The voice from Moratuwa that reached the world | Daily News

The voice from Moratuwa that reached the world

Millions of Sri Lankans woke up on Monday morning to see the news alert text on their mobile phones, informing them about the demise of music legend Sunil Perera at the age of 68 after COVID-19 complications.

For more than 50 years this amazing singer and musician rocked Sri Lanka with many pulsating super hits. He was known affectionately to all Sri Lankans as “Sunil Aiya”. Apart from his powerful voice projection, his down to earth ways and simplicity was the prime reason that he became so popular, and his death is mourned by the entire nation.

As a band, the Gypsies came into being in the early 1970s due to the guidance and motivation of Sunil’s father Anton Perera. He is the person who inspired and encouraged his sons in their musical quest, and even gave them the name for their band, which evokes exotic travel. The young men were trained by Winston Jayawardena (guitar) and Joy Ferdinando (keyboards). The original lineup featured the Perera brothers and their cousins. During this era, the late Clarence Wijewardena had made a paradigm shift in Sinhala pop music and had created a huge fan base for himself.

The Gypsies initially were a ‘Western Band” but then decided to shift to Sinhalese pop music in 1973. They entered the circuit with their first two songs Linda Langa Sangamaya (about a group of women who gather around the community well to exchange village gossip) and Amma Amma (about a young man who is desperate to get married, but does not have the heart to tell his father). In that era Vijaya Corea, the master of broadcasting, faithfully aired their songs on the SLBC Services, carrying the sound of the Gypsies across Sri Lanka. Since that day, the boys from Moratuwa steadily captured Sri Lanka with fabulous hits via the radio and later cassettes, and then reached audiences across the globe thanks to YouTube and the Internet.

When we were schoolboys, we grew up listening to the golden voice of Sunil Perera. We recorded his songs from the SLBC channel onto our TDK cassettes. We enjoyed seeing his music videos on ITN and Rupavahini, the only channels that were on the air back then. Some of our school day favourites were Lunu Dehi (about the magical combination of lime and salt), O Jaye (about the indigenous people), Noney Mage Sudu Noney (about a drunken husband’s arrival at home in a state of stupor), Kurumitto (about music-loving aliens), Uncle Johnson (about a Jubilee Wedding Anniversary party that ended in fisticuffs), Sina Sina (about the value of laughter), Numba Naadan (about a young man who is unsuccessful at everything he does), and Piti Kotapan Noney (about a husband appealing to his wife to make string hoppers). Sunil later released a peace song uniting all Sri Lankans, along with other local artistes titled Lowe Sama-Ekama Deye (All of us in this world are bound by the bond of humanity) which further propelled him to stardom. Years later, he released hits like I Don’t Know Why, Signore (about a defeated politician), Davasak Da Re Heenen (about him becoming a teacher in a dream) and the comical hit Koththamalli (Coriander) - which is relevant to the present pandemic situation as well. Apart from the fast numbers, he delivered some slow and sentimental hits such as Oba Dutu Ea Mul Dine (the day I first saw you) and with his brother Piyal, Oba Kemathi Nam Mata Kiyanna (tell me if you like). All his cassettes, LPs and later CDs, sold like hotcakes islandwide. The Gypsies also introduced ‘non-stop’ cassettes to the Sri Lankan market. No party or wedding in Sri Lanka is complete without his hits, even in the North where some people are not conversant in the Sinhala language.

After enjoying his music as a youth, I first met Sunil Perera when I started work as a junior executive at the Holiday Inn Hotel, which presently operates as Ramada Colombo. For all Star Class hotels, the most happening night is the 31st Night Dinner Dance. I was associated with this event at the Holiday Inn for 10 years. During this time the dynamic Gypsies performed many times at this dinner dance. Every year they played, the dance was a sell-out. By the first week of November, the bands came to sign their contracts with the hotel. My mentor and veteran hotelier M. Shanthikumar (Director Operations) and Lasantha de Silva (F&B Manager) were the gentlemen who signed on behalf of the hotel. The moment Sunil Perera walked into our office he said so many funny things and our office used to resonate with laughter. The trend was to have two bands at the dance (now called ‘attack shows’) and the other bands that enhanced the celebrations were Summerset, Kings led by Chandral Fonseka and Super Pink & Purple led by Lincoln Perera. There were individual artistes in the calibre of Baila legend Desmond de Silva, Rajiv Sebastian, A.E. Manoharan, the duke of Tamil pop and that jolly entertainer the late Ronnie Leitch.

Organising a dinner dance of this magnitude for 800 guests was a massive task. Under the guidance of Shanthikumar and Lasantha de Silva, my colleague Chaminda Hettiarachchi and I worked well in advance for two weeks with our senior colleagues Sebastian Premaratne (Banquet Manager) and the late Prasanna Wijesekera (Executive Chef). On December 31, by around 11 a.m. the Gypsies came to do their sound check at the opulent Liberty Ballroom. As always, Sunil Perera made a silent entry.

The moment he entered the hall, the banquet team used to gather around him. He realised their long hours of setting up the dance floor and dining tables. Sunil Aiya took time to speak with them and appreciated their work. He treated the sound technicians and electricians with respect. Sunil was never demanding but he achieved the desired perfection. He played one of his hits for the banquet staff as they continued to place the cutlery and wine glasses on the tables. Having completed their sound check, the band left and returned around 7.30 pm to the hotel.

The Liberty Ballroom is located on the second floor. When the hotel elevators were busy with guests, Sunil, the leader of the Gypsies humbly walked up the stairs. When he took the stage, the audience was mesmerised by his evergreen voice. He urged the people to dance and sometimes turned the microphone over to the audience to sing along. He was the best “frontman” of any Sri Lankan band as he engaged the guests with jokes and threw in some advice on adhering to one’s New Year resolutions. Chaminda Hettiarachchi and I stood backstage holding on to the 10 airline tickets and guarding the other expensive prizes for the night’s super draw. During the break, Sunil Aiya used to come and ask us if we had our dinner. This was his genuine care and love for all humans. At the end of the dance, the guests left. Sunil Perera made sure to wish every staff member on duty a ‘happy new year’ before the band left. Sunil Aiya always wore a hat and a trademark cross on his chain, and he gently manifested God’s love in his own way. We cherish these golden memories in our hearts.

Sunil could deliver musical excellence in English and Sinhalese with ease and passion. All his songs were creative and original. The legendary voice of this awesome son of Moratuwa will be missed forever. Sunil Perera was not just a talented musician; he was a true son of Sri Lanka who united this nation with his sterling music. We will always remember you as your voice continues to serenade us from heaven.

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