To the city

Sura Medura is an international artist’s residency centre in Sri Lanka. I was invited on the six week residency programme in late 2018 as a sound artist and musician. This blog is an account of my experience. Read part 1 here.

In the last entry I talked about my intentions and expectations for the residency, how they were met and how they changed as I settled in and began experimenting. This time I’m networking in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital.

In order to realise my ambition of collaborating with Sri Lankan musicians it quickly became clear that I’d need to spend some time in Colombo. Arun and Venuri, two of the artists we’d worked with in the first week, put me in touch with some of their friends, so off I set on the rattling train.

After I’d checked in to my guesthouse in the Colombo 5 district I headed to a jazz gig at the nearby Hansa Coffee. Drummer Sumudi runs Musicmatters, a music school in the north of the city, and I was keen to chat to him. After a wonderful set accompanied by Roberto, a Mexican keyboardist, I described my plans, realising as I did so that I didn’t have a very clear idea beyond ‘meet Sri Lankan musicians’. Despite my vagueness, Sumudi was open to meeting again!

Thursday was spent researching; Friday was a day of coincidences. Sumudi looked vaguely familiar but I couldn’t think how I could possibly know him. However, some unconnected research led me to learn he studied in New Zealand, which was when the penny dropped. Whilst travelling in New Zealand in 2009 I happened upon a concert by some Sri Lankan musicians in Dunedin Art Gallery, one of whom was none other than Sumudi! Their intricate and experimental concert sticks in my mind because it was a small seed of inspiration in my decision to do my Masters.

It also turned out that my guesthouse owner knew Sanchitha, owner of Sooriya Village, a performance space and music studio with a rich musical heritage. A meeting was set up and Sanchita gave me some great advice and contacts. It’s a small world indeed, and I do love a coincidence.

My fellow artists came up to the city for the weekend and on Friday night we headed to a gig at Musicmatters. Colombo 0200 Kinesthetics delivered a set of wonderfully freewheeling psychedelia, while aptly named The Soul complimented their titular style with doses of dub and indie. Both bands played brilliantly and there was a friendly, inclusive, joyful atmosphere that felt like a genuine slice of Colombo’s underground scene.

Meanwhile time was ticking on and I was very eager to do some tangible work. The residency is a rare and invaluable opportunity to devote 6 weeks to a project, but that brings with it a slight disconnect – most people remain in the ‘real world’ and their spare time is understandably precious, and so it was with the people I was meeting. I was also becoming increasingly aware that I needed to be clear and confident with my creative intentions in order for people to want to work with me.

This became embarrassingly clear when I visited the music department of the University of the Visual and Performing Arts. The woman with whom I spoke listened patiently to my vague request to meet traditional Sri Lankan musicians, but she was frustrated at my lack of specifics. Without an academic basis, why should their tutors and students give up their time and expertise for one foreign artist, especially during exam time? It was an awkward exchange but she had a point, and I’ve endeavoured to be clearer since then.

Colombo isn’t as frenetic as many South East Asian cities but it’s certainly more so than my adopted home of Edinburgh. As the days went on – me in Residency Time, everyone else in Real World Time – the city began wearing me down a bit. I took solace in good coffee, food and nighttime walks past illuminated banyan trees whilst I waited for something to happen.

As is often the way with networking, everything came good at the last minute. I’d got in touch with Thaji, lead dancer at the Chitrasena Dance Company, who invited me to attend their Monday evening rehearsal. On her suggestion I also messaged Sri Lankan dance, performance and drumming legend Ravibandu Vidyapathi. He called me back and offered to come with his son and work with me for a day in Hikkaduwa. I was humbled by his generosity and eagerness to help and greatly look forward to our time together.

On Monday we all presented our work to the Faculty of Visual Arts at the University. The students seemed engaged and it was interesting to see the setup at the University. That evening, my visit to Chitrasena Dance Company was inspiring. Three generations of women teach and/or dance there including Thaji, her aunt Upeka and grandmother Varija. They were incredibly open and passionate, giving me fascinating insights into the Kandyan ritual and tradition on which their contemporary practice is based. Most exciting for me was the final section of their rehearsal where the dancers took turns to lead as the other dancers and drummers followed. There is a formalised syntax of dance moves and corresponding drum patterns, and this semi-improvised section reverses the regular roles so the drummers take their cues from the lead dancer’s movements. The virtuosity, energy and syncopation was thrilling and moving. After the rehearsal I spoke to drummer Waruna, who allowed me to record some of his playing.

The next day was my last in Colombo and I visited Sumudi at Musicmatters for a jam. I trained a mic on his drum kit and fed his playing through a tried and tested array of effects for real-time augmentation of the sound. It was great to finally crack out my equipment and we had a fun improv session with some nice, serendipitous moments. Sumudi has been working for some years on transcribing traditional drum patterns to the kit, and I recorded some of these intricate, jazzy phrases.

I returned satisfied to Hikkaduwa on a packed, sweaty train, recording the rhythmic clatter and looking forward to jumping in the sea. I’d been in the city for longer than I intended but I’d met some talented, generous people and gathered some fantastic inspiration and material for my project. The semi-improvised finale to the dance rehearsal gave me ideas for call and response in my own work. Talking to Waruna and Sumudi (as well as recording their playing) gave me ideas about timing and structure. It was time to start bringing it all together, along with my field recordings and experiments from the first week.