The Evolution Of Sri Lanka’s Alternative Nightlife

Image courtesy of Booka Booka

In 2018, popular British-Norwegian EDM artist Alan Walker graced Sri Lanka for a performance. The country’s foremost alternative electronic music label Jambutek Recordings went to Berlin for a showcase. Burgeoning homegrown band The Soul crowdfunded their way to a tour across the Maldives. International heavyweights like Sébestien Léger and Guy J were booked for parties on the island. For what it’s worth, even Irish boy band Boyzone brought their final concert tour to the country, choosing the occasion to debut an entirely new song. Yet, just 10 years before that, Sri Lanka was trying to end its nearly 26 year-long civil war.

Although there were scatterings of notable rock and pop acts in the country, the nation’s journey from a state marred by a long-going war to a host of international electronic music acts and exciting homegrown talent started around 2007. Key players like the event company Offshore Life, headed by Tim Claessen, and foreign-return act DJ Shiyam kicked things off by throwing dance music-focused events around the island. Until then, ‘clubbing’ only revolved around establishments primarily featuring commercial pop music as an auxiliary part of the drinking and dining experience.

The official end of the war in 2009 gave way to an eruption of tourism which happened to coincide with the boom of EDM across the globe. The island country was quick to advertise its beach fronts, especially the southern region, with the energy of pool parties and vibrancy of clubs. 3-5 events would happen in places like Colombo, Galle, Unawatuna and Hikkaduwa on a single weekend, some of them stretching through the night till the next afternoon. The parties primarily took place in resorts, villas, high-end hotels and clubs which catered mostly to parts of the public with high spending power or tourists. DJs played popular hits or their remixes from the most commercial subsets of dance music. Event organisers and artists who tried to branch away into other genres with a vision primarily focused on music and culture existed as exceptions or at the fringes of the scene. 

“I think a lot of our initial energy as movers and shakers was spent fighting the general hierarchical systems here of club owners and ‘star’ DJs that have done less for music and more for their own egos,” says Ravi Bandaranaike, co-founder of Good Music Movement (GMM). “I remember Black Madonna (now called The Blessed Madonna) was brought down by Red Bull Music Academy right after she was rated best DJ of the year by Resident Advisor and was kicked off the decks at a local nightclub by the owner of one of the many trashy clubs in the city because someone wanted to listen to KC and The Sunshine Band for their birthday party.” 

GMM was initially a blog created by three avid music collectors in 2010 before it evolved into an event space in August 2012 out of the desire to branch out from the stagnant Sri Lankan DJing scene which focused mainly on progressive and tech-house. “I think we succeeded greatly in our initial years, expanding people’s taste, especially with our first party Samsara, which introduced people to the likes of deep house and UK bass. It wasn’t necessarily the people that weren’t open-minded, but the DJs and event organizers that controlled the scene,” adds Ravi. Along with Samsara, a small party on an abandoned part of Unawatuna beach, GMM found a close association with Luna Terrace and Closenberg Hotel, with Ravi donning the role of the property’s promotional partner. The event organisers used the space to throw lauded Halloween costume parties called Lunasea and hosted artists including Giles Smith, Oskar Offerman and the prominent drum and bass act Djrum. Ravi points out the latter as an example of an artist that received praises around the world and even in the neighbouring mainland of India but went unappreciated on the island. “House, bass and live soul music are definitely winners on this island, and if you put Sri Lankans in a trance, you’re winning.”

GMM weren’t the only ones to want something different from the norm. While the EDM bubble was sprouting festivals like Sunset Music Festival and The Electric Peacock Festival, which later brought artists like Avicci, Mark Ronson and Basement Jaxx to the country, Colombo’s MusicMatters school was cultivating its own crop of forward-thinking musicians. Established in 2010, the institute experimented with Western music education. Alongside bringing in international jazz and avant-garde musicians to broaden the aspiring youth’s musicality, MusicMatters provided a meeting and working space for like-minded musicians, already leaving a strong legacy of community-building. Acts like Baliphonics, Serendib Sorcerers and The Soul, which merge the island’s native influences with contemporary music find an association with the school either through their inception or by frequenting it. The institute connected several alternative, leftfield and ambient artists like Colombo 00200 Kinesthetics , Dinelka Liyanage, Isuru Kumarasinghe, Brahminy Kites, Flowers on Both Ears and Tomcat and Magnum – many of whom release via Fish Climb Tree Records, the label by MusicMatters collective. Eventually, traces of the artist’s experimental musicality began to bleed into the general sonics of the country’s performers.

On the dance music front at around the same time i.e. the early 2010s, cultural institutions like Alliance Francaise and Goethe-Institut tried to inject variation into the mix by hosting workshops, residencies and performances by the likes of Gebrüder Teichmann, Jahcoozi and Basteroid, which further helped broaden the horizons of participating artists. Through Border Movement, Goethe-Institut worked closely with event crew BangBang, a collective of DJs and artists including Asvajit Boyle, Sunara Jay and Geve, who would go on to branch out as respected artists in their individual rights and continue to function at the forefront of the country’s alternative music scene.

Image courtesy of Asvajit

The heavy presence of the members of BangBang, most of which doubled as visual artists, lent distinct optics and a penchant for attention-to-details to the country’s alternative electronic music circuit. “I have always felt that a well-executed visual component can do a lot to enhance the musical experience and this is something we have tried to incorporate as much as possible during live performances,” says BangBang co-founder and leading Sri Lankan act Asvajit, who also founded the country’s first independent electronic music label Jambutek in 2014. “I’m not sure how much of an effect this has had on Sri Lanka’s nightlife overall but I do like to think that it has inspired some young musicians to experiment with more holistic forms of presentation at live electronic music events.” 

Asvajit’s Jambutek Recordings emerged as a formidable presence in the country’s artist community, serving to highlight some of its electronic music cannon with an overarching value and aesthetics, and releasing music by the likes of Curio and Nigel Perera (who would go on to work for Jambutek). The DJ, producer, label-head and visual artist also played a pivotal role working with Border Movement, Goethe-Institut and its cultural affairs coordinator Jan Ramesh De Saram in organising Pettah Interchange. 

For five years straight from 2012, the annual event Pettah Interchange became a calendar highlight for the country’s party-enthusiasts by picking up off-kilter, derelict or disused spaces like the Gaffoor Building, Pettah Marketplace, Rio Cinema & Hotel and Transworks House, to host experience-led gigs. Careful music-focused curation of house and techno DJs and producers from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, and sometimes Europe would be juxtaposed with striking visuals from Cyber Illusions, the crew that would also contribute to Jambutek. “The special thing was that we were operating in a space where all the nightlife entertainment known to people from Sri Lanka was in these very standardised, uninspired and poshest clubs. Doing something in a marketplace, doing something in a kind of ruin or doing something in an old hotel, had never been done before by anyone,” says Jan Ramesh. “I would say because it didn’t exist, there were not so many standards. We were lucky to be able to secure permissions for it for 5 years and then have these all-night raves with functioning bars till six in the morning for 1000 to 2500 people in abandoned ruins in the middle of the city.”

Years later, Jan continues to be asked when the next edition of Pettah Interchange will be. There is a tangible demand in the country for more of such events but he feels it’s a lot harder to get the necessary permissions now. “Back in 2012, when we said we are having an event with electronic musicians from Germany and Sri Lanka and other places, I don’t think in the minds of those officials they imagined that it was a party that took place. ‘Electronic music. Whatever that may be!’” explained Jan. 

Over the second half of the decade, nightlife suffered an image problem in Sri Lanka, becoming the target of a pronounced war on drugs during the previous presidency. Dance parties attracted disapproval from legal bodies due to a general increase in awareness around the social issues plaguing them. Jan points out that one of the top challenges in organising an event like Pettah Interchange was creating gender balance. “Culturally, it’s a lot harder for girls and young women to go out. The atmosphere in these events is very male or testosterone-fuelled and hectic. This leads to a dynamic because of which, for girls to go to those events, feels uncomfortable and it just gets worse,” he says before adding that Pettah Interchange was one of the few events that, at least, managed to have roughly around thirty-per cent women in the audience, in contrast to the typical parties where a much higher percentage of patrons might be male. “I feel striking that balance of having a mixed audience is kind of the main challenge of all those parties and it was always the events that kind of managed to break that through one thing or the other, that stood out.” 

Image courtesy of Pettah Interchange

Sri Lanka has a dearth of female presence in its DJing community, from which Sunara Jay sets herself apart by notably playing selections rooted in nu-jazz, glitch-hop, funk and techno amidst a progressive house and tech house-dominated scene. “We still have a lot of conservative mindset in families. Women are not encouraged to go to certain parts of the island or be out at certain times. There is also the stigma around travelling alone,” she tells me over the phone as we try to discuss the reason behind the gender imbalance. “But in my experience, I’ve never had a problem. Many times people tried to help even more when I travelled to an event alone.” 

Sunara has performed across the island and beyond, having toured India, Pakistan, UK, Germany and Norway. She worked as a visual artist before her friends and collective-mates at BangBang helped show her the rungs of DJing in 2011. “I was fortunate enough to have this collective who taught me,” she continues. “Though I have seen some female artists come up over the last few years, there is not enough of a support group – and the idea of parties and raves is socially not accepted by the majority of Sri Lankan’s , which also makes it harder for women.”

Sunara at Pettah Interchange 2016. Photo by Shehan Obeysekara.

The surge of dance parties and cash-grab gigs that began at the start of the decade to capitalise on the rising popularity of EDM and house music had oversaturated the event space on the island with poorly-executed raves, which eventually erupted with a fatal tragedy. In 2018, the aforementioned year of Alan Walker, Boyzone and Sébestien Léger, four young people died at a party at Wadduwa’s Sunset Beach Hotel, which was set to host Israeli producer Guy J as the headlining act. Taking place within a poorly-ventilated under-construction building in late summer (August 4-5), the event came to a halt when members of the audience collapsed due to a combination of heat, lack of oxygen, inhaled dust and alleged drug usage. Four of the members later died in the hospital. The tragic event was only the extreme example of several ill-organised parties, which collectively damaged Sri Lanka’s nightlife over the years. 

“There were too many events. It was unsustainable. Organizers did not do things properly and gave electronic music events a bit of a bad name,” remarks Asvajit. “I am a firm believer that electronic music is for everyone and should not distinguish people along class and social lines.  However, what happened was that you had lots of local youths, now from further afield, who were not properly equipped to get into the scene. These kids have no access to drug information and the organisers were very irresponsible in the way they promoted the event. There was no dialogue or discussion of important matters, just a mad scramble to organize more parties.” Leading up to the tragic night at Wadduwa, the island was riddled with gigs that would be punctuated by a brawl or end with a raid. As a genuine problem and as a scapegoat for political diversion tactics, events would find themselves mentioned in national newspapers as ‘Facebook parties’, under sensational headlines about kilos of drugs being confiscated and tens of arrests taking place. “There were all these raids on parties all over the island and I feel like, if you have seen 2-3 raids with the whole crowd of party people standing around and being harassed for a few hours, you’d think twice or thrice before joining these kinds of events,” adds Jan. The growing notoriety of nightlife meant that the legal bodies would no longer think of cultural exchange at the mention of an electronic music event, and permissions to host 2000 people in a derelict location for a nightlong event like Pettah Interchange became harder to acquire.

“It used to be that one could host an all-night rave in the city. But the parties kept causing problems and had to move further and further away from the city, many times angering the locals in more remote areas due to irresponsible behaviour. They did not do their part in creating awareness and cared only about selling tickets,” explains Asvajit. By the end of 2018, Sri Lanka’s beaches no longer saw multiple parties stretching into the next day over its weekend with the same frequency as they did at the start of the decade. The numbers dwindled further four months later with the harrowing Easter bombings that shook the island in April 2019 and the following shift of political power towards a more conservative administration. A year later, as nightlife continued to reel in the face of socio-political bleakness, the Coronavirus pandemic and its necessary lockdowns dealt the music community another blow. 

Image of Van Luup courtesy of the artist

The effects of one tragedy after the other have been felt by individuals functioning across the spectrum of genres, be it alternative music, techno, house, pop or trance. “Due to the terrorist attacks and change of power, our economy was affected drastically and that of course had a very negative influence on nightlife. The effort you put in as a promoter gives very limited results in these kinds of situations,” says Van Luup, who is a veteran DJ of the country, a close associate of Shiyam and the co-founder of one of Sri Lanka’s biggest progressive and tech-house-focused promoters Booka Booka. “A few key initiatives such as reduced ticket prices and an increase in security, just to name a few, did eventually help. Now, with the current pandemic, these issues have resurfaced and multiplied and is a grave concern for nightlife Industry in Sri Lanka.” 

The island country, which has reported a relatively low infection rate, currently entertains a scattering of invite-only and limited capacity events which remind one of the VIP-culture that defined its nightlife before the civil war’s end. Meanwhile, its alternative musicians continue to showcase their craft in digital spaces. The end of the pandemic won’t be the end of the problems for Sri Lanka’s nightlife, which will have to redeem its image as a safe and socio-culturally beneficial space in a society reeling from the apprehension around mass gatherings, and the island’s uncertain political climate. The silver lining is that the possibilities seen by the country’s arts community over the past decade and more through events like Pettah Interchange, Colomboscope, Samsara and any Booka Booka event, programmes like Sound Camp and even Border Movement Residency, and establishments like Musicmatters and Jambutek, have broadened their artistic horizons and there is no going back from that. Coupled with easier access to technology, the heightened awareness around creative possibilities gives the emerging artists of Sri Lanka an advantage that wasn’t there when it was forming its nightlife at the end of the civil war. As Van Luup sums it up: “All of this will affect and influence the future of Sri Lanka’s dance music industry in a very positive way. It’s inevitable!”

Written by Amaan Khan

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of Border Movement and its partners.

NEWS - 01. December 2020   CITY - Colombo

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