February 2016


A Song for everyone
February 2016




An image of a tree house from where menfolk guard their precious crops at night

Folk songs have been a big part of Sri Lankan life for centuries, forming a crucial part of both work and recreation. From providing a rhythm for manual tasks to offering a chance to share sorrow with others, Sri Lanka's folk songs are an important part of its musical heritage.


Words Jennifer Paldano Goonewardena


A man sits in a tree house, guarding his crops. The dangers that lurk in the dark spell uncertainty and fear. The silence is piercing and unbearable. He breaks into song, a relief from the monotony of keeping watch. The melancholy melody of a lone man echoes through the air on a frozen night. The wind carries his voice to another lonely guardsman, who responds in song to the delight of the other. This is the tale of two solitary sentries passing time on a weary night, finding harmony through song.


Folk songs or jana kavi in Sinhala, have for centuries been a creative form of art associated with village life, its people and their work. Unlike written texts, Sri Lankan folk songs and singing have been passed down the generations through oral tradition and, until their introduction into formal education after independence in the 1950s, most folk songs remained chronicled in the memories of natives. Consequently, they were outside the realm of conventional literary works. Like the man keeping watch in his chena at night, for whom jana kavi were not just a distraction from boredom, but an expression of fear of the unknown, the songs can alleviate the torment of solitude and find unison with a fellow being in a moment of disquiet.


Sinhala folk songs contained humour, the quality of unpretentiousness and a degree of sensuality. The composer was uninhibited, frank and spontaneous. But within that freedom was a framework or book of unwritten rules in crafting songs. Creativity was a key character of Sinhala folk songs; they were interactive, standalone works bearing structural variations, and were instructional. Within the creative mind of the composer was a penchant for the use of simple language. Because people working in the paddy field, chena, mine or transporting merchandise in a boat intended everyone around to hear and feel the recitation, the spontaneous verses were expressed in the spoken language of the day. Being collective tasks, folk songs were a combination of an individual chanting in a group, collective singing by members of a group or interactive discourses.


Respect was also an essential part of the compositions. For instance, some folk songs demonstrated regard for kindred, the love of parents for children and vice versa. The expression of love fused with sensuality in folk songs articulated youthful love, affection of a man for his female kindred or cousin, or lovers at dusk. The description of nature, and the beauty of the female body, was common. In the heat of the day, the woman is a placid breeze, in the coldness of the river she's his warmth. In the darkness of the night she's his moon. She's the first rays of the sun to the man who wakens early. The sadness of a lover in the absence of his mistress made even things of beauty seem fruitless.

There was depth in their composition. For instance, Karaththa Kavi, sung by men transporting goods along rough roads into villages, empathised with the plight of the bull
It is often thought that folk songs was a means of entertainment. But Saman Panapitiya, Head of the Department of Ethno-Musicology, University of the Visual and Performing Arts, takes umbrage at such a trivialisation of spontaneous creativity. Folk songs were not confined to expressions of sorrowful sentiments of working people or avenues for frivolous enjoyment. In fact, folk songs were a way to achieve unison in the performance of certain tasks. There was depth in their composition. For instance, Karaththa Kavi, sung by men transporting goods along rough roads into villages, empathised with the plight of the bull, a demonstration of Buddhist ethos against animal cruelty. In another song, the lyricist regrets his unkind treatment of the animal, prodding it with smacks. Others treat the animal with reverence, the man and the animal seen as victims of karma.


Paru Kavi, associated with men transporting supplies along rivers, were sung to ensure that every boat stayed the course, when avenues for communication were few and there was a constant threat of the vessel tipping over or being waylaid by thieves. But the beauty of their songs were obvious, such as the description of the moon's rays on the spire of the Mahiyangana stupa, which illuminated the river path for the boatmen to navigate through.


Folk songs associated with the mining industry were not sung while the men were at work in the mines, says Saman Panapitiya, just like Bambara Kavi were never sung by men harvesting honey from bee hives. Miners drawn from across the country congregated after a gruelling day's work. A popular folk song expressed the despondency of the miner, separated from family and home, lamenting the pitiable status of his vocation and pining to see his parents. Many such folk songs came into being as the traditional village economy evolved into a more manipulative, profit-based economy, marked by clear division of labour and the worker felt exploited by the employer, and expressed his displeasure in song.

Paru Kavi, associated with men transporting supplies along rivers, were sung to ensure that every boat stayed the course
Many folk songs were associated with agriculture, especially paddy cultivation, an integral part of the village economy. Agricultural work was a collective endeavour, with free contributions of family labour in a system known as Áththam, people taking turns to help in each other's field. Described as Nelum Kavi, Goyam Kavi and Kamath Kavi, the songs were not mere monotony breakers, but a method to perform certain tasks with consistency and evenness. For instance, women folk who engaged in replanting or harvesting, sang to a shifting rhythm to achieve unison in the routine, ensuring that tasks were performed with regularity. While it was a tactic to ensure effectiveness, it also provided a degree of consolation from the scorching sun. Likewise, Del Kavi ensured that pulling fish-laden nets ashore remained rhythmic, which made the task faster and more effective.


The variety of folk songs is almost endless; from lullabies to damsels riding on swings to recreational songs. Today, in a bid to preserve the tradition, folk songs have entered the public domain of entertainment accompanied by instruments and colourful costumes. Even with the passage of time, folk songs, once the tuneful reflections of simple folk sung to the humble score of a drum, remain part of Sri Lanka's heritage and a testimony to lives lived on the fringes.

 

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    With a fire to keep wild animals at bay, the folk song is therapy to beat the fear of the unknown

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    All that is required to pull a heavily laden net ashore is ample men and a song

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    Ambling through village roads for days, the animal burdened to the extreme, the folk song takes pity on the misery of the creature

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    Men at work in the mines sing in soulful melody of their plight and the arduousness of their work in the mines

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    For ages men have stayed the course along mighty rivers in the shadows of the night with the echoes of the Paru Kavi

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    Ploughing the land the conventional way accompanied by traditional singing is still practised in Sri Lanka

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    Replanting paddy saplings is an exhaustive and meticulous task and a folk song achieves that much needed unison

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    Work on the threshing floor is made easier with Kamath Kavi

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