By Ashanti OMkar
`The Gypsies' - a band name synonymous with Sri Lanka and its Sinhalese pop strand of music, which is known as Baila. The music itself has origins from the Portuguese dance tunes, which were brought to the Island of Sri Lanka back in the 1500's. Baila music itself can be classed as `party music'; with it's rhythms and chords faithful to the original Portuguese ones. MS Fernando, known as the Baila King of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), was one of the original propagators of this music, making it popular among the masses.
Officially launched by the father of Sunil & Piyal Perera, `The Gypsies' formed in 1970, with a bunch of talented teenagers, 4 brothers and 3 cousins, Sunil taking the centre stage with his singing prowess and the rest of the band backing with cover music of Western Pop and Sinhalese Baila, playing for various local shows. As time went on, the band evolved, members getting married and moving on into business and with a few changes in line-up, the last 8 years have shown the 6 member strong band - Sunil on main vocals, His brother, Piyal on drums, Dileepa and Cumar on keyboards, Niresh on other drums and Derek on bass. The female vocalists change with the times, keeping this band flexible according to the show required! Corinne Almeida has been a regular feature with the band for years.
The big bang in the Sinhala Pop scene also happened in the 70's, where the influences of people like Clarence Wijeywardena spawned Sunil and his band to start writing their own music - innovative styles, humorous, tongue in cheek lyrics and attacking the social issues surrounding the listeners were the elements that brought the new genre of Sri Lankan Pop music. This is what has given `The Gypsies' a unique standing within Sri Lankan's all over the world and kept the audience rapt.
From 1970 onwards, `The Gypsies' released plenty of hit albums, their latest one being the Re-Mix album of their 70's hits, called `Gypsies Platinum', which is available in Asian music shops worldwide. Prominent world musicians like AR Rahman have noticed some of their major hits, and some of the words `The Gypsies' coined via their music have become slang terms amongst youngsters. The song, `Ojaye', a huge hit was written as a calling to the native settlers of Lanka, the Veddas, this word appeared in the major hit by AR Rahman, from the film Thenali, for the song Injerungo - a song featuring a Sri Lankan man (played by Kamal Hassan) who comes to India to settle there.
In a major `dinner and dance' style concert, sponsored by Prem Sivasamy's "Voice Telecom" and organised by Bala, the Gypsies rocked 500 odd people in Wembley Plaza Hotel, making the show the highlight of the festive season for many a Sri Lankan - to point out, the attendance was not just the Sinhalese speakers, but many Tamil people, North Indians and Even West Indians attended this event and thoroughly enjoyed it. Although the compare was weak in his announcements, The Gypsies front man, Sunil took over the mike and the momentum went up from there! The Gypsies have the capacity to not only draw the crowds but also to keep them partying for hours on end - the music never getting stale and the hits coming one after another! They performed a mix of music, the sounds blending harmoniously and the vocals staying true to pitch. Songs like `Ekatta Kamak Na' (It doesn't matter), a set of Reggae numbers, like Bob Marley's `One Love' and songs by the famous Gipsy Kings were keeping all the young and old on their dancing toes! Piyal Perera performed the famous Tamil pop hit, `Adi Ennadi Rakamma' with ultimate finesse, drumming and singing at the sae time! This in my opinion was the highlight of the evening.
Sunil from the Gypsies told the Asian Post about his views on peace "Although language and religion divide us, my love for us as Sri Lankan people compels me to as that we Sri Lankan's must stick together as one race - we are from the same mother land, let us put an end to this ethnic war." About the music, he says, "We are going to be putting together an album of our Sinhalese hits, sung in the Tamil language, to encourage togetherness". For young bands in Sri Lanka, he says "To stand the test of time, quality is not the only need, but originality is the important concept - when someone listens to your music, they must know your unique sound and writing your own material rather than doing cover versions is key".
To keep up-to-date with `The Gypsies', buy their albums and keep abreast of tours, their official website can be found at: www.gypsies.lk
This article was published in The Asian Post, when the Gipsies were touring in London, January 2004.