Growing up in Attidiya, Ratmalana, it was only natural that you become a fan of Sunil, Piyal and the Gypsies – they lived at Glukorasa, the iconic building by the Belek Kade Junction about which Sunil sang so merrily.
Glukorasa made jujubes and chewing gum back then – they were among the few choices we had as confectionaries at the time.
Belek Kade & its colourful Saima featured in his bailas ; Belek Kade was also where the weekly poll was held at Ratmalana – I remember going with my mother to buy vegetables to Belek Kade as a child. It was and is a heaving place of activity and has remained so in my mind.
I was in Grade Seven at Musaeus College at the time and we would take the school bus on Galle Road from Ratmalana. Many of us maintained song books and wrote to whatever artistes we could – I still remember writing to the Gypsies and receiving their memorabilia including a signed colour photo.
Precious to us back then. The legacy of Sunil’s music remains equally precious even now – some forty years later.
Sunil Perera was one of a kind musician. It wasn’t only his baritone voice – he once merrily announced at a concert that he tried singing soft romantic melodies that made the girls swoon like Milton Mallawaarachchi did but he couldn’t so he thought he will be content with his style of singing.
He sang about the issues we complained about – the politicians, the social issues, the utopia Sri Lankans seek but never seem to find – and so many other things in between.
He delivered the punches beautifully – and drove home his message that should have made us think once the party or the concert was over.
Satire was his game – he perfected it in song, singing about the so called musical maestros who criticised baila as an unacceptable art form but would be found on the dance floor after one or two drinks, swaying to the unacceptable yet perfectly rhythmic baila Sunil sang.
He was right about the itch to get on the dance floor when he took over the stage. No one could stay away from it when Sunil Aiya was in his element.
Even now, listening to him, it is impossible not to dance – even though the last physical dance we went to seems like a century ago. In fact, a good baila swirl around the kitchen floor to a good old baila hit by the Maestro himself is a part of my weekly wellness schedule – during the lockdowns.
His catchy tunes were the vehicle to deliver powerful lyrics that often conveyed a message of social importance. The music was his gift to us – creating a unique heritage that cuts deep, to a Sri Lankan psyche ; one that rises above the pettiness of political, ethnic and religious divide that keeps us occupied unnecessarily.
The music of Sunil Perera was not just the legacy of my generation.
It is also the legacy of my children’s generation -Gen Z raised on internet and smartphones- for them too, Sunil Perera and the Gypsies remained a common source of joy. They never complained or switched on their headphones when we played Sunil’s hits in the car. I still remember how Sunil’s Sumihiripane became an instant hit with my daughter’s class at one school event not too long ago. They who normally dismissed our Seventies & Eighties music, never dismissed Sunil Perera’s music but loved it.
His music was also a powerful social equaliser.
Where politics and dialogue may fail in rallying rural communities with the urban societies, Sunil’s music did that effortlessly. You could be in the hipster Colombo night clubs with fancy DJs, or counting fireflies at night in far flung villages – Sunil Perera’s music was equally celebrated by them all, uniting everyone as only music could.
It was the bridge that connected communities, families, friends and colleagues – a canvas so uniquely Sri Lankan that it represented us to us all.
Those who had left our shores to settle down in other countries, couldn’t bear not seeing Sunil & the boys in action – he was often entertaining Sri Lankans living overseas, in his own unique way as only he could.
Sunil Perera wasn’t only just a singer or a star – he was the whole package when it came to ticking off all the boxes in entertainment. He sang, he entertained, he kept you enthralled, gave you a moment frozen in time.
He also made you think about everyday issues that impacted you.
He was Numero Uno when it came to holdings his audiences enthralled. You never forgot a concert by Sunil & the Gypsies.
It stayed in your memories – for always.
Sunil ventured into sociopolitical dynamics that opened a path of citizen involvement in politics and burning social issues. It was a knife that cut both ways but Sunil remained sincere in his efforts to point out the stench underneath some of the issues that plagues the Lankan society.
He recently visited the tax authorities and insisted on paying taxes that he believed he owed – setting an example in his own way. he felt it was the right thing to do.
Sri Lankan today mourns a son who chose a different path – yet the love expressed and the tears shed by millions across this little island stands as a powerful testimony to the lives he touched with his music.
Goodbye Sunil Aiya – Heaven’s gained its baila maestro.