Remembering a legend: Sunil Perera

Last Monday, 6 September, Sri Lanka lost an entertainment legend – a brilliant mind and a wonderful soul. Sunil Perera led the beloved band The Gypsies for just over 50 years, with it celebrating its golden anniversary in 2020. Initially a family affair, The Gypsies consisted of the Perera brothers – Sunil, Nihal, Nimal, and Lal – and three of their cousins. Living in a household where fun and music were given the utmost importance, Sunil believed that music was supposed to bring joy to your life.

The Gypsies’ rendition of the classic “Baila Nonstop” was a staple on the dancefloor of many a Sri Lankan wedding, party, or carnival. Sunil and fellow The Gypsies’ member Piyal Perera were also instrumental in the composition of the cultural phenomenon of a song, “Lowe Sama” – a massive collaboration that saw some of the biggest names in the industry collaborate on an ode for peace in what became Sri Lanka’s parallel to “We Are The World”.

Besides his revolutionary music and constant laughter, Sunil was a man known for his rebellious nature. He did not hesitate to voice his opinions and get political in the face of social and political injustice. He was a fearless critic of cultural norms and an enthusiastic supporter of peaceful co-existence, and much of his music reflected unconventional ideas and viewpoints.

To celebrate the life of this beautiful soul, we spoke to some listeners and fans of his music and his generous ways, to share a few thoughts, memories, and sentiments on losing such a joyful person.

Asela Gunesekara

He was one of the best musicians of his generation, and also a very humble man. I have one story I would like to share about him. I was involved in organising an event with him, a few more veteran bands, and a few more new and emerging bands. The Gypsies performed amazingly, I must say, and it was the opportunity for one of the new and emerging bands to do their performance. During their (the new band’s) act, they had a little bit of a miscalculation and messed up their performance, and they were becoming the laughing stock of the evening. Mr. Sunil Perera slowly walked on stage with his guitar – he started playing and helped them fix their mistake. It was a beautiful thing to watch. That is the kind of man he was.

Reginold Hillary

I have been a fan since I was a kid. I grew up in Trincomalee and Sinhala was not my first language. His music was very pleasing to us because it was in very simple Sinhala that was easy to understand even for us, and it was always based on an interesting story. He was very popular amongst the community I grew up in due to this reason. Having interacted with him several times at events, I have come to realise that he was a simple man. Whenever he was at an event, he never fussed about simple things; he was extremely well mannered and humble. When we got the message that he recovered on Sunday (5), we were ever so happy, but when we found out that he passed, we were extremely devastated. It was almost as if a family member had passed. He had a great impact on my childhood and life. I am forever grateful for all of those memories. May he rest in peace.

Shyam Udayasiri

He was one of the most entertaining singers. We listened to The Gypsies as youngsters and his music always put us in a good mood. I did not know him personally, but from everything I have heard, he was a good person who helped others and believed in what is right. I believe we have lost a beautiful soul.

Thakshila Jayasinghe

The first Gypsies song I fell in love with was “Oye Ojaaye”. It was released in 1989 but my obsession with it started in 1991. I would keep playing it and pester my father to dress up in his full suit (while I dressed up in my pink princess gown that my grandmother stitched for me) and we would dance and dance. It was one of my happiest memories ever. Another song I absolutely loved was “Signore”. I was 11 years old when it came out and we started singing it during every school trip and end-of-term party. I found the video hilarious too! We would act out the video and I took particular relish in pretending to squeeze the mud-soaked loaf of bread dry. Even as an adult, his songs created special memories for me. When I was part of a delegation of four to the Model United Nations (MUN) Conference held in Seoul, South Korea, the song we chose to sing for the last night we were there was “Lowe Sama”. These are just a few of the special memories I have. His songs will live on forever as not only wedding staples, but brilliant social and political satirical commentaries. May you attain Nibbana, Sunil Perera. You will indeed be much missed. 

*Thakshila kindly shared some illustrations she had done of Sunil Perera.

Danajaya Perera

There is no other singer who could make even a shy person dance without a care for the world. Mr. Sunil Perera was a true entertainer and a humble person at the same time. He would always sing well beyond the time allowed by hotels for a wedding. I have seen him falling asleep on the stage with the mic in his hand whilst singing late into the night. It wouldn’t matter whether it’s 10 p.m. or 2 a.m.; he’d still go on with the same strength and spirit to entertain the crowd. He was a true entertainer. I always used to say that there is no wedding like a wedding where Mr. Sunil Perera sang. Farewell legend. May you rest in peace.

Ruth Sonali Thampoe

Growing up, The Gypsies were soothing to listen to. With a very cheerful personality and a generally positive aura, Sunil Perera could always light up a room. As a fan, I believe we have lost a true musician and a wonderful person. May he rest in peace.

Harindi Yvonne de Silva

Rest in peace Sunil Perera. Thank you for your legacy in music and for not failing to entertain us throughout. We are deeply saddened by the loss, yet your name will never fade away in the history of the Sri Lankan music industry. Deepest condolences to the Perera family.

Nilrandha Fonseka

My family is close with his family. So I grew up with a lot of fun interactions and memories of him. My family was a big fan of The Gypsies’ music; we pretty much have the entire collection of their albums. Growing up, their songs were like anthems to us. I can confidently say I have listened to every single record done by him. Besides that, he was such an amazing person to be around – very kind and cheerful. He was the life of the party wherever he went. That energy and positivity were unparalleled. He will be truly missed.

We also spoke to some of Sri Lanka’s younger artists on the impact Sunil has had on them.

Ashanthi de Alwis

I’ve known Uncle Sunil since I was two-and-a-half years old. He was a musical contemporary to my mother, his good friend Antoinette de Alwis, who has written the English lyrics to several of his songs. I am personally extremely honoured to have known him as a child, as a member of this generation of music. I consider him the godfather of Sri Lankan pop music. Having known him from a very young age, something that really stood out for me was his kindness. If I am not mistaken, he had given 10% of his lifetime savings to the needy. He was not someone who announced how much he was doing for the less fortunate or the needy. He just did it. His demise is truly a loss to the music industry and to the country. He will never be forgotten.

Yureni Noshika

I have known Sunil Aiya for seven years. He was a dear friend and an amazing musician. I remember when I was about to release my first single “Saree Pote”, I made him listen to it to get his opinion, as it was very important to me. What he said has resonated with me since then. He said: “Yureni, I am an average man with an average height, average looks, an average voice, and average talent. It is not about talent; it is about what you do.” This was the most important advice I’ve received in my life. While being a great musician, he was such a joy to hang out with. Even the last time I met him, we had plain tea and he was cracking jokes. He believed that being mentally stable was everything. I think he was an angel walking on Earth. He helped people so passionately; he was never ashamed to accept his mistakes or his past. We are going to miss him, his talent, his mind, and his wonderful aura.

Dinupa Kodagoda

I have had the privilege of performing with him on stage twice and they were both surreal moments. The first time, it was a small part in the “Oye Ojaye” song, and this was during my debut and I was very nervous. He was so nice to me and made it so comfortable to work. He always appreciated new talent and helped other musicians. He was humble, honest, and was not afraid to voice his opinion. Even his music was always centred on social issues. I believe he will be missed by all and I hope he rests in peace.