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Reflections on return of Sri Lanka’s multifaceted Manike, Yohani

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By Rohana R. Wasala

Sri Lankan singer and rapper Yohani Diloka de Silva returned to the island on October 13, 2021, after a two-week visit to India. The presence of police outriders to escort her as she left the airport showed that she was being provided special security. Yohani had been given a rousing welcome in that India. Apart from the public shows and the various interviews in which she appeared, hosted by a number of national TV and social media channels, a highlight of her tour was her participation in the Bigg Boss reality television show conducted by one of the mega stars of Indian cinema Salman Khan. The veteran actor repeated after Yohani a few lines from her Manike Mage song. This was no doubt a novel experience for him. As Yohani remarked on her arrival at Katunayake airport, while Sri Lanka was known to the Indians, the Sinhala language was not. She had sung a number of Sinhala songs and she got a very positive reaction from the audiences. This incidental introduction of Sinhala to the youthful world beyond Sri Lanka is a significant event of national importance that has accrued from Yohani’s overnight stardom.

The near complete anonymity (outside of Sri Lanka) of the Sinhala language and the ethnic community known as the Sinhalese who have spoken it as their native tongue over the millennia has already produced very negative results for the whole country internationally, as Sinhala speakers form the majority (Those who bristle at the mention of this fact, please think and be fair minded). Both the language and the community have been eclipsed by Sri Lanka’s huge northern neighbour India with its teeming millions speaking diverse languages, with none of which Sinhala has any dialectal relation (i.e., Sinhala had its own distinct historical origins and evolved in an entirely different geographical location, the small island of Sinhale or Ceylon, today called Sri Lanka). A natural by-product of Yohani’s sudden rise to international celebrity status is that, for most people in the world, it opened a window on the Sinhala language and the Sinhalese who are the majority in Sri Lanka.  Yohani is an ethnic Sinhalese. She is proud of her mother tongue Sinhala and her motherland Sri Lanka.  (Aside: Of course, I think, she comes from a normally English using background, as is the case with anybody who is somebody in the emerging Sri Lanka, where English will continue to prevail as the working language for most people, and hence that of education. This is not incompatible with her concern, as a socially aware young woman, for her own language and country. Sri Lanka’s future belongs to young people of Yohani’s type.)

To a journalist’s not very intelligent question whether she would think of taking to politics given her immense popularity (as if a political career could possibly be her next ideal goal!), her amused reply was a clear negative: “No, no. I am an artiste, and I am satisfied with that. I want to pursue my musical career.”

Due to Yohani’s gradual emergence over the past two or three years, first as a bilingual (Sinhala and English), then as a multilingual, singer and rapper, Sri Lanka is sliding into international fame, perhaps for the first time since the Cricket World Cup win in 1996, but on a much larger scale. Her dazzling shoot to global stardom seems to have given a boost to the country’s difficult process of coming in from the cold of virtual international isolation imposed on it by the powers that be due to geopolitics-driven false propaganda. The young singer and rapper Yohani’s video of her cover song ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ (Lady in My Heart), featuring fellow artiste Satheeshan Ratnayake, went viral overnight, and has got 151.7M views by now. This is an astronomically high number of views for a YouTube video of a Sri Lankan artiste singing in Sinhala, the native tongue of over 75% (actually over 80%) of Sri Lankans, though hardly known outside Sri Lanka as stated above.

The video triggered the unexpected Yohani phenomenon that is currently sweeping the cross-border popular music scene, particularly in subcontinental India, Europe and America. (May it not be a short lived Yohani craze!) It is bound to have an immense revitalising effect on the young Sri Lankan music entrepreneurs’ foray into the regional and global music market. The whole affair will provide an unprecedentedly powerful impetus for defining and projecting the musical, linguistic and literary  aspects of our cultural identity and heritage to the outside world. Most Sri Lankans across the world, gazing up for a new star of hope to delight their sight and refresh their morale, warmly welcomed her sudden rise to starry heights.

Incidentally, ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ has by now (October 13) got over 152 million You Tube views. Over the past weeks she was interviewed by a number national TV channels in India. She’s also been contracted by the mega Indian entertainment company (started 1983) T-Series, whose You Tube channel currently has 195M subscribers (and this number is bound to rise further due to the co-option of Yohani).

“SHIDDAT – JOURNEY BEYOND LOVE” is a Hindi language film made under the banners of T-Series and Maddock Films Pvt Ltd in India. The film was released on October 1, 2021. The official female version of the title song of this film was sung by Yohani de Silva of Sri Lanka. For me personally, Yohani’s perfect rendering of the Shiddat song is even more enthralling than her original cover song in Sinhala ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ that made her world famous.

Yohani generously shares the credit for the success of her cover song ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ with the members of her young team: the gifted musician Chamath Sangeeth whom she implicitly recognises as the principal contributor to the magic of ‘Manike Mage Hithe’, her competent co-artiste, singer and  rapper Satheeshan Rathnayake, who, in fact, sang the song first, creative rapper and lyricist Dulanja Alwis, skilled guitarist Shane Vas, and versatile video director, editor and colourist Pasindu Kaushalya. As one interested in the study of verbal arts,

I have followed these professionals  being hosted in some TV and social media videos. Something that I have realised about these young geniuses (I honestly think that they deserve that description.) is that all of them take their chosen fields seriously and work hard to achieve excellence; they have a highly cultured, non-mercenary, professional attitude towards their art. They are keenly aware of the inspirational legacy that the greats of the past in Sinhala music have left and acknowledge the debt they owe them.  Equally heartening is the fact that these young artistes display an unselfconscious love of their motherland and take pride in a genuine sense of inclusive national cultural identity as Sri Lankans. They do not come exclusively from one social background; it is a mixture of urban, suburban, and rural; Satheeshan is from a village in Kegalle, Chamath is from Moratuwa and only Yohani is from Colombo.

Yohani Diloka de Silva was born and lives in Colombo. She attended the leading girls’ school Visakha Vidyalaya up to her OLs. During her schooling in Sri Lanka, she took part in sports (swimming and water polo) and group events. Then she proceeded to London in 2012, where she studied at the Hatch End High School and completed her ALs. Having returned to Sri Lanka she got admission to the Kotalawala Defence University, Kandawala, Ratmalana, and obtained her first degree in Logistics. Then she went to Australia for her Master’s. Having obtained a Master’s degree in Accounting with distinction, she returned home to Sri Lanka.  While studying abroad, she pursued her musical training. Later she dabbled in photography, even covering weddings. Yohani drifted into music somewhat accidentally, it appears. She did some club singing to earn some extra income, as she wanted to be financially independent (of her parents).

She has engaged in her musical career in a more professional way since 2019. Bhatiya Jayakody, a senior musical artiste and entrepreneur who has for years adopted a mentoring attitude towards her, says that Yohani is a ‘very intelligent and smart’ artiste. He is one who got her to perform in his shows before, and foresaw a great career in music for her. Asked by Iraj about her main target (Iraj is another very successful Sri Lankan musician with  international appeal and lucrative business engagements abroad), on a Yfm Channel interview in January 2020, Yohani replied that she wanted to work with international artistes. To reach her target she’s worked with a vengeance. It is basically thanks to her own initiative and hard training that she is where she is today.

Yohani is the elder of the two daughters of Major General Prasanna de Silva who commanded the 55th Division of the Sri Lanka Army in the final anti-terrorist war that ended in victory in 2009. She sings about her soldier father in one of her brilliant songs (her own lyrics and melody): “raevvath daesin” “though you looked at me with angry eyes”. Prasanna de Silva played a very prominent role in that war, making many personal sacrifices. ‘Road to Nandikadal: True Story of Defeating Tamil Tigers’ (2016) written by his comrade-in-arms Major General Kamal Gunaratne (present secretary to the defence ministry) features a photograph of Major General Prasanna de Silva under the general caption ‘Immortal leaders of the final war’. Her mother Dinithi de Silva worked as an air hostess at Sri Lankan Airlines. Yohani’s sister who is younger is studying medicine in Russia to become a doctor. During her childhood, she and her family suffered many hardships (some of these are mentioned in the song “raevvath daesin”) due to the circumstance that her father was serving in the army in the embattled North to save the country from terrorism.

Yohani seems to have inherited her father’s soldierly qualities of personal courage, doggedness, and sangfroid in her personal and professional life. She is multi-talented. Apart from being a singer and rapper, she is a songwriter, model, and photographer. She’s had to endure baseless attacks on her personal reputation in the social media, provoked as usual by the green-eyed monster. Though she was thoroughly upset by this at the beginning, her parents advised her to ignore such cowardly harassment and get on with her life. That’s what she has done. She emerged unscathed from the abuse of her celebrity status by social media purveyors of pornography, something that can be safely ignored. With her new star status, she’s started receiving keen attention from our big neighbour India.

India recognized Yohani’s achievement even before her own country Sri Lanka did so, about which I had some misgivings at first. But now I have realised that it is just as well, because, considering the larger size and wider global reach of the Indian music market, the Indian recognition of Yohani is bound to be much more productive than tiny Sri Lanka’s, as it is being demonstrated currently. Her two-week long Indian visit is proving to be an ideal springboard to wider international conquest for Yohani.

However, no outside power, whether friend or foe, should be allowed to expropriate this Sri Lanka’s multifaceted diamond of inestimable value. Yohani is a trailblazer for all Sri Lankan youth who must take over the country in due course and forge a resplendent future for it.



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Features

UK support for govt.’s pragmatic reconciliation process

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Lord Ahmad with GL

By Jehan Perera

The government would be relieved by the non-critical assessment by visiting UK Minister for South Asia, United Nations and the Commonwealth, Lord Tariq Ahmad of his visit to Sri Lanka. He has commended the progress Sri Lanka had made in human rights and in other areas as well, such as environmental protection. He has pledged UK support to the country. According to the President’s Media Division “Lord Tariq Ahmad further stated that Sri Lanka will be able to resolve all issues pertaining to human rights by moving forward with a pragmatic approach.” The Minister, who had visited the north and east of the country and met with war-affected persons tweeted that he “emphasised the need for GoSL to make progress on human rights, reconciliation, and justice and accountability.”

Prior to the Minister’s visit, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had announced in Parliament that his government had not violated nor would support “any form of human rights violations.” This was clearly an aspirational statement as the evidence on the ground belies the words. Significantly he also added that “We reject racism. The present government wants to safeguard the dignity and rights of every citizen in this country in a uniform manner. Therefore I urge those politicians who continue to incite people against each other for narrow political gains to stop doing so.” This would be welcome given the past history especially at election time.

The timing of Lord Ahmad’s visit and the statements made regarding human rights suggest that the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, commencing on February 28, loomed large in the background. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will be presenting a written report on that occasion. A plethora of issues will up for review, including progress on accountability for crimes, missing persons, bringing the Prevention of Terrorism Act in line with international standards, protecting civil society space and treating all people and religions without discrimination.

The UK government has consistently taken a strong position on human rights issues especially in relation to the ethnic conflict and the war which led to large scale human rights violations. The UK has a large Tamil Diaspora who are active in lobbying politicians in that country. As a result some of the UK parliamentarians have taken very critical positions on Sri Lanka. Lord Ahmad’s approach, however, appears to be more on the lines of supporting the government to do the needful with regard to human rights, rather than to condemn it. This would be gratifying to the architects of the government’s international relations and reconciliation process, led by Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris.

REACHING OUT

In the coming week the government will be launching a series of events in the North of the country with a plethora of institutions that broadly correspond to the plethora of issues that the UNHRC resolution has identified. War victims and those adversely affected by the post war conditions in the North and livelihood issues that arise from the under-developed conditions in those areas will be provided with an opportunity to access government services through on-the-spot services through mobile clinics. The programme coordinated by the Ministry of Justice called “Adhikaranabhimani” is meant to provide “ameliorated access to justice for people of the Northern Province.”

Beginning with Kilinochchi and Jaffna there will be two-day mobile clinics in which the participating government institutions will be the Legal Aid Commission, Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, Office for Reparations, Office on Missing Persons, Department of Debt Conciliation Board and the Vocational Training Authority to mention some of them. Whether it is by revising 60 laws simultaneously and setting up participatory committees of lawyers and state officials or in now launching the “Adhikaranabhimani” Justice Minister Ali Sabry has shown skill at large scale mobilisation that needs to be sustained. It is to be hoped that rather than treating them as passive recipients, the governmental service providers will make efforts to fulfill their need for justice, which means that the needs of victims and their expectations are heard and acknowledged.

It will also be important for the government to ensure that these activities continue in the longer term. They need to take place not only before the Geneva sessions in March but also continue after them. The conducting of two-day mobile clinics, although it will send a message of responsiveness, will only be able to reach a few of the needy population. The need is for infusing an ethic of responsiveness into the entirety of the government’s administrative machinery in dealing with those problems that reaches all levels, encompassing villages, divisions, districts and provinces, not to mention the heart of government at the central level.

The government’s activities now planned at the local level will draw on civil society and NGO participation which is already happening. Government officials are permitting their subordinate officials to participate in inter-ethnic and inter religious initiatives. It is in their interest to do so as they would not wish to have inter-community conflicts escalate in their areas which, in the past, have led to destruction of property and life. They also have an interest in strengthening their own capacities to understand the underlying issues and developing the capacity to handle tensions that may arise through non-coercive methods.

BUILDING PEACE

Many of the institutions that the government has on display and which are going to the North to provide mobile services were established during the period of the previous government. However, they were not operationalized in the manner envisaged due to political opposition. Given the potency of nationalism in the country, especially where it concerns the ethnic conflict, it will be necessary for the government to seek to develop a wide consensus on the reconciliation process. The new constitution that is being developed may deal with these issues and heed the aspirations of the minorities, but till that time the provincial council system needs to be reactivated through elections.

Sooner rather than later, the government needs to deal with the core issue of inter-ethnic power sharing. The war arose because Sinhalese politicians and administrators took decisions that led to disadvantaging of minorities on the ground. There will be no getting away from the need to reestablish the elected provincial council system in which the elected representatives of the people in each province are provided with the necessary powers to take decisions regarding the province. In particular, the provincial administrations of the Northern and Eastern provinces, where the ethnic and religious minorities form provincial majorities, need to be reflective of those populations.

At the present time, the elected provincial councils are not operational and so the provincial administration is headed by central appointees who are less likely to be representative of the sentiments and priorities of the people of those provinces. In the east for instance, when Sinhalese encroach on state land the authorities show a blind eye, but when Tamils or Muslims do it they are arrested or evicted from the land. This has caused a lot of bitterness in the east, which appears to have evaded the attention of the visiting UK minister as he made no mention of such causes for concern in his public utterances. His emphasis on pragmatism may stem from the observation that words need to be converted to deeds.

A video put out by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office confirms a positive approach with regard to engaging with the Sri Lankan government. In it Lord Ahmad says “the last three days illustrated to me that we can come together and we can build a constructive relationship beyond what are today with Sri Lanka. We can discuss the issues of difference and challenge in a candid but constructive fashion.” Lord Ahmad’s aspiration for UK-Sri Lankan relations needs to be replicated nationally in government-opposition relations, including the minority parties, which is the missing dimension at the present time.

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Yohani…teaming up with Rajiv and The Clan

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I know many of you, on reading this headline, would say ‘What?’

Relax. Yohani, of ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ fame, is very much a part of the group Lunu.

But…in February, she will be doing things, differently, and that is where Rajiv and the Clan come into the scene.

Rajiv and his band will be embarking on a foreign assignment that will take them to Dubai and Oman, and Yohani, as well as Falan, will be a part of the setup – as guest artistes.

The Dubai scene is not new to Yohani – she has performed twice before, in that part of the world, with her band Lunu – but this would be her first trip, to Oman, as a performer.

However, it will be the very first time that Yohani will be doing her thing with Rajiv and The Clan – live on stage.

In the not too distant past, Rajiv worked on a track for Yohani that also became a big hit. Remember ‘Haal Massa?’

“She has never been a part of our scene, performing as a guest artiste, so we are all looking forward to doing, it in a special way, during our three-gig, two-country tour,” says Rajiv.

Their first stop will be Dubai, on February 5th, for a private party, open-air gig, followed by another two open-air, private party gigs, in Oman – on February 10th and 11th.

Another attraction, I’m told, will be Satheeshan, the original rapper of ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

He will also be a part of this tour (his first overseas outing) and that certainly would create a lot of excitement, and add that extra sparkle, especially when he comes into the scene for ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

Yohani and her band, Lunu, last performed in Dubai, a couple of months back, and Satheeshan, they say, was the missing link when she did her mega internet hit song – live, on stage.

There was a crowd to catch her in action but it wasn’t a mind-blowing experience – according to reports coming our way.

A live performance, on stage, is a totally different setup to what one sees on social media, YouTube, etc.

I guess music lovers, here, would also welcome a truly live performance by Yohani de Silva.

In the meanwhile, I’m also told that Rajiv Sebastian plans to release some songs of the late Desmond de Silva which he and Desmond have worked on, over the years.

According to Rajiv, at this point in time, there is material for four albums!

He also mentioned that he and his band have quite a few interesting overseas assignments, lined up, over the next few months, but they have got to keep their fingers crossed…hoping that the Omicron virus wouldn’t spike further.

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Multi-talented, indeed…

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Thamesha Herath (back row – centre) and her disciples (students)

We all know Trishelle as the female vocalist of Sohan & The X-Periments, so, obviously it came to me as a surprise when it was mentioned that she is a highly qualified Bharatanatyam dancer, as well.

What’s more, she has been learning the skills of Bharatanatyam, since her kid days!

And, to prove that she is no novice, where this highly technical dance form is concerned, Trishelle, and the disciples (students) of State Dance Award winning Bhartanatyam Guru, Nritya Visharad Bhashini, Thamesha Herath, will be seen in action, on January 29th, at 4.00 pm, at the Ave Maria Auditorium, Negombo.

Said to be the biggest event in Bharatanatyam, this Arangethram Kalaeli concert will bring into the spotlight Avindu, Sithija, Mishaami, Nakshani, Venushi, Veenadi, Amanda, Sakuni, Kawisha, Tishaani, Thrishala (Trishelle), Sarithya, Hewani, Senuri, Deanne and Wasana.

In addition to her singing, and dancing skills, Trishelle has two other qualifications – Bachelor in Biomedical Science, and Master in Counselling Psychology.

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