Brunch

Fête de la Musique

  • The musical train to Kandy

If May is the month of Roland Garros and the Cannes Film Fest, then June is the month of World Music Day, or “Fête de la Musique”.

This popular event began in 1982 when French Minister of Culture Jack Lang (yes, I spelt his name correct) declared 21 June as Fête de la Musique. 21 June is the first day of summer, the day of the Summer Solstice, and the longest day of the year, when the sun sets well after 9 p.m.

On this day, the whole of France explodes into one musical extravaganza with amateur and professional performances taking place at every imaginable venue – village squares, railway stations, churches, hospitals, town squares, the banks of River Seine, etc.

Since then, Fête de la Musique has spread beyond France and is now a worldwide musical festival, with Sri Lanka also celebrating Fête de la Musique for many years. The Alliance Française takes the lead each year and celebrates an infectious Fête de la Musique, while the Alliance Française de Kandy, Jaffna, and Matara follow suit.

Back in 1992, we wanted to do something different…something daring. What better idea than a musical train to Kandy. With the French Embassy and the Alliance Française teaming up, we booked two entire compartments of the Colombo-Kandy Intercity Express.

We invited musicians, music lovers, music journalists, and Bonsoir’s music fans on this musical ride to Kandy. Twenty years ago, at that time, this was one hell of an experience; there was the Bonsoir team with Yasmin, Chintha, and hired help; personnel from the French Embassy; and the irrepressible Angela Seneviratne and Ronnie Lietch. There were also Priya Goonetilleke, Drucille Bertus, and lots of others whose names I unfortunately don’t quite remember now.

We all gathered at the entrance of the Fort Railway Station with an assortment of instruments and began to make music. Saner passengers were astounded while the more adventurous ones joined in by clapping to the beat of the music. Music making then spilled onto the platform and continued into our two carriages and all the way to Kandy!

The other passengers thought we were mad – what with Angie and Ronnie, and their crazy antics, and deliberately singing flat. We unloaded ourselves at the Kandy station and, much to the disbelief of onlookers, sang and danced on the platform! The poor Station Master didn’t know which song hit him from where – English, French, Sinhala, Hindi, Tamil, and a bit of German too for good measure.

The Alliance Française de Kandy headed by Fabrice Mongiat took over and two waiting buses whooshed us to the grounds at the other end of the Kandy Lake. Students’ Committee President Ayesha Imbuldeniya had got her members activated at the grounds where we were joined by Kandy’s musicians such as Michael Sansoni and the Hezonites, I think.

From that point onwards, it was non-stop music, song, and dance in the hot sun. Kandy was cool, the sun was not. We danced in the noonday sun as clouds of dust circled us, but no one cared a damn. Music was the unifying force that held sway that morning.

Angela Seneviratne

The ambiance was fabulous and infectious that we totally forgot that there was a train to catch back to Colombo. Lunch was very rushed, but we were still VERY late. We had to somehow stop that intercity train from leaving. The perfect solution presented itself in Angela Seneviratne, always ready to take up a challenge, and revelling in daring ones at that!

We rushed headlong her to the Kandy Station where she very calmly sat on a filthy sleeper in the middle of the dirty railway line, right in front of the engine. She composed herself, smiled, and refused to budge. Given her heavy celebrity status, the station staff was in a quandary. The Colombo-Kandy Intercity Express could not run over Angela Seneviratne. That would have amounted to voluntary manslaughter. This gave us ample time to collect our team together and rush back to the station.

Once we were all inside the carriages, Angie got up, dusted her pretty self, and as though nothing had ever happened, did a roopa sundari toss of her mane, gave the onlookers her most innocent smile, and with her Brigitte Bardot pout stretching all the way down to Kadugannawa, said “api yanawaaahhh”. The whistle was blown, the carriages convulsed, and we were safely en route to Colombo after Fête de la Musique (indeed) in Kandy!

P.S. A decade-plus years down the line, Angie recalls thus…

One can get away with the craziest things when one is young, me thinks! When Kumar rambled about this particular train stopping incident when the Bonsoir Diaries was only a plan, I didn’t even murmur (out of shock), and what I hoped was a forgotten tale was soon to be published, right there in your faces, as it were, and worst of all, yikes – for my children to read! Now, how can I ever be a role model? Gasp!

Note to self: Never do anything without missiling yourself into the future by at least 25 years! But then, I suppose, I haven’t changed much. I reckon I’d yet plonk myself in front of a stationary train and cause a stir, and a very flummoxed station master, if it meant that my team had to catch up. Never for the love of a fluttering blue, white, and red flag would I forget the  purple face of the station master, spluttering “madam, aney madam…epaaaa madam” and the spectators gathering around him, pleading with me to clamber back onto the platform. I demurely raised my hand as if to say “wait” while I fretted that the gang hadn’t arrived yet. Ah, how long would I have to carry this on?

I was indeed relieved to see the delayed gang with their instruments, and someone assisted in pulling me up to the platform and, in the rush, asked for my address! Many months later, I received a letter in the post from this fan saying how worried he was that I was going to do something drastic to myself and he wanted to cry. Bless him!

Those were lively days. I remember the journey itself, perched on the window of the compartment, butts out, heads in, hollering out non-stop bailas, hindi pop, rock and roll, and sing-alongs all the way from Fort to Kandy. It was the same all the way back as well. It was a wonder we didn’t run out of songs! Of course, we all behaved very well in Kandy, much to the surprise of our own fellow teammates.

Sadly, I never heard of a repetition of such spectacular entertainment thereafter, so I guess we made history in some strange way.

Vive la France, you are etched in my life forever!