Classics #3- Malay Malay Oya by Devar Surya Sena & Ensemble

This is my first post about a 78 rpm record in my collection (Malay Malay Oya). U-PM works to promote wider interest in old recordings of world music, regardless of format; and is the business of bringing perspective to the wealth of reissues already in our midst rather than just adding to the heap. But there is an undeniable thrill in giving life to a stunning old record that appears never to have been reissued.

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This 78 is also notable in that it hails from Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, a country very rarely featured on compilations of old ethnic recordings. There are no entries for Sri Lanka on Excavated Shellac, and very few references online to 78s from the country. In my 25 years of collecting, I’ve encountered only a handful of old recordings on any format from this part of the world.

This record, Malay Malay Oya by Devar Surya Sena and Ensemble comes from the dominant Sinhalese ethnic group. Devar Surya Sena (1899-1981) was born Herbert Charles Jacob Pieris, the son of Sir James Pieris, one of Ceylon’s most prominent politicians. The name “Pieris” stems from Portugal’s part-colonization of the country in the 16th and 17th centuries. By the 19th century, the Pieris family, in naming, education and aspirations had embraced the mores of the British colonists, even while Sir James worked for the country’s independence. Herbert was sent to boarding school in England from the age of 12, then studied at the University of Cambridge. In 1923, he married Winifred de Silva, from another prominent Ceylon family. Theirs was said to be the first Ceylon society wedding in London.

Herbert was torn between his parent’s ambitionIMG_0560 (2) that he should have a brilliant legal and political career, and his love of music. He studied for a time at the Royal College of Music in London. After working for some years as a barrister, Herbert and Winifred decided to return home. The case for greater self-government was building, and a new sense of Ceylonese identity and appreciation for local culture. Herbert and Winifred went so far as to change their names- becoming Deva Surya Sena and Nelun Devi. In 1931, after much lobbying, not least by Sena’s father, Britain granted Ceylon greater autonomy and gave citizens, women included, the right to vote. Independence did not come until 1948.

In 1928, Sena gave a concert to the elite of Colombo, devoting the first half to operatic arias and the like from Europe, but reserving the second for the music of Ceylon. According to Sena’s own account, this was the “first time in history” Ceylonese music had been performed in such a setting. The recital was a great success, persuading Sena to dedicate himself to showcasing Ceylonese music to a wider audience, particularly a Western audience. He conducted research across the island, gave concerts internationally, led radio programs and made records. His appreciation of both local and Western culture, his musical ability, and proper English accent made him a particularly effective ambassador.

I am unsure whether the apparent absence of any contemporary reissue of Sena’s recordings is an indication that he has been largely forgotten or that his approach has been called into question. While Sena was accomplished on a number of instruments central to Ceylonese music, he also made recordings accompanied by piano and violin. No doubt blurring the lines between Western and Ceylonese music was a tactic to engage Europeans, although it is certainly true that much so-called “traditional” creativity is precisely the appropriation of foreign influences. The western violin indisputably found new life on the Indian subcontinent. The competing instincts of preservation and improvement lie at the heart of many folk music revival efforts of the period.

The piece included here, Malay Malay Oya, features vocal and violin that “sound Ceyonlese”, but piano that “sounds Western.” Today’s penchant for “raw” and “primitive” old recordings casts suspicion on anything refined or somehow tampered with. It would be wise to remember that “authenticity” is vulnerable to fashion and misreadings of how culture and change actually work. Sena’s blending of styles and instruments is really no different from various musical amalgams lauded today.

I find this piece thoroughly charming and arresting, just the effect Sena intended. The arrangement makes sense in its historical context, and given Sena’s background and ambition, and should be considered not redacted. Malay is said to be a boatman’s song, chronicling the sights and sounds of the river. The other side of the record might be judged more “authentic”, but is not as strong as Side 1, in my view.

I am not aware of any CD reissue of Sena’s work. In 2008, the Devar Surya Sena Trust published a compilation of Sena’s writing as Music of Sri Lanka. A CD accompanied the book but contains only five tracks, which appear to have been drawn from radio broadcasts and are sub-par in terms of sound quality. If anyone knows of a CD of Sena’s 78s, I’d be grateful to hear about it.

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