Serendib Sorcerers is a project that explores new musical possibilities of folk music in Sri Lanka together with improvisational, contemporary and Western approaches to music. They performed at the Jaffna Music Festival in 2013, at which point their line-up consisted of Dr. Sumudi Suraweera on drums, Eshantha Peiris on viola, Bustian Dunker on alto sax, Uvindu Perera and Isaac Smith on double bass, and Sarani Perera on guitar. Their debut album ‘Jana Gee Reworked’ was released in 2016 and received much acclaim locally. It would feature their first vocalist Madhavo Shilpadhipathi, with Derek Beckvold taking on alto sax duties. In September 2019, the Sorcerers released their second album, ‘Pathulen Muthu Gena’ comprising of a collection of unfamiliar pieces of Sri Lankan folk songs from different local regions. This formation of the group would see the addition of Susantha Rupathilaka on vocals and Prasanna Rupathilaka on percussion. Their contribution for Thattu Pattu features the addition of Isuru Kumarasinghe on synthesizer.
Photography by Shehan Obeysekara
It is the irony of our globally-connected and digitally-mediated times that any style and musical element – whether a folk song or just a fragment of a melody – has a chance to reach half of the world; yet music on the fringes of this homogenisation is vanishing and in danger of being forgotten.
This performance by Serendib Sorcerers shows the music of Sri Lankan “Folk Buddhism”, as the ethnomusicologist and former band member Eshantha Joseph Peiris coins it. A collage of Buddhist rituals, only performed in specific areas, is being brought into a dialogue with western instruments; such as synths and electric guitars.
The medley of verses and songs here goes back to three different musical-spiritual traditions of Sinhala Buddhism: from the Low-country, the Up-country and the region in between; Sabaragamuwa. The way the rituals are played off here is still quite original. The voice is the centre, addressing the deity Ganesha. The western instruments often seem to imitate the singing voice, and sound like chatter or jungle noises. The percussion sticks to the traditional rhythms that appear to be free of beat, pulse or meter by their expressive and elusive sense of timing.
Susantha and Prasanna Rupathilaka, who were born in Pannipitiya, south of Colombo, are brothers. They are the actual ritualists and custodians of their spiritual tradition. As a duo – Susantha as the voice and Prasanna on the Yak Beraya drum – they would hold monthly rituals in their community. In the video, we follow them meandering through the forest, dancing and interacting with spiritual altars made out of plants. Here, we get a glimpse of a highly unique spiritual practice through music, itself evolving in the spirits of the band member’s friendships, which has lasted for more than a decade.
By Luise Wolf with contributions from Eshantha Joseph Peiris
The regional rituals are vanishing in Sri Lanka. Only a generation earlier, they played a significant role within village life. The brothers’ father, Singakkara Nekathige Dharniel, would conduct them nearly every day, even in private homes, making his living out of it.
Today, most Sri Lankans would not listen to or even know these rituals, since only a few had been revived as culture heritage. The Rupathilaka brothers are probably the last of their lineage to perform these rituals. These traditions went from being a sacred duty, to an endangered cultural heritage.
In the past, people sought physical healing, as well as mental relief from rituals such as these. They are – as any other spiritual practice – determined by their function: they are not for dancing or enjoyment, but for efficacy. Less determined are the terms of their cultural signification, preservation and transmission, especially within a global music scene.
Since the musicians are not just appropriating, but collaborating with the very custodians of this culture, the band acts as a last authentic preserver and creative developer at the same time. The project gives this musical tradition a second life, opening up its tight contextual and musical rules for new generations. Yet, the way they do this is sensitive and respectful; opening the box and carrying it as a whole instead of only taking the easiest and cheesiest parts out. It’s not mainstreaming, nor is it for commercial enjoyment, yet.
This however, is the most interesting state of a musical transformation.
Ganapathi Kavi Nada
Baliphonics - Ruthirathi Divi
Ravi Bandu - Reem Dheem
Baliphonics - Muninda Raja
Piyasara Shilpadhipathi - Geta Bera Drumming
Rookantha Goonathilaka - Renu Renu
Saman Panapitiya - Giri Devi
Amarasiri Peiris - Chandra Madullen
Baliphonics - Ira Sanda Palamuwa
Amarasiri Peiris - Habal Gasannata
We asked Serendib Sorcerers to curate a playlist that would situate their work in their local context. They chose to highlight songs by musicians who are legends in folk music, an innovator of pop music, as well as an affiliated act.
The audio recordings contained in this playlist have been used for non-commercial, educational purposes in compliance with the fair use provisions of the Intellectual Property Act, No. 36 of 2003.