The Musical Butterflies of Sri Pada
By Priyangwada Perera
Ceylon Today Features
A group of school children creating magical sounds on mere bottles and glasses went viral on social media. Just as much as we watched and listened spellbound, we wanted to find out the talent behind this performance.
The music teacher of Sri Pada Central College, Palabaddala, Ratnapura, Gihan Pathirana spoke to Ceylon Toeday commenting, “This was first performed in 2018, for the school concert done in celebration of World Environment Day. I wanted to do something special and unique. As it was Environment Day, I wondered why not opt for something environmentally friendly. Even from my days at the campus, I had this concept, but it was not really put into practice. So, I thought of trying it out with the children. We orchestrated Sunil Shantha’s Walaakulin Basa. It became extremely popular on social media”.
“I didn't even know who recorded it or shared it on Facebook but it got immense exposure with more than 7,000 shares. Certain private television channels also showed it on programme. Later, Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) visited the school to see us. We were also called to SLRC for a performance. We spoke of how we made the instruments and so on. The first performance was shared on social media was something that I was totally unaware of but for this performance, we were well prepared,” Pathirana said.
When they went to SLRC with the popular Tamil song, Chinna Chinna Asai. That gave them a second round of fame. “Empty glass bottles are what I use to play the chords which are usually done by the guitar, keyboard and so forth. To do this I used glass bottles. For the percussion I used the vessels,” Pathirana explained. The children did more than justice to the original song with some glass bottles and what not. We had no doubt that they must have practiced over and over again to reach this standard. However, to our surprise Pathirana had a different story. “The thing is blowing into an empty glass bottle is not an easy task. It takes a lot of effort and we could not practise the way you'd assume because the children almost faint with fatigue. So, it was a tough job. However, the children were very obedient and always listened to me. Thanks to that comfort and the relationship we have developed as teacher and students, I managed to pull it off somehow. Luckily for me, my students were very talented and they grasped it quickly. We practiced for three days in a row, during school time. It was difficult to get the children practise more during school hours, however we managed,” he said.
If you look at the video, with your ears all alert, we could hear how perfect their pitching is. It tells us that this is far from just slapping clay pots and making glass or metal tinkle. That is all the more reason one has to watch it on YouTube to understand what we are actually talking about. “It takes more than two hours for us to bring all this to the correct pitch. I had to put the app and the tuner and make sure everything was tuned to the precise position,” he explained. We wondered how he went about tuning the bottles of water. “The bottles were filled with different levels of water. Whatever the instrument we use, we need three notes to make up a chord. Three fingers are used. Here, one bottle represents one chord. Therefore, to get the sound of one chord, three children have to play three bottles - meaning three notes at the same time. These children were not familiar with musical notations or any such thing. So, I had to make a unique system of notations for the children to understand,” Pathirana elaborated.
Empty bottles were transformed into musical instruments. The shape and the height of those particular bottles were ideal for what Pathirana wanted to do. The bottles were named with different notes, like G, D, B, and so on. Each child had a sheet written down with such notes and their bottles had to be tapped according to the note. They also had drinking glasses of various sizes, to play the melody. “We had to fill and empty these accordingly to get the sound we needed. For percussion we used two pots which were beaten with rubber slippers. We also had a PVC pipe which was again, tapped by a rubber slipper. The pot had water. For the shaker I took a plastic bottle and filled it with sand. Using PVC pipes I made something like a pan flute,” he explained.
He never thought it would be such a success. Pathirana wishes he could have added more but he is thrilled at how beautifully everything turned out to be. The orchestra was well-received by hundreds of people miles away. They appreciated it but with less knowledge of music or the kind of effort and hard work it takes one to come up with such a performance. They are less recognised. After seeing their performance of Walakulen Basa, Sri Pada Central College received a set of instruments. Pathirana said that they did not present such an item to display their lack of anything. He gratefully remembered the Principal of Sri Pada Central College, W. Ariyaratne.
Pathirana said if they had more children they could have done better in terms of harmonising a lot. “It is a tough thing but I loved it. With the limited number of children we had, we did a good enough job. The boy and girl who tapped the water glasses were in Grades 7 and 10. There was one Grade-11 child as well. All twenty children were from Grades 7 to 11. Pathirana who is from Pelmadulla had been a student of Pelmadulla Dharmaloka Navodya Vidyalaya. He sat for the Advanced Level exam in 2010 after which he got through to the University of Visual and Performing Arts. Graduating with a BPA in 2016, Pathirana immediately got a Government teaching appointment by July, the same year. “Our school is situated in the place where devotees start the Sri Pada pilgrimage from Palabaddala. We have about 700-800 students,” Pathirana said. Hidden from the busy and crowded world, these students and teachers do breathtakingly beautiful things. Look them up on social media or YouTube where their little pieces of mastery can be enjoyed by anyone.