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Some election reminiscences



A csynic once remarked that politics in Sri Lanka is ‘Poly tricks’ or ‘Podi tricks’, adding that half of the reputation of a politician was ruined by lies and the other half by the truth.

It was also his view that the gift of the gab and the toothy smile did not make one a politician. Nor does being obscure, inept, ill-educated, clueless, nonentities, verbosity.

Honesty, consistency, ability, hanydwork and commitment appear to be things of the past.

As usual various promises which could never be kept are made at elections.

The world’s first politician is said to have been Christopher Colombus. For, he did not know where he was going and also did not know where he had been. All that, he did at people’s expense.

Prior to 1947, the mode of voting was very simple. Each candidate was allotted a colour and the voting was by dropping the ballot paper into the ballot box bearing the candidate’s colour, The colours much in demand were yellow and red. Yellow, because it evoked a responsive chord amongst a great majority of the voters who were Buddhists. Red was favoured by the leftist parties. In Ruhuna, the Lion of Ruhuna, the late D.M. Rajapaksa, chose the colour brown, the colour of the soil and the staple diet of the poor, kurakkan (finger millet).

From 1947 a voter had to mark the ballot paper with a Cross (x) opposite the symbol of a candidates and drop it into a common ballot box.

In this constituency, the majority of the voters were semi-rustic humble people. And this candidate went from house-to-house canvassing. “I am contesting this seat and my symbol is the lamp. I hope you are voting for me,” he said.

“Of course Mahattaya, need you ask us that? We are certainly voting for you.” “When you get the ballot paper, please make a cross opposite my symbol.”

At the next house too, he introduced himself. “Why the devil should we vote for you? And what have you done for us? We are going to vote for the clock,” they rudely told him.

“Well, that is your privilege. Then in the square opposite my symbol (lamp), in the ballot paper, mark a cross to show that you reject me.”

In 1931, the Anuradhapura seat in the State Council comprised the entire North Central Province. Today, the NCP has been broken up into 10 seats, as the population has increased ten-fold, thanks to the colonisation schemes of the late Father of the Nation, D.S Senanayake. In 1931, one of the contestants for the Anuradhapura Seat was an Englishman named H.R. Freeman, a retired Government Agent who preferred to live with his beloved peasants of the Vanni. Freeman’s election campaign was a novel and even casual one. He did not ever ask a voter directly for his vote. He would walk into a village, and sit on a rock or a tree stump by the road, and when the adoring peasants surrounded him, as they always did, he would tell them in a very matter-of- fact manner, “‘When you get that piece of white paper and put it inside the BLUE box, I go to the Council.” And the villagers would immediately raise their hands to Heaven and cry “Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!” “And if you put the paper into the RED box,” Freeman would continue, “I go to England.” “Apoi, hamuduruwane,” the villagers would wail, “Don’t do that! We will put the paper into your blue box!” The mini-meeting being over, Freeman would pick up his umbrella, and go on to the next ‘meeting’.

In the 1931 General Election to the Ceylon State Council, the Dumbara Seat was contested by the late A. Ratnayake (later President of the Senate), and the late M. B. W. Mediwaka, and their election campaigns were something that peace loving people would like to see today. They appeared on a common platform. How nice if we could revive this sporting and gentlemanly practice today.

During the General Election in 1989, Ranjan Wijayawardena, one of the UNP candidates for the Matara District, arrived at the Matara Textile Industries Centre premises with some of his supporters to hold an unscheduled election meeting. Just then, Mahinda Wijesekera, an SLFP candidate, also arrived at the same venue to have a meeting of his own. The two rival candidates conferred, and decided to have a joint meeting. Wijesekera was the first to speak and outlining and explaining the policies of the SLFP, he appealed to all those who were not going to vote for his party or him, to vote for Ranjan Wijewardena. Ranjan in turn, after explaining the policies of his party, exhorted those who were not voting for him, to vote for Mahinda Wijesekera. At the end of the meeting, the huge crowd that was present gave the two rival candidates a standing ovation for the sportsmanship they had displayed. Incidentally, both candidates were returned to Parliament from the Matara District.

At this time the election fever was hotting up. with even candidates from the same party fighting for the preferencial votes, on which depended their being elected to Parliament. It was in this atmosphere that an election meeting was held at the Mahajana Pola at Galewala in Matale. A candidate was speaking, when he saw a rival candidate from another party coming towards the Pola, about to turn back, on seeing the meeting of the rival group in progress. The speaker stopped speaking and hailed his rival over the loudspeaker. “I say, Mr…, don’t go! Come up here and join me!” The invitation was accepted, and the candidate who was speaking, introduced his rival to the crowd, adding that there would be so many who would not vote for him (the speaker), and appealed to them to vote for his rival. The rival candidate, when he was asked to speak, replied in the same vein, adding that his rival candidate was a very honest man just the sort of man needed in politics.”

Dr. S. A. Wickramasinghe, the leader of the Communist Party was on his feet, addressing one of his own election meetings, when a man came up to him and whispered something urgently in his ear. Dr. Wickramasinghe stopped his speech abruptly and rushed off the stage and into a waiting car. The message was from his rival candidate, Sarath Wijesinghe, saying that Wijesinghe’s only daughter was seriously ill. After attending to the patient, Dr. Wickremasinghe returned and continued his speech, but not a word did he say about where he had gone, and why. He could have made a tremendous political capital out of it, but, the gentleman that he was, he did not.


Many years ago, and a certain MP noted for his quick temper and impulsive ways sought re-election. One day, while he was going round the electorate, canvassing, a supporter of his rival was rather rude to the MP.


The MP gave the man back in kind, and as the verbal exchange became heated, the MP drew back his fist and let his constituent have it on the jaw. Three of the man’s teeth were broken and he immediately went to the police station and made an entry against the MP. The parliamentarian was charged with grievous hurt, and the- case was postponed. Supporters, and especially speakers at the election meetings of the rival candidate, were strictly warned by their party hierarchy not to refer in any way to the incident as the matter was ‘sub judice’. But one irrepressible speaker was not to be put off so easily. Speaking at one of the MP’s rival’s meetings, this man said, “Sahodarawaruni it is nice to be loved by one’s wife. But my wife is overdoing her solicitousness for me. Every time I address a meeting and go home, she promptly grabs me and counts my teeth to see if any are missing!”

Talking of belligerent MPs, there was this not too popular chap who was nominated by his party to a certain seat. On the nomination day, as he returned home from the Kachcheri after handing in his papers, there were the usual wayside receptions and garlands. He was garlanded no less than nine times. The candidate reached his house, and leaping out of his car, grabbed his chief political catcher by the arm, and dragged him inside. Soon the people who had gathered at his house heard a loud altercation and the sound of a few slaps. They rushed into the house to see what the matter was, only to hear the would-be MP shout, Yakko, I gave you money for TEN garlands, and I got only nine!”

In one election, the doughty LSSPer Robert Gunawardena, was challenged by a prominent Buddhist coming from a very famous family which had been in the forefront of the battle for the emancipation of Buddhists and Buddhism from the restrictions placed on them by the British Raj. In his manifesto, this information of his famous family and that fact that he went to Dambadiva (the historical name for India) twice a year on pilgrimage were mentioned as qualifications. At one of his own election meetings, Robert Gunawardena, held up his opponent’s manifesto and said with withering scorn, “Sahodarawaruni, if going to Dambadiva twice a year is a qualification, then my barber is more qualified than this candidate, for that fellow goes to Dambadiva FOUR times a year!” (What Robert did not mention was that his barber was an Indian).

“In the general election of 1965 an SLFP Minister seeking re-election, had got off the stage after his speech, at one of his own election meetings, and surrounded by his cheering supporters, was making his way to his car to go to another meeting. He opened the door of his vehicle, but before he could get in, the huge crowd, surged forward, and the Minister’s hand got wedged in the door.

“Atha Atha!” (hand, hand!), yelled the politico, wincing in pain.

JAYAWEWA!” shouted the crowd, thinking he was referring to the SLFP symbol.

“Na, na, magey atha!” screamed the politico.

“Jayawewa!” roared the crowd….

Led by Somaweera Chandrasiri, the Poet of the Revolution, ‘hitivana kavi’ (impromptu verses) played an integral part at election meetings. Once when Ariyawansa Pathiraja, the famous Sinhala poet, was addressing an election meeting at Kotte, someone whispered to him that people from the enemy camp were recording his speech. Pathiraja immediately stopped his speech, and broke out into an impromptu verse:


Jathiya wanasala mage mulu rata holla

Newathath awuth apage chandaya illa

Tape karanawalu mun ayinak alla

Patigatha wenna honda hoowak daapalla

(“They’ve ruined our nation and shaken our country to its foundations. And now, once again they [impertinently] ask for our votes. Apparently they are furtively recording [my speech]. Let’s sound a big hoot they can tape.”) And the crowd responded with a mighty hoot!

About thirty years ago, a prominent local Marxist leader was addressing a public meeting, his theme being the equitable distribution of wealth. As he spoke, a young man in the crowd yelled out, “Everybody knows you are a very rich capitalist, Sahodaraya, so why don’t you set an example by distributing YOUR wealth among the people?”

The Marxist leader put his hand into his pocket, and taking out a ten-cent coin, tossed it to the young man. “I am worth about ten lakhs,” said the Marxist. “The population of this country is about ten million, and if my wealth is distributed among them, each person will get exactly ten cents! And now that you have got your share of my wealth, Sahodaraya allow me to go on with my speech!”

During one of those regular S. de S. Jayasinghe – Colvin R de Silva bouts for the Dehiwala-Galkissa Seat at one General Election, S de S. Jayasinghe speaking at one of his own election meetings said confidently, “I am winning this election, nonawaruni mahathwaruni! For my name begins with ‘Jaya’; Jaya for victory!” Speaking at one of his meeting a few days later,’ Dr. Colvin R. de Silva said, “I am told that my opponent Mr. Jayasinghe is bragging that he is going to be victorious, because his name begins with ‘Jaya’. Yes, Sahodara Sahodariyani! because his name begins with ‘jaya’ he may seem to win at the beginning, but come election day and I shall be the winner, for MY name ENDS with WIN.


Have Humanities and Social Sciences muddied water enough?



By Maduranga Kalugampitiya

The domain of the humanities and social sciences is under attack more than ever before. The relevance, as well as usefulness of the degrees earned in those fields, is being questioned left, right, and centre. The question of whether it is meaningful at all to be spending, if not wasting, the limited financial resources available in the coffers to produce graduates in those fields is raised constantly, at multiple levels. Attempts are being made to introduce a little bit of soft skills into the curricula in order to add ‘value’ to the degree programmes in the field. The assumption here is that either such degree programmes do not impart any skills or the skills that they impart are of no value. We often see this widely-shared profoundly negative attitude towards the humanities and the social sciences (more towards the former than towards the latter) being projected on the practitioners (students, teachers, and researchers) in those areas. At a top-level meeting, which was held one to two years ago, with the participation of policy-makers in higher education and academics and educationists representing the humanities and social sciences departments, at state universities, a key figure in the higher education establishment claimed that the students who come to the humanities and social sciences faculties were ‘late-developers’. What better (or should I say worse?) indication of the official attitude towards those of us in the humanities and the social sciences!

While acknowledging that many of the key factors that have resulted in downgrading the humanities and social sciences disciplines are global by nature and are very much part of the neoliberal world order, which dominates the day, I wish to ask if we, the practitioners in the said fields, have done our part to counter the attack.

What the humanities and the social sciences engage with is essentially and self-consciously social. What these disciplines have to say has a direct bearing on the social dimension of human existence. It is near impossible to discuss phenomena in economics, political science, or sociology without having to reflect upon and use examples from what happens in our lives and around us. One cannot even begin to talk about teaching English as a second language without taking a look at her/his own experience learning English and the struggles that many people go through at different levels doing the same. One cannot talk about successful ways of teaching foreign languages without recognizing the need to incorporate an engagement with the cultural life of those languages at some level. No reading of an artwork—be it a novel, a movie, a painting, a sculpture, a poem, whatever—is possible without the reader at least subconsciously reflecting upon the broader context in which those artworks are set and also relating her own context or experience to what is being read. A legal scholar cannot read a legislation without paying attention to the social implications of the legislation and the dynamics of the community at whom that legislation is directed. The point is our own existence as social beings is right in the middle of what we engage with in such disciplines. To steal (and do so self-consciously) a term from the hard/natural sciences, society is essentially the ‘laboratory’ in which those in the humanities and social sciences conduct their work. There may be some areas of study within the humanities and social sciences which do not require an explicit engagement with our social existence, but I would say that such areas, if any, are limited in number.

Needless to say that every social intervention is political in nature. It involves unsettling what appears to be normal about our social existence in some way. One cannot make interventions that have a lasting impact without muddying the water which we have been made to believe is clear. How much of muddying do we as practitioners in the field of humanities and social sciences do is a question that needs to be asked.

Unfortunately, we do not see much work in the humanities and social sciences which unsettles the dominant order. What we often see is work that reinforces and reaffirms the dominant structures, systems, and lines of thought. Lack of rigorous academic training and exposure to critical theory is clearly one of the factors which prevents some scholars in the field from being able to make interventions that are capable of muddying the water, but the fact that we sometimes do not see much muddying even on the part of the more adept scholars shows that lack of rigorous training is not the sole reason.

Muddying the water is no simple matter. To use a problematic, yet in my view useful, analogy, a scholar in the said field trying to make an intervention that results in unsettling the order is like a hydrogen atom in H2O, ‘water’ in layperson’s language, trying to make an intervention which results in a re-evaluation of the oxygen atom. Such an intervention invariably entails a re-evaluation of the hydrogen atom as well, for the reason that the two atoms are part of an organic whole. One cannot be purely objective in its reading of the other. Such an intervention is bound to be as unsettling for the hydrogen atom as it is for the oxygen atom. Similarly, in a majority of contexts, a scholar in the area of the humanities and social sciences cannot make an intervention, the kind that pushes the boundaries of knowledge, without unsettling the dominant structures and value systems, which they themselves are part of, live by, and also benefit from. For instance, the norms, values, and practices which define the idea of marriage in contexts like ours are things that a male scholar would have to deal with as a member of our society, and any intervention on his part which raises questions about gender-based inequalities embodied in such norms, values, and practices would be to question his own privilege. Needless to say that such an intervention could result in an existential crisis for the scholar, at least temporarily. Such interventions also entail the possibility of backlash from society. One needs thorough training to withstand that pressure.

In place of interventions that unsettle the existing order, what we often see is work, which re-presents commonsensical knowledge garbed in jargon. To give an example from an area that I am a bit familiar with, much of the work that takes place in the field of English as a Second Language (ESL) identifies lack of motivation on the part of the students and also teachers and also lack of proper training for teachers as the primary reasons for the plight of English education in the country. This reading is not very different from a layperson’s understanding of the problem, and what we often see as research findings in the field of ESL is the same understanding, albeit dressed up in technical-sounding language. Such readings do not unsettle the existing order. They put the blame on the powerless. Very limited is the work that sees the present plight of English education as a systemic or structural problem. Reading that plight as a systemic problem requires us to re-evaluate the fundamental structures which govern our society, and such re-evaluation is unsettling is many ways. I argue that that is what is expected of scholarship in the ESL field, but unfortunately that is not what we see as coming out of the field.

If what gets produced as knowledge in the humanities and social sciences is jargonized commonsense, then the claim that such fields have nothing important to say is valid. If what a scholar in those fields has to say is not different to a layperson’s understanding of a given reality, the question whether there is any point in producing such scholars becomes valid.

In my view, the humanities and social sciences are in need of fundamental restructuring. This restructuring is not the kind which calls for the incorporation of a bit of soft skills here and a bit of soft skills there so that those who come out of those fields easily fit into predefined slots in society but the kind that results in the enhancement of the critical thinking capacity of the scholars. It is the kind of restructuring that would produce scholars who are capable of engaging in a political reading of the realities that define our existence in society and raise difficult questions about such existence, in other words, scholars who are capable of muddying the water.

(Maduranga Kalugampitiya is attached to Department of English, University of Peradeniya)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall thatparodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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Selective targeting not law’s purpose



By Jehan Perera

The re-emergence of Donald Trump in the United States is a reminder that change is not permanent. Former President Trump is currently utilising the grievances of the white population in the United States with regard to the economic difficulties that many of them face to make the case that they need to be united to maintain their position in society. He is coming forward as their champion. The saying “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is often attributed to the founders of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, among many others, though Lord Denning in The Road to Justice (1988) stated that the phrase originated in a statement of Irish orator John Philpot Curran in 1790. The phrase is often used to emphasise the importance of being vigilant in protecting one’s rights and freedoms.

Ethnic and religious identity are two powerful concepts by which people may be mobilised the world over. This is a phenomenon that seemed to have subsided in Western Europe due to centuries of secular practices in which the state was made secular and neutral between ethnicities and religions. For a short while last year during the Aragalaya, it seemed that Sri Lanka was transcending its ethnic and religious cleavages in the face of the unexpected economic calamity that plunged large sections of the population back into poverty. There was unprecedented unity especially at the street level to demonstrate publicly that the government that had brought the country to this sorry pass had to go. The mighty force of people’s power succeeded in driving the leaders of that government out of power. Hopefully, there will be a government in the future that will bring the unity and mutual respect within the people, especially the younger generations, to the fore and the sooner the better as the price is growing higher by the day.

But like the irrepressible Donald Trump the old order is fighting to stage its comeback. The rhetoric of ethnicity and religion being in danger is surfacing once more. President Ranil Wickremesinghe who proclaimed late last year that the 13th Amendment to the constitution would be implemented in full, as it was meant to be, and enable the devolution of power to be enjoyed by the people of the provinces, including those dominated by Tamils and Muslims, has gone silent on this promise. The old order to which he is providing a new economic vision is clearly recalcitrant on ethno-religious matters. As a result, the government’s bold plan to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as promised to the international community in 2015 to address the unresolved human rights issues of the war, is reportedly on the rocks. The main Tamil political parties have made statements that they will not legitimise or accept such a mechanism in the absence of a genuine devolution of power. Politics must not override policies.


The sense of threat to ethnicity and religion looms too large once again for forward movement in conflict resolution between the different communities that constitute the Sri Lankan nation which is diverse and plural. Two unlikely persons now find themselves at the centre of an emotion-heavy ethno-religious storm. One is a comedian, the other is a religious preacher. Both of them have offended the religious sensibilities of many in the ethno-religious Sinhala Buddhist majority community. Both of their statements were originally made to small audiences of their own persuasion, but were then projected through social media to reach much larger audiences. The question is whether they made these statements to rouse religious hatred and violence. There have been numerous statements from all sides of the divide, whether ethnic, religious or political, denouncing them for their utterances.

Both comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya and pastor Jerome Fernando have apologised for offending and hurting the religious sentiments of the Buddhist population. They made an attempt to remedy the situation when they realised the hurt, the anger and the opposition they had generated. This is not the first time that such hurtful and offensive comments have been made by members of one ethno-religious community against members of another ethnic-religious community. Taking advantage of this fact the government is arguing the case for the control of social media and also the mainstream media. It is preparing to bring forward legislation for a Broadcasting Regulatory Commission that would also pave the way to imprison journalists for their reporting, impose fines, and also revoke the licences issued to electronic media institutions if they impact negatively on national security, national economy, and public order or create any conflict among races and religions.

In a free society, opportunities are provided for people to be able to air their thoughts and dissents openly, be it at Hyde Park or through their representatives in Parliament. The threat to freedom of speech and to the media that can arise from this new law can be seen in the way that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which is the world’s standard bearer on civil and political rights has been used and is being abused in Sri Lanka. It was incorporated into Sri Lankan law in a manner that has permitted successive governments to misuse it. It is very likely that the Broadcast Regulatory Commission bill will yield a similar result if passed into law. The arrest and detention of comedian Natasha Edirisooriya under the ICCPR Act has become yet another unfortunate example of the misuse of a law meant to protect human rights by the government. Pastor Jerome Fernando is out of prison as he is currently abroad having left the country a short while before a travel ban was delivered to him.


The state media reported that a “Police officer said that since there is information that she was a person who was in the Aragalaya protest, they are looking into the matter with special attention.” This gives rise to the inference that the reason for her arrest was politically motivated. Comedian Edirisooriya was accused of having violated the provisions in the ICCPR in Section 3(1) that forbids hate speech. Section 3(1) of the ICCPR Act prohibits advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, violence or hostility. The international human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, has pointed out that in the case of Edirisooriya that for speech to be illegal on the grounds of being hate speech it requires “a clear showing of intent to incite others to discriminate, be hostile towards or commit violence against the group in question.” Amnesty International also notes that “When the expression fails to meet the test, even if it is shocking, offensive or disturbing, it should be protected by the state.”

Ironically, in the past there have been many instances of ethnic and religious minorities being targeted in a hateful manner that even led to riots against them, but successive governments have been inactive in protecting them or arresting their persecutors. Such targeting has taken place, often for political purposes in the context of elections, in blatant bids to mobilise sections of the population through appeals to narrow nationalism and fear of the other. The country’s political and governmental leaders need to desist from utilising the ICCPR Act against those who make social and political critiques that are outside the domain of hate speech. The arrest of Bruno Divakara, the owner of SL-Vlogs, under the ICCPR Act is an indication of this larger and more concerning phenomenon which is being brought to the fore by the Broadcasting Regulatory Commission bill.

The crackdown on the space for free expression and critical comment is unacceptable in a democratic polity, especially one as troubled as Sri Lanka, in which the economy has collapsed and caused much suffering to the people and the call to hold elections has been growing. The intervention of the Human Rights Commission which has called on the Inspector General of Police to submit a report on the arrest and its rationale is a hopeful sign that the independence of institutions intended to provide a check and balance will finally prevail. The Sri Lankan state will hopefully evolve to be a neutral arbiter in the disputes between competing ethnic, religious and partisan political visions of what the state should be and what constitutes acceptable behaviour within it. Taking on undemocratic powers in a variety of ways and within a short space of time is unlikely to deliver economic resurgence and a stable and democratic governance the country longs for. Without freedom, justice and fair play within, there can be no hope of economic development that President Wickremesinghe would be wanting to see.

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Girl power… to light up our scene



Manthra: Pop, rock and Sinhala songs

We have never had any outstanding all-girl bands, in the local scene, except, perhaps…yes The Planets, and that was decades ago!

The Planets did make a name for themselves, and they did create quite a lot of excitement, when they went into action.

Of course, abroad, we had several top all-girl bands – outfits like the Spice Girls, Bangles, Destiny’s Child, and The Supremes.

It’s happening even now, in the K-pop scene.

Let’s hope we would have something to shout about…with the band Manthra – an all-girl outfit that came together last year (2022).

Manthra is made up of Hiruni Fernando (leader/bass guitar), Gayathma Liyanage (lead guitar), Amaya Jayarathne (drums), Imeshini Piyumika (keyboards), and Arundathi Hewawitharana (vocals).

Amaya Arundathi and Imeshini are studying at the University of Visual and Performing Arts, while Gayathma is studying Architecture at NIMB, and Hiruni is the Western Music teacher at St. Lawrence’s Convent, and the pianist at Galadari Hotel, having studied piano and classical guitar at West London University.

They have already displayed their talents at various venues, events, weddings, and on TV, as well (Vanithabimana Sirasa TV and Charna TV Art Beat).

Additionally, the band showcased their talent at the talent show held at the Esoft Metro Campus.

The plus factor, where this all-girl outfit is concerned, is that their repertoire is made up rock, pop, and Sinhala songs.

Explaining as to how they came up with the name Manthra, founder member Hiruni said that Manthra means a word, or sound, repeated to aid concentration in meditation, and that the name was suggested by one of the band members.

Hiruni Fernando: Founder and leader of Manthra

She also went on to say that putting together a female band is not an easy task, in the scene here.

“We faced many difficulties in finding members. Some joined and then left, after a short while. Unlike a male band, where there are many male musicians in Sri Lanka, there are only a few female musicians. And then, there are some parents who don’t like their daughters getting involved in music.”

With talented musicians in their line-up, the future certainly looks bright for Manthra who are now keen to project themselves, in an awesome way, in the scene here, and abroad, as well.

“We are keen to do stage shows and we are also planning to create our own songs,” said Hiruni.

Yes, we need an all-girl group to add variety to our scene that is now turning out to be a kind of ‘repeating groove,’ where we see, and hear, almost the same thing…over and over again!

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