On stage, Baliphonics make for an interesting tableau – the two ritual artists in their white sarongs, and surrounding them, the musicians on the piano, double bass and drums. The music is difficult to get to grips with when you first hear it. It rises and falls, the voices and instruments engaged in a kind of conversation. The rhythm eludes you, and yet the dancers seem to find it with ease. The tiny bells wrapped around their ankles become a part of the percussion.
If there is a little mystery here, it is fitting. Baliphonics layers elements of improvisation, modern jazz and sound art over a foundation of the bali ritual. Currently, Baliphonics consists of Prasantha and Susantha Rupathilaka (a sibling duo who are ritual artists), Eshantha Peris (piano), Isaac Smith (double bass), and Sumudi Suraweera on drums.
Bali implies an offering or a gift, and the ritual is rooted in the low-country tradition of Sri Lanka, and the Raigama region in particular. Suraweera, who studied low-country drumming for his PhD thesis, explains that the bali ritual is based on a belief in the benevolent/malevolent influences of the nine planetary deities or graha on humans. “During this ritual, the planetary deities are invoked and pacified in order to ward off their evil influences.”
The ritual is typically ‘prescribed’ by an astrologer to someone going through a difficult time. Depending on what the actual problem is, a specific variation on the bali ritual is ordered to negate the bad influences of the planetary deity believed to be responsible. Simultaneously, the supplicant is blessed – sometimes nearly 200 times in one session. “From the modern point of view, this is like mental health therapy,” says Suraweera.
The Rupathilaka family have been performing the ritual for generations, but are finding the demands for their services are dwindling by the day. “Even for the rituals they are asked to stage, they are often told not to play the drums. People don’t want to disturb their neighbours,” says Suraweera, “That element of the ritual has been rapidly eliminated.”
Suraweera’s determination to help found Baliphonics was partly rooted in a desire to ensure that the ritual music would survive what appeared to be the inevitable death of the ritual itself. But with the Baliphonics project, bali has been transformed.
Baliphonics take “odd bits of the ritual” to create their own composition. The musicians and the ritual performers have had to meet in the middle; Suraweera, who plays on a western drum kit, says, for instance, that the drumming required effort and patience to get right. For the performers too it took time to tap into the non-traditional instruments before they felt moved to dance. The framework itself is built to be open and adaptable, so that the singer is not restricted to beginning in a particular spot or even on a specific scale. Suraweera describes their collaboration as working on the level of energy rather than through the structured imposition of western or jazz harmonies on the ritual.
They celebrate six years in 2015, but the group feels like there is much still ahead.
“We’re getting more comfortable with performing, as we build relationships with each other,” says Suraweera. He tells me that ritual artist Susantha Rupathilaka is now so finely attuned to his audience’s response that he changes things on a whim during the performance. “It’s really exciting for us to see the potential of that. Performing doesn’t become stale, instead each performance has some magic to it.”
Suraweera and Eshantha Peiris are the co-founders of MusicMatters, a music school in Colombo, where Isaac Smith is also a teacher. Baliphonics is one of several bands formed by students and members of the faculty. If you’re in Sri Lanka, you can catch them in performance through their Big Ears series, and go to individual gigs at their annual festival. While teaching remains at the heart of the school’s mission, the larger vision is to nurture alternative spaces in which non-mainstream musicians can create, collaborate and share their work.
Smriti Daniel is a journalist based in Colombo. An Indian national, she has spent the last decade as a features writer for the Sunday Times of Sri Lanka. Her work has appeared in publications including The Hindu, BusinessLine, Condé Nast Traveller and Open. She manages social media for the South Asian edition of SciDev.Net.
(Photo by Suda Shanmugaraja)