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Personality of the Week : Menaka de Fonseka Sahabandu

by Ilika Karunaratne - Daily News, Sat Mar 15 2003

Our personality this week is one of Sri Lanka's nightingales. Her voice has a rich timbre and has been her path to fame. She was recently awarded the award for excellence in vocal western music by the SAARC Women's Association of Sri Lanka.

I wondered if her passion for music had always been the love of her life? "My aptitude for singing was discovered by Ms. Irene Hunter who taught me to play the piano. It was a custom that her students in a group, went out singing carols at X'mas time. She heard me singing, decided that I had talent and suggested to my mother that I take singing lessons to train and develop my voice. When I was in Grade 8, I went to Mrs. Mary Billimoria for music and did my LRSM and FTCL in piano and singing."

What about school productions? " I was at school at Visakha Vidyalaya and played the part of the Baroness when they performed the operetta. "The Merry widow". I also sang in the chorus as one of the nuns when Manik Sandrasagara produced "The Sound of Music". 1989 was the year of my debut, as it were when I played Seint Sens concerto in G minor with the Symnphony Orchestra. I will always be grateful to Mrs. Mary Billimoria for her training both as a student and as a teacher, when I taught in her school as this helped me to develop my confidence. I taught at her school of music till she closed it when she retired and decided that I had the knowledge and the experience to start teaching on my own. I also felt confident enough to do so."

Wasn't this an all consuming occupation for one so young? At first my pupils were friends and relatives. But word soon got around and I found myself teaching almost every day. I love music and singing and passing this talent on to others as well. I took violin lessons from Ms. Eileen Prins too although I don't teach the violin. I think it is important for anyone who loves music and wants to be apart of the music scene to learn another instrument too, there can by only one piano in an orchestra and a pianist can be and feel isolated. My pupils sit for exams conducted by The Trinity College of Music and other well-known Colleges. But I also teach them to appreciate music, listen to music by great composers and to read about them too. This is outside exams but just as important to a musician.

Before the SARRC women's award, Menaka had been awarded a Savasangeetha award which was a grant to help her to perfect her Musical skill." In England I had the privilege of training under Margaret Cable and Neil Jenkins at The Hereford Summer school. They are both well-known as teachers and performers. When I look back I feel that my appreciation of music stemmed from the time I learned the ballet from Oosha Saravanamuttu. I used to love the music played there and would go home, try to spot it in my books and play the music." I always find the music played by Menaka and her group far more pleasing to the ear than the loud, jarring music of bands whch make conversation impossible.

"I am a soprano and have sung as a soloist and played the piano with the Symphony Orchestra. We also formed a trio where I sang, Soundari David played the piano and Tamara played the cello. I am also part of the Philharmonia players where 8 of us play at weddings, receptions and cocktail parties and play twice a week at The Oberoi. This group was actually started some years ago by a much older set but is now being performed by us. I am a soloist with the Cantata Singers too, which has its concerts at The Methodist Church.

I am still learning and make use of every opportunity to improve my singing and my music by taking master classes from world-renowned musicians who visit here and whenever I visit England. My commitment to my music is such that I agreed to perform in public at a concert to celebrate the 125th anniversary of The Trinity College of Music, just three weeks after I had my baby which meant that I had to start practising for this event 10 days after her birth.

Menaka now has a 9 month old baby and I wondered how she coped with a demanding baby and with her work? "Living with my mother has helped enormously as we take turns with the baby. My lessons are at home too, which means that I am right there on the spot in case of an emergency. She shows early signs of appreciating music. In fact we were very glad to notice that she is very quiet when she heres music; "seems to be listening to it and it keeps her from crying as well" Working mothers who have young babies must be experts at juggling time. How else can they cope to keep away from getting rattled and prevent stress and strain?

"I feel it is important for my pupils to play another instrument too and encourage them to do so. I get them to enter competitions and to audition for the Symphony Orchestra. Singing in choirs too helps to widen their knowledge, to compare experiences and to recognize each others distinctive talents and help each other too. It is upto the teacher to spot the potential in a student and help to develop it. A teacher must encourage pupils to organize musical evenings where they all take part. Interaction and fellowship play an important part in developing personality and confidence."

What about fusion of eastern and western music? "Pradeep Ratnayake, who plays the sitar once organised a concert with fusion. The accent was on the beat of the drums and compositions in eastern music and I was the soloist in western music. It was my first experience in fusion and certainly was a most exhilarating one. I believe that a love of music helps us to live in harmony with others and to listen to them too."

Menaka has worked hard to make her rich, melodic voice what it is today. She has practised for hours, not as a pastime but as a master carver might work to improve his skill, although he may not foresee the possibility of marketing it.

I have heard Menaka sing, and when she does, she ensnares the audience with the magic of her lovely voice. One can hear no other sound except its spell which is pure, clear and haunting. It is no wonder that her busy husband, although he loves music, only goes to a performance if she gives a solo!

Spirit and modesty are a beguiling combination. Menaka has been endowed with a good measure of them both which have probably helped to make her the phenomenal success that she is today. Her music is to her a constant point of reference in life's uncharted waters. Although her work and her baby must make constant demands on her time, she seems utterly content and seems to take it all in her stride. She seems to have acquired a new maturity which is good for her and probably regards them both as a haven from the travails of life.

I am no musician but I love listening to music. It seems to have therapeutic powers and soothes my soul. Particularly a voice like Menaka's as "its echoes seem to roll from soul to soul."

Music seems to me to be a good way of building bridges of friendship between children and people too of various ethnic groups. To learn about each others cultures and beliefs through the wonderful world of music which in turn will help on the path to permanent peace. Menaka's contribution to life is through her music which is her work too. Work, as we all know is the best and most excellent antidote to boredom. It improves self esteem, stretches the mind and keeps us fit.

"If music be the food of love, play on".