How music rocked Sri Lanka’s ruling class
After years underground, independent bands are wielding more political influence
By Marco Ferrarese
COLOMBO — Standing on makeshift stages in a city park, groups of musicians banging electric guitars drove adoring crowds into a limb-shaking frenzy. They were also helping to make a revolution.
From March, Sri Lanka was rocked by largely peaceful protests against what people saw as the increasingly corrupt and authoritarian regime of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his brother, former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and key officials linked to the Rajapaksa family and its successors.
Young people have played a major part in the protests, especially with the occupation of Galle Face Green, a 5-hectare oceanside urban park in the centre of the capital, Colombo, where temporary shelters and stages created ‘Gota-Go-Gama’, a mix of Sinhala and English meaning Gotabaya Go Village.
Gota-Go-Gama fast became the main gathering site for a nationwide Aragalaya (struggle) against the Rajapaksas, and a showcase for independent artists, whose work adorns the village’s makeshift tents and stages. Some artworks reflect the protesters’ anger and dissent, while others, such as those by the feminist public art project Fearless Collective, imagine Sri Lanka’s possible future after the struggle.
After weeks of protests Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned on May 9, and Gotabaya Rajapaksa was forced to flee to the Maldives in July after protesters stormed the presidential palace and other state buildings. Social media hashtags such as #GoHomeGota2022 (which surpassed 3 million posts in April), the widespread support of youthful protesters and the contribution of visual artists have all been highlighted as important forces behind the family’s fall.
The tightknit local music scene of globalized underground and alternative rock bands also played – literally – a pivotal role.
“If we look at the rock and metal music scene in Sri Lanka, many of the bands have their songs’ themes shaped around the civil unrest and the continued oppression that civilians had to face throughout the years,” says Sarah Hannan, a Colombo-based reporter for an English language newspaper.
According to Hannan, the uncompromising lyrics of Sri Lankan underground music became a perfect tool to articulate the message of the protests, as well as lightening the mood of the demonstrators, some of whom desperately needed to let their hair down after holding lengthy vigils.
Many of the anthems of Sri Lanka’s underground rock and metal scene have become those of the people’s revolution, she says. “That in itself has given a boost to local creatives to write more music and perform in [more] communities across the country.”
Madawa, a member of the Colombo-based Sinhalese hard rock group Skitzo SL, which often performed at Gota-Go-Gama, says that alternative music played a significant role in the uprising “because of the firm purpose, with a plan to accomplish it, tireless practicing and strong will [that] we had.” He adds: “That kind of self-discipline is not challenging for activists who dream of cultural transformation in a crisis-ridden country like ours.”
Shortly after the ousting of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Colombo’s long-established heavy rock band Paranoid Earthling released its new single, ‘Reign’, ahead of a seven-track album expected toward the end of the year. Produced in the UK by renowned engineer Pete Maher, ‘Reign’ appeared on most streaming platforms on Aug. 8, and directly addresses Sri Lanka’s recent political downfall by singing of the egocentricity of a ruler. The lyrics form a monologue against rebellious citizens whom he seeks to “ostracize” and whose rights he wants to “circumcise”.
The single’s artwork depicts a silhouette of a robotlike dictator looking down from a podium. “It’s [a song] about power and the greed to hold on to it,” says Paranoid Earthling’s frontman Mirshad Buckman. “I wrote it back in 2009 … when Mahinda Rajapaksa was re-elected by the people after ending the Sri Lankan Civil War” — a 1983-2009 conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
“There was a media blackout for a couple of hours before the election commissioner was forced to read the results,” says Buckman. “In the song, it’s the line ‘Now the final hour has come / Shut the network system down.’ All the lyrics were written during those few hours.”
“The start of ‘Reign’ puts you in the ego of a ruling dictator and the thoughts that must have gone through his/her head. The slow part is about the people waiting and waiting for some calamity to spark a revolution to overthrow the dictator,” says Buckman.
Founded in 2001, Paranoid Earthling is a pioneer in the country’s small but tightknit underground and metal music scene and part of a youth movement that emerged during the civil war. Feeding on disillusion and discontent, this community has grown exponentially over the past 20 years, giving musicians an outlet to vent their dissent.
“We as metal bands have always been voicing our opinions on the corruption, injustices and the scum that run not only this country, but the world at large,” says Tony, the guitarist and composer of Colombo-based metal band Mass Damnation. “The people that thrive at the expense of the less fortunate. The metal community always saw through the bullshit that was being fed.”
Tony recalls how the COVID-19 pandemic gridlocked the Sri Lankan music scene until the beginning of this year, when live performances seemed to be starting to pick up again until the economic crisis kicked in, taking Mass Damnation and many other bands off local stages once again.
The people’s uprising and the construction of the Gota-Go-Gama helped to provide Sri Lankan musicians with a platform that could “amplify our messaging, which was otherwise only accessible to those that attended our underground shows and followed our music scene,” says Buckman.
But the aftermath of the pandemic on tourism-reliant Sri Lanka, paired with a continuous and unprecedented economic crisis and amplified by fuel and electricity shortages, have made it more difficult for musicians to be heard.
“The current situation has made it harder for individuals to maintain their own lives, and in order to do what we do, you have to be really passionate about the music and the message it carries on a personal and communal level as well,” says Tony. “We try to focus on that as much as possible, regardless of the financial implications.”
“Music doesn’t earn much, and we never get any money to play any of the gigs, not even to cover our transportation costs,” says Charith Lorensuhewa, bassist of the Colombo-based Sinhala-speaking grunge rock band Wakhan Thanka. Since April, Lorensuhewa has played most of the nameless gigs organized in support of the uprising in Galle Face Green and the towns of Kandy, Kottawa and Homagama.
Despite their leading role in the uprising the future looks bleak for Sri Lanka’s rebel musicians and artists, not least because President Ranil Wickremasinghe, who was sworn in on July 20, ordered a crackdown on the Gota Go Gama less than 24 hours later. Wickremasinghe’s administration has failed to resolve the country’s economic crisis, and remains reliant on parliamentary support from the Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party.
In one way or another, however, Sri Lanka’s riffs and wails will prevail. “We continue because of passion, as I’d be a very empty person without music. I am doing whatever job I can on the side to keep going,” says Lorensuhewa. “Sometimes I feel like a fool, but in this political climate, that’s the only option we have.”
– Marco Ferrarese is a contributing writer for asia.nikkei.com where this article was originally featured