“We Intrinsically Glamourise The Past In Order To Heal”: An Interview With Perera Elsewhere

Image credit: Andrew Charles Edman

There’s a conceptual design to Sasha Perera’s sound. Here, the metaphysical form transforms into an architectural sonic unit: one that sustains emerging tonal patterns and unorthodox harmonies. You can often anticipate the non-sequitur in her sound collages. There are no linear narratives in her sonic movements. “Music is a reflection of our reality. It reflects what’s happening around us. It’s a conversation,” says the London-born, Berlin-based musician, producer and songwriter who goes by the moniker Perera Elsewhere.

“I like to have a diverse sound palette. Perhaps, I would categorise it as ‘experimental pop’ which is a contradiction in itself. I love to explore sound design and manipulation within what I do. I use my voice and transform it into different sounds. One of the best musical instruments that I play or rather honed in on, however, is Ableton. That’s what I use to house all the elements,” says the artist.

Encompassing organic and synthetic elements, Sasha’s exploration with sound offers a rare glimpse into her diverse sonic influences ranging from abstract, electro-acoustic to avant garde, alternative, Rnb, jungle and indigenous textures. Her musicality is an embodiment of the harmonious co-existence of order and chaos. “It’s actually quite cumbersome to recreate my songs in acoustic version. Of course, I could just play them on the piano. However, they live and thrive from the production. They function differently otherwise if written on just one instrument. It changes everything,” she explains.

Image credit: Ériver Hijano

Sasha’s tryst with music began at a very young age. Unlike other children from the South Asian diaspora, her eccentric choices growing up played an integral role in defining her identity both as an artist and individual. However, the prescribed routine and rigidity associated with structural learning with respect to musical instruments discouraged her from pursuing them any further. “I played instruments including piano, violin and guitar, all of which I had undisciplined stints with. However, when I was 11, I insisted on learning how to play the trumpet which is perhaps the musical instrument that I have played the longest in my life. I feel grateful to have a myriad of musical influences growing up. In London, I was exposed to a lot of dancehall and sound-system culture. London was a melting pot of post-colonialist beat music culture and had an explosion of electronic genres in the 90s when I grew up. People of all colours around a sound system and united by music: that’s what it was at least in the mid/late 1990s which was of course pre-internet and pre-hype. In India, some people might say you have no roots. So, I made my own! Experimental electronic music label Warp Records, with artists Aphex Twin and Squarepusher also played such an immense role at the time, contributing to my journey. And, I no longer wanted to merely be a consumer; I wanted to get involved in the process. If we are to place music within a social and cultural context, a lot has changed today. Although my explorations with music began much before the Internet, one can’t deny that it has been integral to my process and progress as an artist. I still have friends from the ‘MySpace’ era. More than half the people who loved my music back then were artists themselves. In a way, there has always been a thin line of sorts between the consumer and producer.  I remember being surrounded by people who were creating their own thing.” says the artist.

Image credit: Hugo Holger Schneider x Rachel de Joode

In the early noughties, Sasha co-founded the electronic trio Jahcoozi with multi-instrumentalists Robot Koch and Oren Gerlitz in Berlin. An amalgamation of abstract beats with dub, electronica and avant-garde experimental pop, the conceptual rigour of the trio’s artistic endeavour is synonymous with their eccentric repertoire. “With respect to multiculturalism, there has been a change in Germany in the last two decades that I have lived here. Berlin is not just ‘techno’. It’s always been constantly evolving. It’s always had people who are open to music” said the artist who was in Thailand conducting an Ableton audio production workshop at Goethe-Institut when the first wave of COVID19 infections hit Europe and other neighbouring regions. Owing to travel restrictions imposed by Indian authorities, she couldn’t partake in Wild City Presents: Various Artists this year. In conversation, she also mentioned how the German government stepped in with an aid package for the country’s creative sector. According to official reports shared by the Ministry of Culture, €50 billion Euros was pledged as backing to small businesses and freelance artists including those from the cultural, creative and media sectors. “Berlin has an artistic language and artistic players,” said Sasha, “In a way, the city is a cultural hub. The identity of Berlin with respect to sound encompasses a lot of DIY presence and the willingness to experiment which has had a huge influence on me. In all DIY, experimentation and creative expression is how I would best describe the city.”

Perera unknowingly explores the reconfiguration of the relationship between culture and identity with ‘Thrill’; a beautiful coincidence that manifested into digital-art for the EP featuring an old photograph of young Perera. “I was the only brown girl amongst seven white girls. I had won silver in the gymnastic competition held at school. The photographer placed me in the centre since I didn’t fit in anywhere else,” she says. Expressive modes within the compositions’ thematic dimensions inscribe sound to memory. There are approximations in written pitches that meld her mellifluous whispers with distant chords. Like an unbroken reverie, it extends and attenuates every forlorn note. Here, there are no conventional lattices of beauty and form embedded in musical structures. “My music cannot be described as thrilling. So, the title is strangely paradoxical in a way. The only other time I used a photograph of mine was for a song I wrote in 2005 called ‘Asian Bride Magazine’. It delves into the practice of skin bleaching in Asian culture. While I didn’t intend to explore the concept of culture and identity within these contexts, somehow it was all inextricably connected. There’s definitely a lot more dialogue and narrative about gender, race and politics now,” she explains.

It was in 1972 when her parents moved to England. They were first generation immigrants from Sri Lanka who left the country just before the civil war broke out. The conflict whose origins lie in the incessant political rancour between the Sinhalese and Tamil community claimed several lives over decades. An intermittent insurgency against the Sri Lankan government by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who fought to create an independent Tamil state called Tamil Eelam culminated in a 26 year long violent and oppressive military campaign that had devastating consequences on the socio-political and cultural ethos of the country.

Image credit: Hugo Holger Schneider x Gene Glover

“My father is Tamil and my mother is Sinhala . They were among the first children in the family to go to university. My father is Hindu. So, we went to the temple a lot. We sang bhajans together and I wore my pavadi. My parents didn’t really have a Westernised cultural identity. Until the age of 22, I was called Sasha Ravindranathan. My parents were often told especially by family members that mixed marriages don’t work per se. They left to England for that reason. Sri Lanka had already introduced the Sinhala Only Act (An act passed in the Parliament of Ceylon in 1956 which replaced English as the official language of Ceylon with Sinhala. Owing to lack of representation and official recognition, the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act was passed in 1958 and later in 1987 the 13th amendment to the constitution stated and recognised Sinhala as the official language of Sri Lanka while Tamil would remain an official language with English as a ‘link language’). ‘ This was a fascist policy. There was unrest and conflict brewing for a while before my parents left. They married for love. That’s what brought them together,” she says.

As a Tamil person, Sasha’s father was apprehensive about returning to a country mired in civil unrest and political struggle. He was stopped at the airport in Colombo in 1984. “We were in transit flying from Singapore to the UK. My mum, my sister and I stayed inside the airplane as my dad said it was too dangerous. I guess he was right,” said Sasha. Dressed in military fatigues, armed personnel confiscated her father’s camera. “This incident made him incredibly upset reminding him of what a racist country Sri Lanka had become. We would visit the Hindu temple in London quite often. When the riots began, hundreds of Tamil families fled from Sri Lanka and migrated to England,” she explained. The riots of 1983 were a response to the deadly ambush by LTTE resulting in death of soldiers who belonged to the Sri Lankan army. In retaliation, Sinhalese mobs attacked, looted and killed Tamil people. What ensued were displacement, migration and systematic destruction of communities which also had repercussions including Tamil youngsters joining militant groups.

“All we heard in the temple were horrific stories. I remember them talking about torture. People were sharing tales of beheadings and other terrible forms of torture that as a child I found hard to imagine! My parents divorced in 1991. I don’t speak Tamil or Sinhala fluently. I don’t have a Tamil or Sinhala first name. I think that’s the biggest effect that the whole experience has had on my life. It was too political to decide which language to speak. It’s really sad. It changed my father’s persona too. He constantly felt that he was a persecuted minority, even in his marriage. People who go through that find it hard to place trust in society,” she explained.

One of Perera’s latest releases ‘Slow Down’ is eerily reminiscent of the current times where humanity is battling a pandemic that may not only have catastrophic consequences on the socio-cultural, economic and political landscape of the world but also play an integral role in altering the consciousness of humankind. Like a syncopated dubstep ballad with sparse tones, the song meanders through realms of desolation. There’s a correspondence between the artist and the observer. Within disparate threads of melancholic tones, her vocals achieve a delicate balance between musicality and emotional expression.

Left you for the slaughter coz nobody wanted daughters who can think for themselves; be who they want to be. Smothered with the voices of the others without choices; hushed with luxury dreams; coz the choices ain’t real; but the choices ain’t real: these poignant lines and the lyrics in general are a reflection of who I am and perhaps what empowers me as a human being. I released the track, and soon after coronavirus wreaked havoc everywhere. With the hookline ‘Slow Down, Take your Time, It will be okay’ my lyrics were suddenly very timely and relevant. Now, we are faced with these existential choices that we ought to think about. Will structures be deconstructed and perhaps never be re-built the same way? Human beings have the inherent ability to adapt but we also have the ability to forget. We intrinsically glamourise the past in order to heal,” says the artist.

Sculpting a gild of melodic curlicues, her sound often shifts and reassembles into structures that do not conform. Enveloped in the resonance of complex rhythms are austere synthetic patterns that disrupt and coalesce into isolated musical frameworks. There’s a temporal connection between the artist and her art. An extension of one another, they co-exist and constitute as one. “Perhaps, music has given me a form of spirituality. Of course, it all depends on what kind of music you are listening to. It has kept me grounded,” she says, “And, it has given me a community…”

written by Akshatha Shetty

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 - 03. June 2020   CITY - Berlin ARTIST - Perera Elsewhere

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