Indelible icon in Sri Lankan pop culture | Sunday Observer

Indelible icon in Sri Lankan pop culture

25 December, 2022

The following article about Nihal Nelson appeared in 2009 in our sister Newspaper, Daily News under In Tune. Here the artiste speaks about his music and how he played his role in Sri Lanka’s pop music. Nihal Nelson was a mega artiste who was always in the spotlight for over five decades. Simply put, he was a legendary singer and an all-time great in the Sri Lankan popular music culture. The perception of Nihal Nelson in Sri Lankan music is growing. The artiste passed away at 76 on December 13, 2022, after a brief illness. We are publishing this article as a tribute to him. Sthuthi Nihal!

“We are here today blessed by the “clap” of your hands. By putting them together, you made us, gave value to us, and established our station. I salute you, stutiye,” This was Nihal Nelson’s vote-of-thanks mantra for his fans across the country wherever he performed live on stage during his music career spanning over a half-century.

Everybody knows that Nihal never sang out of key or sang off pitch. But whenever he utter this thanking mantra, he had got so emotional - his voice gets tensed, his left hand starts moving to his chest, he adjusts his glasses, touches his forehead, his voice turns deep, pitch wavers and his tone deepens with gratitude. The admirers appreciate his thanks. Nihal Nelson is now interacting with his audience. He made an effort to advance humanity through his songs.

His signature songs, such as Epa epa mas kannata kiri ammage, (a song against the slaughter of cattle for human consumption), Mekudu atha ariye nethinam ape rata kude kudu, (an anti-drug song), and Saamaye salakunalu pareviya, make it clear that he actively pursued Buddhist principles.

Nihal has captivated audiences all over the nation with his vocals, making his style an essential component of Sri Lankan pop.

Among a long line of kaffirinna singers, Nihal Nelson is the undisputed vocalist to have set the genre of kapirinna or baila music in Sri Lanka on a Buddhist moral footing.

Nihal’s voice and music are recognised and desired by listeners all over the nation, making his singing style an essential component of Sri Lankan pop.

Between a long line of kaffirinna singers whose songs were more or less limited to relaying sarcasm and excitement to the audiences through themes of corrupt politicians, nagging wives and the likes, Nihal Nelson is the only artiste to have established the genre of baila in Sri Lanka on a Buddhist moral footing.

We are happy to spotlight this much-overlooked fact about Nihal Nelson’s music. This is evident upon analysing Nihal Nelsons lyrics and music.

The In Tune met singer-composer Nihal Nelson at his residence in Rawatawatta, Moratuwa, for an interview on his musical career about his achievements as a prominent figure in the local music scene.

Nihal Nelson has recorded over 5,000 songs, most written and composed by him, with over 111 cassette albums, 25 LPs, 100 Epsand 20 CDs. His CD titled “Salli miti ganan was the first to have been circulated in in Sri Lanka’s CDs. He presented it to the late President R. Premadasa in 1989. Over 45 years in music, his contribution to Sri Lankan pop has been Jurassic. One cannot judge Nihal Nelson by his appearance, just as one cannot judge a book by its cover. Following is the interview with Nihal. 

Q: What is the story behind your success as an artiste who moved from fun-inducing lyrics to a spiritual style best suited to generate excitement and laughter?

A: Having recorded his first song, an artiste presents it to the public through a medium. Then the people evaluate the quality of his creation, whether it has good rhythm, melody, lyrics and pitch. Upon accepting that creation, the people want to know about the person responsible for that creation; whether he lives in keeping with the morals he is trying to promote through his songs. If found, people respect him. With respect growing, the artiste has got to produce more work that can satisfy them. He has to strive to preserve the respect he gets from them, not only with his creations but also with good conduct. 

Q: Are you an artiste brought into the limelight by society?

A: I am an artiste accepted by society; my popularity is based on the value that society has bestowed on me and my creations. Yes. I am an artiste brought to the limelight by the public.

Q: Does that mean some artistes come to the limelight through means other than social acceptance? 

A: That is also to be decided by society and not by the artiste. I regard myself as an artiste to have been brought about by society because I feel it so strongly when I go live on stage. I represent them with my creations. If I should see shortcomings in society, I bring that forth with my creations to show what is wrong to establish what is right. Only a very few artistes have prevailed with acceptance by society after going into society, the reason being it is the people that pass judgment at the end of the day. 

Q: But isn’t that a fact that there are artistes who have become popular in Sri Lanka through video clips or music videos sans live performances?

A: I know that I did not become a star through videos. I have remained in the field for over 45 years without video clips. This is the most exciting part. Nobody has seen Sunil Shantha on video, but the children in the country seem to know about Sunil Shantha very well. I had the opportunity to see him singing on stage three or four times. I was a child then. Nobody has seen Sunil Shantha, but he remains popular to this day. This is the difference between a video clip and the actual value of an artiste. That is where we must come to—no need to hook on clips. 

Q: Didn’t you compose a song with a short “rap” in Sinhala some years ago? 

A: You must be referring to the part of Pattarawala vistara goda tatparayata es eragena api kiyawanawa. This was never meant to be a rap of the sort. I only thought of singing those lines in rapid motion to add colour to the flow of its lyrics. The public branded it as “rap”. There was no such intention. 

Q: Would you care to compose rap singles?

A: I have already had a few. 

Q: Have you added any English rap parts in the middle of your songs?

A: No. The problem with local rap music is not in the singing, because one can hear that there is pitch, rhythm and meter, except that these rap parts need to go better with the songs and their meaning. Most rap singles are like eating mangoes with onions. Better to eat mangoes with salt than with onions. 

Q: There are new trends in Sri Lanka, with new-wave music making rapid progress. Any comments?

A: It is good. When waves hit the sand, the sand becomes rich and clean. But one should never expect the sand to go and hit the wave. 

Q: Did you have any mentors or artistes who influenced your music and singing? 

A: I listen to every artiste. When I listened to them first, I thought I could do this. So, I prepared myself to do what I thought I could. Anyway, I must mention that I worked with my fellow artistes Karunaratna Abeysekera, Hemasiri Halpita, Saman Chandranath Weerasinghe, Vernon Perera, Hector Wijesiri, Lal Thenabadu, Stanley Peiris and Sarath Alwis.

Q: Have you done politics or supported political parties in your capacity as a singer?

A: I have worked with politicians. But, I have not sung any hosannas for them. But I would sing on a political platform because singing is my profession. I do not look at their flags or colours. I would sing my songs for a fee as a professional artiste. 

Q: But some songs humiliate politicians. They come in audio and videos. Some of them are telecast on TV. Don’t you like doing a few songs like that? 

A: I do not want to entertain generalised ideas such as “All Politicians are corrupt” because it could remove their fear of doing wrong. If a politician has done something wrong, I would instead tell that person that he was wrong instead of criticising the entire community of politicians. That is a decent way to deal with the problem. 

Q: Do you believe in using technology as a recording artiste?

A: There will be destruction if technology is used without proper knowledge. Suppose a person with a knife has gone about killing; he can be more effective with a machine gun in his hand, which is what technology is in this case. But if wise, he would not kill with a knife or a machine gun. Technology is dangerous with little or no knowledge.

Q: Do you approve of programs like “shadow stars, “which bring forth people with similar looks and abilities resembling local artistes?

A: A ‘shadow star’ person on TV acts like me. I am delighted that shadow star-like programs serve us to shine. It’s safer to establish one’s identity than work hard to preserve that of another’s.