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.
She has been dubbed ‘Sri Lanka’s Ambassadress of Song,’ Mignonne Fernando enjoys iconic status not only in South Asia but also in the Far East, where, for many years she was a resident musician at The Regent Hotel in Hong Kong. She will headline a massive concert in Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka in March 2006. This will be an opportunity for fans of Mignonne and The Jetliners to re-live nostalgic memories of the 1960s and 1970s of the popular music scene on the island
Mignonne is truly an international star and has performed from the United States to Singapore. She has wowed audiences at the Taj in Mumbai in India for several years.
Mignonne Fernando exploded onto the Ceylonese music scene in 1963 when as Mignonne Rutnam she won a song contest on Radio Ceylon. The radio station is the oldest and one of the finest broadcasting institutions in South Asia.
Legendary broadcasters such as Livy Wijemanne, Vernon Corea, Jimmy Bharucha, Nihal Bhareti and Vijaya Corea played her music and that of the Jetliners over the airwaves of Radio Ceylon and subsequently the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, making her a household name.
Vernon Corea who had introduced The Jetliners at the Coconut Grove at Galle Face Hotel in Colombo in the 1960s played the music of The Jetliners on his popular radio program on BBC Radio London called ' London Sounds Eastern' in the 1970s and 1980s - it was produced by top BBC man Keith Yeomans. Mignonne Fernando's music reached new British audiences in the capital.
She was managed by the music mogul the late Tony Fernando who married her - he made her a star. Mignonne and the Jetliners had star billing in Sri Lanka. They represented the country at international song contests.
A pivotal moment came in 2003 when Mignonne Fernando released her first CD titled 'A Celebration of Life.' Mignonne told the media: '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 CD.
The Sunday Observer in Sri Lanka noted: 'Mignonne drew her early musical influences she tells us, from Franz Liszt, George Gershwin, Quincy Jones her favorite, Diana Ross and the many well known gospel singers. The music of the Motown World, Jazz and Dave Griusin hold a special place for her inspiration-wise.
The highlights of your CD?
"Mangala Mohotha, the lyrics for which is by the late Karunaratne Abeysekera, I arranged and performed the song and introduced the flute by Sajeewa Gurusinghe. There's the song 'Proud to be Sri Lankan' for which the inspiration came fast after I saw the Imax film 'Blue Planet' - the journey of the space shuttle and when the astronauts said "there down below is beautiful Sri Lanka."
It took me by surprise I was spurred to compose. The lyrics came equally fast like the melody. Our people are forgetting what a beautiful country we live in and I hope the message I'm projecting in the song will be a lasting one.
There are other tracks like 'Den Nivadu Kale', my version of 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow' which was featured on VOA by Judy Massa and broadcast on Simultaneous Satellite Broadcast Worldwide." And of course the Overture which I wrote for the Mignonne and the Jetliners Australia 2000 tours, ' she said.
An outstanding track on her CD 'Celebration of Life' is called 'Island Song' a fusion of hip hop and tabla. This song deserves to be played on western radio stations - by all accounts it should be an international hit if only someone would promote the very best of Sri Lanka's musicians in the west.
Mignonne received a huge ovation when she appeared on stage at a 'Grand Salute to Vijaya Corea' at the BMICH in Colombo. She will play Colombo in March 2006 before spending time in the United States.
To hear Mignonne Fernando's hit: 'Island song' please access the website:
Mignonne Fernando and The Jetliners regularly entertained guests at the Coconut Grove and the venue was even popularised in a song. Radio Ceylon recorded music programmes from the Coconut Grove. D.G. William (known as 'Galle Face William'), the Lanka Sama Samaja Party trade union leader, first worked and organised workers here. The Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke wrote the final chapters of 3001 - The Final Odyssey in the hotel.
Sunday Observer June 9 2003
Mignonne's `A Celebration of Life' launched
Popularly known as `Miss Music' and as `Sri Lanka's Ambassadress of Song', Mignonne Fernando launched her first CD on Monday May 12, at the Galadari Hotel.
Present was a distinguished gathering of musicians, fans and friends, which included Secretary to the Prime Minister, Bradman Weerakoon and Dhammi Weerakoon, Minister of Commerce and Consumer Affairs - Ravi Karunanayake and Mela Karunanayake, Chairman of ANCL - Nalin Ladduwahetty, Chairman, Hatton National Bank - Chrysantha Cooray and Pamela Cooray, Chairman, Delmege Forsyth and Company - Ricky Mendis and Charmaine Mendis.
The CD which was sponsored by the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (ANCL), contains a collection of Mignonne's own compositions which includes the famous Mangala Mohotha, or more popularly known by the first line of the song Kadalle Athivu Kirilli Vage, Island Song, which was selected Runner-Up in the Song Writers Contest conducted by Radio Television Hong Kong in 1981 and Proud to be Sri Lankan - a song composed by Mignonne to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Sri Lanka's Independence in 1998.
Managala Mohotha was written 26 years ago by Mignonne and for this she obtained a seven year contract with EMI UK. It became the first Sinhala song for video for the inauguration of TV in Sri Lanka on the July 1 1979. Today Mangala Mohothais played at almost all weddings and has come to be known as the Sri Lankan Wedding Song.
The other songs on the CD are Mignonne's own rendition of popular English songs like My Boy Lollop, Bombay Mere Hai, Chiquitita and the perennial favourite Over the Rainbow.
This CD is dedicated in memory of her late husband Tony Fernando whose encouragement and support has been infinite throughout her musical career.
Speaking at the launch, Mr. Weerakoon recollected Mignonne's contribution towards the music scene and her efforts to bring credit to Sri Lanka through music.
He recalled her contribution at the Fifth Non-Aligned Summit Conference held in Colombo in August 1976 when she entertained world leaders from over 84 countries, and earned for herself the title, Lady of the Conference. He elaborated on her magnanimous financial contribution towards the Housing Development Scheme initiated by the then Prime Minister the Ranasinghe Premadasa. He said that this was the very first contribution made by a Western musician.
- B. N.