly Sunil declined my invitation, but instead, offered to perform a ‘fun’ act to enhance the seminar. Sunil’s performance with his band members in the characters of his 1987 top of the pop songs, – ‘Uncle Johnson’ and ‘Lunu Dehi’ were the highlight of that seminar. Sunil was a master in always being in the limelight.
‘Lunu Dehi’ (Lime and Salt) were the ‘fun’ characters most popular among Sri Lankan kids at that time. On the day of the seminar, when he heard about Sunil’s act, my (one year old) son, Marlon, insisted that I must take him to the hotel to meet his idols. At age one, Marlon, like many Sri Lankan kids, was a fan of Sunil. That made Marlon’s day, but he was a bit scared when he realised how big his favourite characters were!
Star of the Shows and the Producer – Late 1980s
Encouraged with the popularity and the financial success of my maiden music show – ‘Musical Stars of 86’, I produced a string of stage shows. We sold out around 1,000 tickets for each of these shows staged at the packed Bougainvillea Ballroom of Le Galadari Meridien Hotel. Sunil became a key performer and a main attraction for most of these shows. My productions included shows such as ‘A Farewell to Priyanthi & Raja’, ‘Noeline – A Celebration’, ‘M1’, ‘Slam 1’ and the first-ever ‘Model of the Year’.
Impressed with quality of my productions at Le Galadari Meridien Hotel, Ivan Alvis who was in charge of the teen/music page of the Island Newspaper, invited me to produce their annual awards show. I conceptualised, produced and promoted the largest four annual ‘Island Music Awards’ events for the Island Newspaper in 1988, 1989, 1991 and 1992. Ivan Alvis chose the judges for the selection of winners and I looked after the production of the show. Sunil was a key member of my creative team for those four events as well as for a dozen other music shows/events I produced in Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1993.
The Show Goes On – Early 1990s
After doing two short contracts for the Oberoi Hotel chain in Iraq and the Schiller International University in the United Kingdom, I returned to Sri Lanka to manage the Mount Lavinia Hotel as the General Manager. In 1991, Ivan Alvis contacted me and checked if I would like to produce the ‘Island Music Awards’ event in Mount Lavinia. As I was also the General Manager for the catering operation at BMICH – national conference centre, I told Ivan, “Let’s make the show bigger by staging it at BMICH for an audience of over 1,500.” We agreed and I contacted my friends Sunil and Sohan first to seek their support. We took the show to a new level, and achieved the target of a full house. That year Sunil won the main award – ‘Showbiz Personality of the Year’ and I was the first to congratulate him.
More Collaborations with Sunil
1) Six New Year’s Eve Dances – In 1991, Mount Lavinia Hotel set a record by being the first and only hotel to organise six New Year’s Eve dances. We held dances at the Terrace and pool deck, Empire Ballroom, Regency Ballroom, Little Hut Night Club, Paradise Beach and the Roof Top. I contracted Gypsies as the main band at the main dance. Sunil was a tough negotiator and insisted that I approve a larger fee for Gypsies, stating that, “New Year’s Eve is the entertainer’s bonus day!” I eventually offered him a little less than what he was demanding, and also got him to sign the contract stating that he will do guest appearances at the other five dances. Sunil was our key attraction and it worked. Mount Lavinia Hotel attracted a record-setting 3,000 people to usher in 1992 from this historic hotel.
2) The Show – In 1992 I produced my biggest show. I worked with a diverse team of 157 professionals (musicians, stage managers, choreographers, dancers, ballerinas, set designers, special effects engineers, lighting and sound technicians). At one point during the production process, owing to a delay in completing an important task, I decided to replace a set designing company. I refused their appeal for me to re-consider my decision. They then had approached Sunil, who called me on their behalf. Sunil guaranteed that they would honour the contract as per my deadline. I finally agreed. Sunil always acted on behalf of other entertainers and service providers. He was more like an ambassador for his profession.
3) More Shows at the Mount in 1993 – Sunil became a lead performer for other shows I produced at the Mount Lavinia Hotel. Each performance was unique, innovative and extremely entertaining.
4) The Story Board for a Controversial Song – By 1993, I had gained experience in song writing and music video productions for TV. My first video direction – for my friend Sohan’s popular song ‘Whispers in the Sand’ was nominated for the ‘Music Video of the Year’ Golden Clef Award. Soon after that Sunil invited me to write a story board and then direct a music video for his popular song – ‘Wine, Women and Song’. I immediately worked on it and created a detailed story board and short-listed a group of well-known comedy actors to perform in the music video. Unfortunately, this song faced some censorship challenges due to Sunil’s controversial lyrics. We decided to drop the video production.
5) Profit-sharing – In 1993 I managed to convince the two top bands in Sri Lanka (‘Gypsies’ and ‘Sohan and The X’Periments’) to perform without a fixed fee to usher in 1994 in a venue never before used for a New Year’s Eve dinner dance – BMICH. I negotiated a three-way equal profit-sharing contract between the two bands and the Mount Lavinia Hotel. Unfortunately, owing to a management change, this did not materialise.
6) The ‘Fitness Fever’ Cassette – In 1993, the fourth song I wrote was recorded. I convinced twenty leading singers in Sri Lanka, including Sunil and his brother Piyal to sing ‘Fitness Fever’. I organized a competition and the fans who were able to name all twenty singers were given season passes to the Little Hut, which by then had become the most popular night club in Sri Lanka. The song rose to the number one slot in pop charts soon after its release and remained so for a long period. Soon afterwards I produced a cassette and donated all proceeds to Ranvirusevana (fund to rehabilitate soldiers wounded in the civil war). Sunil fully supported this initiative and encouraged all artists to attend the cassette launching event at the Little Hut Night Club.
Thank You for the Music!
Sunil and I had mutual respect for each other and he was a friend of mine, as well. Sunil was the first to hug and congratulate me when I won the Island Music Award for the Composer of the Year (jointly with Noeline Honter) in 1993. In early 1994 I left Sri Lanka to embark my international career. I followed Sunil’s remarkable career and innovative contributions to the world of entertainment with great pride. I remained an ardent fan of Sunil.
Under the leadership of Sunil, Gypsies became the most successful Sri Lankan band of all time and toured the globe to entertain their ever-growing numbers of fans with Sri Lankan heritage. Sunil cannot be described simply as a successful bandleader, vocalist, guitarist, songwriter and composer. He was larger than life and was an icon. He was easily one of the most famous singers of all time, in Sri Lanka, as well as one of the most recognizable faces. He elevated Sri Lanka’s Baila genre, and gained the nickname “Baila Chakravarthy” (Emperor or King). Sunil inspired generations of musicians. There were many celebrations in the recent years when Gypsies completed 50 years in the entertainment industry and when Sunil turned 65. It was a heart-warming testimony to Sunil’s popularity among peers, when a new song and a music video was released by western musicians in Sri Lanka about Sunil as one his surprise presents for his special birthday.
Dear Sunil, thank you for the music and innovative entertainment over fifty years! I was fortunate to have the opportunity to artistically collaborate with you for a short period of time. You were the undisputed champion of showbiz in Sri Lanka! Rest well, my friend!