Beat that beat! | Daily News


Beat that beat!

Playing African Xylophone known as the “Balafon” or “Balangi”. Pictures by Nirosh Batepola
Playing African Xylophone known as the “Balafon” or “Balangi”. Pictures by Nirosh Batepola

Music is a universal language. This is the story of a Lankan woman who broke the cultural barriers with the beats of her drum. Dr. Prashanthi Mendis is an accomplished musician and a lawyer. She has an inborn talent for music and plays the violin and the piano but the specialty in her music is the playing of African xylophone and the Caribbean steel drums. She has lived in many regions of the world for over 30 years and studied their music as an ethnomusicologist. Thrilling many audiences abroad with her unique renditions on the Caribbean steel drums, she is the only Steel Drum artiste in Sri Lanka.

So what are these Caribbean Steel Drums? Daily News Melodies met her to find out. “The Caribbean Steel Drums originated in Trinidad and Tobago (West Indies/Caribbean). It is an amazing 20th century invention on which any type of music can be played. Caribbean Steel Drums use the mallet technique similar to the African Xylophone known as the “Balafon” or “Balangi”. Hence, there is a connection between the Caribbean steel drums and African xylophones. However, the notes are not arranged in a scale sequence as in other musical instruments and therefore demands flexibility and agility especially from a solo performing artiste. This musical invention now serves as an Afro-Caribbean/African musical legacy to the world. The sonorous sound of steel drums is enjoyed today by many people and audiences across the world,” she explained.

Mendis adds that this instrument is made by the slaves. “I lived in the Caribbean region with my family for over 15 years including six years in Guyana in South America – Headquarters of the Caribbean Community/CARICOM Secretariat. As soon as I heard the sound of drums in the twin island State of St. Kitts and Nevis in the 1980s during the time of Independence from Britain, I decided to learn this instrument. I became more and more interested in mastering this instrument. People thought I was out of my mind as they thought violin and piano to be prestigious. This instrument was made by the slaves and there was a stigma attached to it. By the time I left the region I opened the doors for many to take up learning this. I visited carnivals in the region and New York City and began to play this instrument at many functions and events,” She said.

She went on to explain that a Steel Band consists of 10 to 20 drums or “pans” in different sizes. The notes of the drums in a Steel Band are manually tuned with a rounded hammer to an orchestral range of notes. They were originally turned out of discarded crude oil barrels.

“The length of the skirt of the drums determines the pitch-range of different drums or “pans” in a Steel Band. These drums are generally classified as “Soprano Pans”, “Double Seconds (Alto) Pans”, “Double Tenor Pans”, “Double Guitar Pans”, “Triple Cello (Baritone) Pans” and “Bass Pans” consisting of five or six full length drums (oil barrels) depending on the preference of tuners of different steel bands. In modern times, the making of steel drums is sophisticated and they are made of high quality metal in many countries such as USA, UK, Germany and South Africa. My Double Seconds Pans were made in Dortmund, Germany – the country known for producing high quality steel,” she explained.

Prashanthi has played the steel drums in many parts of the world. At the beginning, she played the drums only in the Caribbean region and later, she played in the USA and at the Latter Day Saints (Mormon) Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA, at the invitation of a Mormon friend who lives in Utah. In the 1990s, she served as the Director of Harmonites Steel Band of Harston School in Cambridge, UK, as British children had to learn an ethnic musical instrument to comply with their curriculum requirements. She has directed the band and played at annual May Balls, BBC concerts at the Corn Exchange Concert Hall, festivals and functions organized by companies such as Marks & Spencer.

“It was a very interesting exercise for me to teach this Caribbean musical instrument to British students, although I was not of Caribbean or African origin. During my stay in Vienna, Austria as wife of Sri Lanka’s Ambassador, I performed at many prestigious concert halls in Vienna, accompanied by concert pianists and members of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. I performed at the Musikverein Brahms-saal, Schönbrunn Orangerie, Böesendorfer-saal, the Barock-saal des Alten Rathauses for the benefit of the children of Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Philippines and Sri Lanka. For the cause of tsunami victims, I performed at the “Rotunda” circular hall of the UN in Vienna, Austria and also at the Federal Parliament of Austria. At the Böesendorfer concert, I enjoyed playing with the famous harpist – Professor Arcola Clarke of Graz University, as the harp and the Caribbean steel drums constituted an extraordinary and unique blend of the most ancient instrument dating back to Egyptian times with the most modern musical invention of the 20th century,” she said.

“In Austria, I played famous Austrian compositions and other compositions loved by Austrian concert audiences. These compositions included “The Beautiful Blue Danube Waltz” composed by Johannes Strauss Junior, “Radetsky March” composed by Johannes Strauss Senior, “Vienna City of my Dreams” composed by the Austrian composer – Rudolf Sieczynski, “Merry Widow Waltz” composed by the Austro-Hungarian composer – Franz Lehar, and other compositions by the French composer Georges Bizet such as “Habanera” and “March of the Toreadors” from the Opera - “Carmen”. I also performed as Solo Steelpan Artiste at the Johann Strauss Festival (2004) in Oradea, Romania at the invitation Aigner Strauss, the only survivor of the famous Strauss family. At the Oradea Concert Hall, I played the Beautiful Blue Danube Waltz and the “Romanian Waltz”, also known as “Waves of the Danube”, composed by the Romanian composer, Ion Ivanovici,” she elaborated.

After returning to Sri Lanka, she played the steel drums with Friends in Harmony Orchestra at various concerts, weddings, corporate functions, etc. “At this time, I played a varied repertoire including many Sinhala songs such as “Ganga Addara”, “Nim Him Sewwa”, “Handa Pane”, “Kimada Nawe” and Bailas. I am a long-standing member of this Orchestra and I am now the Co-director with the FTCL qualified accomplished Founder Director, Indrani Wijesundera. I will continue to play this instrument and popularize it among the people of Sri Lanka, as it is an amazing musical instrument which can accompany Sinhala songs beautifully with its sonorous sound. I would also like to turn out these instruments in Sri Lanka with the help of musical technicians. These drums are extremely good to play and also accompany Bailas which we have inherited from the Portuguese in the same way as Calypsos are played in the West Indies/Caribbean,” She talked on her future plans promising her Sri Lankan audience more musical renditions for them to enjoy.


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