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Personality of the Week

Mignonne Fernando

by Ilika Karunaratne

Daily News, Sat Jun 14, 2003: Every fairy tale has its own bete noire - A 'Once upon a time' or 'happily married ever after', also usually demands a thorn. To Mignonne Rutnam, as she was then, her fairy tale began, when she met Tony Fernando, when she was just sweet sixteen. He was first her Manager, and later, both husband and Manager. The thorn to them, was Tony's illness and death, which was to take him away last year, after a 38 year old marriage, made in heaven.

Mignonne, has always been my favourite female Sri Lankan singer. Her voice in my ears, is like sun warmed honey, and no-one, then or now, can hold a candle to her. Each one of us takes the death of a loved one in a different way. Each of us swims in our own pool of grief; our own flood of memories. Loneliness becomes constant, memories become companions and darkness becomes a haven for fantasy. Mignonne's first reaction to the shock, was to take herself away; to spend time with her daughter in Dubai. She then returned to immerse herself in work.

"Tony knew that I wanted to do this CD, and it was his dream too. Music to me, is a gift from God; I am forever in his debt, for this wonderful gift. My mother helped me to develop it, by her knowledge of it, and her encouragement. But it was because of Tony's inspired management that my music sprouted and blossomed. I worked hard, to see that this dream of ours, Tony's and mine, came true, by producing this album. It seemed to be an eternity in the making, but it has been a labour of love, and a total experience of mind, body and soul", she said of her new CD released recently.

You have been away a long time. How would you describe those years? "Working at The Regent, Hongkong, was a truly enthralling experience. It is a place where the rich and famous gather almost daily, as you can see from the Daimlers parked outside. It was voted the world's best hotel, for three years in a row, by The Institutional Investor. It rises above the glittering lights of Hongkong, on the very edge of the world's most spectacular harbour".

Mignonne showed me a picture of the room in which they sang, with enormous glass windows, almost the length and breadth of the room. She also related an interesting legend about it; that it is built in the path of the nine dragons, as dragons can walk through glass; so it doesn't disturb their freedom of movement! The view seems panoramic, and at night, with an azure sky, the stars would look like diamonds., sparkling on dark silk.

"Our time there was really wonderful. It was the best years to be there too; meeting interesting people, organizing and creating music to suit individual tastes. There were various dimensions to performances; some would like old music, like Joe Loss for instance. We played at several traditional weddings too, society functions, with the sophistication of Chanel and Karl Lagerfield clothes, a Cartier launch of the perfume, 'Panthere', brings back nostalgic memories, of a real live panther, being carried in on a palanquin, by Nubian slaves. Julio Iglesius, who popularized that ubiquitous song, 'All the girls I loved before' performed at shows that we did.

Singers, dancers, comics, Broadway veterans, brought great entertainment, as well as the celebrity touch to the performances. So many shows with so many different themes; one was in the styling of 'In a Persian market', another was 'A night in Manhatten' I created the whole score of music for many of these shows. Often, after the star of the evening performed, we would play music for dancing. 2.30 a.m. is the time they call 'carriages' which means that the function was over and it was time to go home. Alan Zeman, is a famous figure in HongKong, who owns several clubs and streets in Hong Kong we played at his son's 'Bar Mitzah and played only jewish music on that occasion:".

When was the beginning of your spectacular career in music? "We began right here in Colombo, at the Coconut Grove at The Galle Face Hotel. Our next spot was The Taj Mahal in Bombay, then to Singapore, where we won our first international awards. Our first break in Hong Kong, was at The Talk of the Town, which was a revolving restaurant. We came back here and performed too, before our long stay in Hong Kong".

Sohan Peiris says that he owes everything he is today to Tony and you. What about the original jetliners? "The original jetliners are scattered all over the world now, but we did get together for a concert in Australia recently. We are all keen on performing here, where it all began and are working on it, and trying to work out sponsorship. Tony managed all hotel musicians in Hong Kong. He was a most gentle ruler, who ruled his kingdom of music, with a firm, but fair hand.

We formed a company for this and had 16 to 20 musicians under this umbrella. We played for almost every grand opening at The Regent, where the creme a la creme of Hong Kong would be present. We once had a millionaire who wanted to have dinner alone with his wife in the atmosphere of Sherwood Forest, with our band playing soft music.

We created this and he was so happy with the evening that he gave me a gift of a mink teddy bear. I had to give this to a child before I returned here, as the mink would not have stood our climate! Another wonderful memory was 'The Captains Ball', held by the Captain of The Q E 2. We had one band in the foyer, another playing light classical during dinner, and still another for dancing.

The joy of creating and organizing music left me little time for boredom. We used to practise two days in the week and perform for three days in the week. Our apartment was just next to the hotel. It was great fun while it lasted, but in 1997, we decided come back home, and go back only for seasons. Our two sons have finished University now and are both living and working in the US. The last two years for me, were devoted to Tony's health and everything else came after that. I wanted to launch my CD in February, but I felt it was insensitive in the midst of the war in Iraq, to launch a CD, which was a celebration of life".

What of the future? I would like to do seasons in the US, where my sons are. I would very much enjoy doing the musical score for a Sinhalese film. I like to be flexible and introduce new concepts in music". Mignonne's world has been a kaleidoscope; a constantly changing prism that mixed, mingled and overlapped to create shades and patterns. On stage, she is the quintessential star of spellbinding presence; shimmering and shining.

To meet and talk to her on her own, she is a lovely person, with beauty of soul that somehow shines through. I almost cried as I listened and watched her on video, singing 'I am proud to be Sri Lankan', in all three languages, Sinhalese, Tamil and English. The background showing all the beauties of our country. Our beaches, the ruined cities, temples and our children of all communities, who are after all our future. This song, should I think be used on radio, on TV, on Sri Lankan, Airlines and by The Tourist Board. It is so beautiful and heart warming and could be a pathway to permanent peace.

"Wherever I may have wandered, I have never failed to take a part of Sri Lanka with me, and have always projected my country through my music. I wear either Kandyan saree or 'Redda hatte', and wear a 'nalal patiya too', when I sing in Sinhalese or Tamil. My heart has always been right here, in Sri Lanka, and I would like to do more for our country".

Her soft, mellifluous voice as she speaks, radiates a special kind of spirituality, charm and originality. As a composer, lyricist and singer, she has no equal, and is the brightest star of the musical firmament in our country.