Friday, December 30, 2016

Monday, July 04, 2016

Memories are made of this

Memories are made of this - A tribute to the Colombo Music Scene of the 60’s

Compiled by; Prins James Alagaratnam- Toronto

The recent passing of Stanley Arnold, member of “The Four Chords” singing group of the sixties, prompted reminiscent memories, imbibed over quite a bit of red with friends from the same period of time. We travelled back, remembering the Colombo Music Scene of the 60’s and the artists, and promoters responsible for bringing great entertainment to Colombo and the suburbs, at a time devoid of Television in Sri Lanka, where the only entertainment available were live shows, events or the radio. Stanley of course never stopped singing. Colombo audiences will recollect the renditions of “Little Eyes I love you” and “Cha Boom” delivered at their many appearances. Even though the Four Chords disbanded Victor Gamalathge continued performing duets with his wife as “Christine and Victor” and subsequently emigrating to Australia. Stanley immigrated to Toronto, Canada and continued singing in his church choir and for a little while sang with my brother Steve, myself and friends, starting off the Monks “R “Us singing group.

The early sixties to my memory had an array of bandsmen, singing groups, singers and musicians who entertained us in Colombo and its outskirts. Ishan Bahar has recently compiled “A Heritage of Song” with contributions from many artists of that era and more. Ishan propelled to popularity with the Jetliners and was an instant hit from his first appearance with the Jets at St.Peter’s College hall in 1962’s “Showboat”. The original four of the Jetliners were Lucien, Felix, Anton and Harris. The Jetliners went on to become Sri Lanka’s first super group under the wing of Tony Fernando as their manager. Tony added more talent to the Jets with Mignonne Rutnam, Loretta Koch, and Mignonne’s own sister – late Antoinette, as well as an array of male vocalists and musicians. More super beat groups would follow in the Colombo music scene. To name the forerunners there was Marci Perera’s “Spitfires” from Colombo north and Earl Arnolda’s “The Fireflies”, all heavily booked for the sundown dances in the Colombo nightspots.

Mascarilla, Coconut Grove, Little Hut, Rainbow room, Spotted Deer, Blue Leopard, Akase Kade, Flame Room, were some of the popular venues that featured sundown dances. One remembers and pays tribute to the DJ, announcers, comperes who helped foster the music scene of that era. There was Chris Greet, the Coreas, Vernon and Vijay, Steve Alagaratnam, Clive Rodrigo, Mallory Walles, Derrick Maloney, Bob Harvey, Barry Wittington (nicknamed Witty Barrington) appearing live on stage.

Household names such as Jimmy Barucha, Shirley Perera, Livy Wijemanne, Leon Belleth, Nihal Barethi on Radio also promoted songs of the artists of the time.

In the early Sixties, veteran singer Des Kelley with The Semitones were already much sought after, and Des was one of the pioneering artists migrating to Australia. Among his many hits, “Dream World” and “Cha Cha Baby” had the number one spot on the local hit parade, and enjoyed regular airing on Radio Ceylon’s commercial waves. Cliff Foenander did not perform much in Colombo, but together with Bill Forbes are two famous Ceylonese artists who made good outside of our Island. Bill an old Peterite appeared on the British talent show “Oh Boy”, and made such hits as “God’s Little Acre”, “Too Young” which topped the British charts and local hit parade. Bill recorded many more popular songs, including “Oh! To be in England” and “Achcha England” recorded under his other pseudonym of Kal Khan. Cliff gained international fame singing with “The Fabulous Echoes” in the Las Vegas circuit. His rendition of “Little bit of soap” topped the local hit parade. Cliff together with the “Echoes” toured the Far East and went on to Vegas, even appearing on the Ed Sullivan show. Cliff succumbed to health problems and passed away in 2000.

Others of Lankan heritage who gained international recognition are Keith Podger with the Seekers, jazz vocalist and actress, Yolande Bhavan of Lambert, Hendriks, Bhavan fame and Kamahl who migrated to Australia from Malaysia and is still heard over the airwaves, and continues to be active in the music scene Down Under.

One of the early promoters of these shows was, Donovan Andree, who had many performers booked at “The Orchid Room”. Donovan’s showmanship brought down “Holiday on Ice”, The Big Circus and The Fantastic Fillipinos among many others to Colombo audiences. It is interesting to note, that of the last troupe, Frankie Ferrer (Juggler) partnered with Rosemary Ferdinands (sister of Bandsman Adrian), continuing onwards to Las Vegas. Eileen Martin, The Mambo Queen settled down in Colombo and together with Tony Fernando helped run “Tony’s Record Bar” at the top of Bullers Road. Donovan’s sons and family Elmo, Malcolm, Eryn de Selfa- Ramona Carr continued his legacy after his demise into the 60’s. Lots of artists credit their step into the pop world to Malcolm Andree who was the entertainment manager at the Stadium. The Stadium, at Station Road, Bambalapitiya featured such names as Jimmy Weerasinghe (Red sails) and Platters repetoire, Loretta Olhmus, “An Evening in Roma”, Doreen Stewart “Secret Love”, Larraine Hoffman. The Jay Bros- late Perin and his brother Dr.Geri Jayesekera (now retired in Colombo) with their hit record “Cherry Blossom Tree” and other popular duets of the day. Even your’s truly performed as “Steve & James”- singing the hit of that time “Massachusets”. Malcolm whenever spotting one of us on Galle Road Bamabalpitiya, would always jovially hum the tune.

Of special mention, the very talented Menezes Family Combo with “Papa Menezes on Sax at the helm, supported by his kids, Mickey on piano, with Tom and daughter Helen were popularly booked for weddings and special occasions. Helen continued performing as the Helen Lucas combo. Ralph entered medical college and formed a beat group, “The Heartbeats” comprising undergrad contemporaries.

Roger Menezes a grandson and talented musician played with the Jets and Spitfires.

Other families of musicians included the Manickavasagar brothers, the Hofmann siblings, and the Pompeus family. Mifwany Lewis and son Joey doing their inimitable renditions of popular jazz and pop were often featured on Radio and in the nightclub scene. Desmond, Frank, and Eden Pompeus, well known as a trumpeter together with the late Malcolm de Zylwa, Dallas Achilles, Edgar Haber appeared with many bands at popular night spots.

A popular singing group of that time, The Italiares comprised reputed singers in their own right.

There were Reggie Perumal, Bede deZylwa, Basil Joseph and Rajah Christopher all singing with the Choral Society and the Italiares, rendering Neapolitan airs and popular four part ballads. One of their signature tunes was “Granada” sung with typical classical gusto, that would have given quite a run to the current recording artists such as “El Divo”. Each one was a sought after musician in his own right. Bede’s solos at St.Mary’s Church, Bambalapitiya were in demand for all weddings solemnized there. Likewise Reggie was the resident tenor at St.Lucia’s Cathedral. Rajah’s bass was always heard at St.Philip Neri in Fort.

Basil was a violinist in the symphony orchestra of Colombo, and took semi lead roles in many a musical at the Lionel Wendt theatre. Basil continues to play and sing, now domiciled in California. The Italiares were backed by the Joy Ferdinando quintet. Joy’s daughters, “The Ferdinando sisters” were as well, regular performers at concerts especially at Good Shepherd Convent, their alma mater.

Kotahena and Colombo North gave us the Gerry Crake Combo and his daughter vocalist Heather, and Peter Prins Combo. Another singing duo of the era was “Denzil and Bosco”, both Benedictines, singing the same repertoire as the Jay Bros. Denzil and Bosco being products of their Kotahena Alma Mater were featured performers at many concerts in Colombo North. Bosco’s niece Shyami Fonseka and later the Fonseka sisters were coming into the scene.

As a promoter one cannot forget Mubarak Thaha as well who brought down a lot of international performers. The “Continental Follies” performed at the Tropicana and concurrently Thaha ran a talent contest in which Steve, Brian Fernando and I sang as “The Nightinghales”- singing standard pop
harmonies. The contest was won by Kumar Molligoda with “The Flamingoes”. Kumar’s rendition of
“One night with you” clinched the win. The Nightinghales were runners up. Thaha had an entertainment

club “The Atlanta”, in Colpetty. It was here that the Cuban dance sensation Arsenio Alexander and his wife performed nightly. Arsenio stayed on and co-produced “Maname” with our very own Chitrasena”.

There were other notable entertainers, Derryck Cramer, Jimmy Peck, Authur Speldewilde and the
Cadets, from whence Claude Selvaratnam and the Esquire Set emerged.

The 60’s saw the beginnings of teenager Dalreen de Kretzer singing with her mother Decima’s travelling tour “Decima presents”. Dalrene subsequently would be the super singer with the ‘Fireflies” and is still very much alive (as Dalreen Suby) in the current music scene. Her daughter Debbie Arnolda has inherited the musical talents of her mum, and was an up and coming artist of the time. I had the pleasure of impromptu accompaniment by Debbie when requested to sing “O Holy Night” at a corporate function in Colombo many years later.

One of the finest entertainers of the era, still going strong, is Desmond deSilva- crowned “Baila King”, who 2 years ago celebrated his “Golden Jubilee” in Show business. Desmond sang with the Fireflies, Spitfires, Jetliners, and his own group “The Clan”. Desmond lives in Sydney with wife Phyllis, and is heavily sought after, all year around. Desmond is undisputedly the finest entertainer from Sri Lanka.

Nimal Mendis and Winston Jayewardene worked with a lot of the artists in composing original tunes
and recordings. Nimal’s composition of “Kisses in the Dark” sung by British songstress Mary Marshall was one of an array of popular compositions both western and local. Noeline Mendis ((later Honter) sang a popular tribute to “The City of Colombo”. Indra Raj, Rajah Jalaldeen, Lucien Perera, Claude and Nilu Fernando, Milroy Passe deSilva were exceptional musicians who as well contributed to the richness of the music of the times.

During this time we enjoyed the concerts, dances shows featuring The Fireflies, Spitfires, Jetliners,
Desmond and the Clan, Gabo and the Breakaways with Maurice Balasingham, Harold Seneviratne with Malcolm de Kauwe , Arden Nelson, Raddy Ferreira, Jeffrey Labrooy, Adrian Ferdinands, Sam the Man and the Gaylords, Hezonites, Savage, Amazing Grace, Saybhan and Tempo, with Sherwin Jaya, “Talk of the Town”, Cass Ziard, Gazali Amit Combo,with Ahmed Miskin. Ahmed, a fine Jim Reeves exponent, tragically died in a road accident on Galle Road, Colpetty. Other popular vocalists of the era include, Reggie Koch, Andy Bavan and Prins Rutnam.

The lead singers of many beat groups included Sohan Weerasinghe, Maxi Rozairo, Sohan Peiris, Conrad and Angelo de Silva, Budrin Musafer, and Alston Koch. Alston continued singing in Australia and recently in collaboration with producer, Chandran Rutnam. has ventured onto the silver screen. Noeline Honter (Mendis), Priyanthi Manamperi, Shyami Fonseka, Maya Sittamapalam were the pick of other female singers during the period of the 60’s..

There were the classical singers who as well entertained on our stages. Douglas and Estelle de Niese,
Lorraine Abeyeskera, Lylie Godrirdge, Nihal Fonseka, come to mind. There were Gerald Cooray,
Inspector Gerry Paul, Fr.Ignatius Perera, Fr.Claver Perera, Arthur Van Langenberg who trained and
conducted many choirs and singers who performed regularly. Many talented young musicians, the likes of Dwight Van Gramberg and Thaku Chugani who made up the Junior Rythmiers, and more of a later era emerged in the form of Joey Lewis, Nihal Basnayke, Roger Menezies, Joe Tambimuttu, Basil and Alfo Paiva. All versatile musicians who lent their multi talents to many a leading group.

It would be remiss of me not to include the name of Neville Fernando of “Los Caballeros” fame, and others like Annesley Malewana, Indranee Perera and her sisters, Clarence Wijewardene, C. T. Fernando, La Bambas, Eranga and Priyanga and many others who enriched the music of this era. The names would never end, but lest we forget, we owe them gratitude for the talent they shared, and continue to entertain us.

Priyanthi and Rajah married and live in Toronto. So does Nihal Fonseka with his wife soprano Carol-Eve, Maurice Balasingham enjoys life with his family and grandkids, making a collection of artists continuing the traditions of yesteryear even today. Stephen Alagaratnam recently retired from his academic life and is quite busy in Winnipeg, Canada. Bill Forbes is domiciled in UK. Dalrene is settled in Colombo but travels a lot for engagements. Desmond Kelly and Desmond de Silva, Christine and Victor, together with most others artists of the era migrated and live in Australia. They are still active musically, and will be seen on and off appearing at functions of the community.

Many of those mentioned have gone to the Great Beyond and sing with the heavenly choirs, while we remember the distant drums that call us to set sails in the sunset, to make music as we did before somewhere beyond the sea, when for our last farewell, we will meet once more somewhere beyond that far away shore.


Thursday, April 07, 2016

Glamorous Galle Fort

The Fort of Galle

Satellite Map of the Fort of Galle

Street Map of the Fort of Galle

Dutch Map of Galle Fort dated 1754

Around the Galle Fort Youtube Video Clip

Galle Fort, in the Bay of Galle on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka, was built first in 1588 by the Portuguese, then extensively fortified by the Dutch during the 17th century from 1649 onwards. It is a historical, archaeological and architectural heritage monument, which even after more than 427 years maintains a polished appearance, due to extensive reconstruction work done by Archaeological Department of Sri Lanka.

The fort has a colourful history, and today has a multi-ethnic and multi-religious population. The Sri Lankan Government and many Dutch people, who still own some of the properties inside the fort, are looking at making this one of the modern wonders of the world. The heritage value of the fort has been recognized by the UNESCO and the site has been inscribed as a cultural heritage UNESCO World Heritage Site under criteria iv, for its unique exposition of "an urban ensemble which illustrates the interaction of European architecture and South Asian traditions from the 16th to the 19th centuries."
The Galle Fort, also known as the Dutch Fort or the "Ramparts of Galle", withstood the Boxing Day tsunami which damaged part of coastal area Galle town. It has been since restored.

There are many versions of the word ‘Galle’ that is suffixed to the fort. One version is that it is a derivative of ‘Gallus’ from the Dutch language, meaning "chicken". The other version is that it was a "galaa", in Sinhalese language meaning a "cattle herd" or place where cattle was herded
Galle Fort is located in the town of Galle, which is located at the extreme south west corner of the island, in the south west coast of Sri Lanka, where the shoreline turns east towards Matara and Tangalle. The fort, like most of the forts in Sri Lanka, is built on a small rocky peninsula, belonging to the sea as much as to the land. As it exists today, it covers an area of 52 hectares (130 acres).

Highway A2 provides road links to Galle from Colombo (a distance of 113 kilometres (70 mi)) and the rest of the country along the west coast or from the east along the south coast. Since 2012 an express way has linked Galle to Colombo. Rail links are also available to Colombo and Matara. Sea route is through the Galle Port at the Galle Harbour.

Galle's earliest historical existence is traced to Ptolemy's world map of 125–150 AD when it was a busy port, trading with Greece, Arab countries, China and others. Its mention as a "port of call of the Levant' is made in the cosmography of the "Cosmas Indicopleustes". This is the harbor where the Portuguese, under the leadership of Lorenzo de Almeida, made their first landing in 1505 on the island and caused a notable change in the history of the island with their close friendship with Dharma Parakrama Bahu (1484–1514), the then king of the country. Before the Portuguese came here, Ibn Batuta had touched base at this port. This was the beginning of the fort’s history, which was built by the Portuguese, along with a Franciscan chapel (now mostly in ruins) inside the fort in 1541. The fort also, in later years, served as prison camp to incarcerate Sinhalese natives who opposed the Portuguese. 

The Portuguese later moved to Colombo from Galle. In 1588, however, they were attacked by the Sinhalese King Raja Sinha I (1581–93) of Sitawaka, which forced the Portuguese to go back to Galle. At Galle, they initially built a small fort out of palm trees and mud. They called it the Santa Cruz, and later extended it with a watch tower and three bastions and a "fortalice" to guard the harbor.

The Streets of Galle Fort

Some of the street names, a legacy from the colonial period, are the Pedlar Street or ‘Moorse Kramerstraat’, the Moorish pedlar (or peddler) street, named after the Ceylon Moors, who were retailers along with chettis; the Lighthouse Street ‘‘Zeeburgstraat’ ‘Middelpuntstraat’ named after the lighthouse which was destroyed in a fire in 1936; the Hospital Street, the location of the Dutch Hospital, the house of the Surgeon and the Medical Garden; Leyenbahnstraat, the Old Rope-Walk Street where coir rope was made; the Church Street, named after a church which was demolished in the 7th century; the Parawa Street, named after the Parawa migrants from South India who were fishermen and traders; and the Chando Street named after the toddy tappers and Dutch Burghers who owned coconut gardens and small ark distilleries. 

Rampart Street

Rampart Street starts at the right of the fort as you enter through the main gate and runs along the western coastline ending up on the southern tip and moving to meet Church Street. The Galle Fort Mosque is located on Leyn Baan Street which branches off Rampart Street on the southern stretch of this street and the lighthouse at the end.


Pedlar Street

Sappu House- 

Kuruwi Oodu - Fazlani

Baus Ootaar & Gogo Cafe

The name  Baus originated this way. My Grandfather S M N Markar was a jeweller doing his business at the the NOH, where he met this foreign national by the name of Baus. They became good friends and this Baus was supposed to have visited our house 47, Pedlar Street home very frequently. Thus the name originated.

My grandfather was also the trustee of the Galle fort Jumma Mosque and my grandmother was one of the founding trustees of the Ladies Zavia.

The trusteeship of the Jumma Mosque passed on to my father H M S Jiffry and Mohomed Ali (father of Izzath Ali). after the demise of my grandfather.

The trusteeship of the Ladies Zavia was passed onto my mother Sithy Kadija Jiffry after the demise of my grandmother. I cannot remember if the said trusteeship was joined by another lady or if my mother was the sole.

Go Go cafe was founded by my father H M S Jiffry around 1968 and it was in operation only for a couple of years and we closed it after the demise of my father in 1970.

Left of our house No. 49 was the house of Furqan Magdon Ismail and his wife was either the grand daughter or niece of Sir Mohamed Macan Markar.

sent in by Ms. Nazily Jiffry - Apr 8 2016

Envelope Factory -


Church Street

The Dutch Reformed Church is near the Amangalla Hotel. The church was built in 1640. However, it was re-modelled between 1752 and 1755. The church is paved with grave stones from the old Dutch cemetery. There is an old organ of 1760 vintage in the church where services are held and a pulpit made of calamander wood from Malaysia is used. 


Post Office


Walkers Ltd

Commercial Bank

Galle Muslims Association (GMA)

Arabic College

No. 49 - A C A Hamid

Jiffry Thakkiya

Pookakka Thakkiya

Light House Street

Southlands College

National Bakery

Ladies Zaviya


Leyn Baan Street

Meera Maqam Jumma Masjid

Hospital Street

Church Cross Sreet

Gents Zaviya

Middle Street

Dairy King

All Saint's College

Parawa Street

Chando Street

Galle Fort Sea Wall

Breadfruit Tree

The breadfruit tree was introduced in Galle first by the Dutch; one of the oldest breadfruit trees in Sri Lanka is stated to be in Galle Fort. It is believed that the Dutch introduced breadfruit which is of ‘heaty’ nature hoping that would either kill them or make them sick. However, the Sri Lankans found a neutralizer to this in the coconut tree. They mixed breadfruit with coconut and evolved a delicacy, which became popular, as it was found tasty and nourishing. This tree is now grown across Sri Lanka.
The fort area is occupied by mostly artists, writers, photographers, designers and poets of foreign origin and is now a mixed bag of boutiques, hotels and restaurants.
Following the disaster caused by the Asian Tsunami of 2004 when many buildings were damaged, the Ministry of Cultural Affairs launched a project for renovation and reconstruction, but paying attention to the former architecture to retain a historical feel.
The Galle Fort has both Portuguese and Dutch era buildings, reflecting the bygone era of the colonial domination of the city. These buildings needed attention as many changes had taken place over the centuries. The Government of Sri Lanka, through its Galle Heritage Foundation under the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and National Heritage has taken the initiative of restoring some of the heritage buildings to their old glory. The restoration work has been financially supported by the Government of The Netherlands. The renovation work conforms to guidelines set by the Archeological Department of Sri Lanka. Technical guidance was provided by the Architectural Wing of the University of Moratuwa.[ Very many of the old town houses have been bought up by expatriates and rich Sri Lankans and Indians and renovated as holiday homes.
The National Maritime Museum in Galle Fort area, near the Old gate, was established in 1997 as an exclusive Maritime Archaeology Centre with active involvement of the Government of the Netherlands in the project in view of the findings that the Galle Harbor consisted of over 21 historical shipwreck sites and associated artifacts.

Stories from Jisty Careem

Memories of Galle 70 years ago - Cecil V Wickramanayake

Aunty Fathuma of Galle - An Appreciation by Buddhika Kurukularatne

Galle National Museum  - by Asiff Hussein

National Maritime Museum - by Asiff Hussein

Friday, January 29, 2016

Yolande Bavan

Sunday Times Jan 24 2016

Was it fate or a higher power that led jazz legend Billie Holiday into the life of a young and unknown singer from Ceylon to exert such a profound influence on her in their brief friendship?
Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara
Yolande Bavan will always remember Billie’s words – “Whatever you do when you sing, you tell the truth. Sing the truth. If it’s painful sing that pain. Don’t dodge. Because music you don’t dodge”.
Decades later, at a concert in Colombo, her audience felt that pain, when Yolande sang the Beatles’ ‘Fool on the Hill’ dedicating it to her father.
Misunderstood and assailed by misfortune, he it was who had given her that love for jazz and sent her forth on a journey that would take the wide-eyed, pigtailed slip of a girl from Dickman’s Road, Bambalapitiya to unimaginable heights as a jazz singer and actress in London and New York, to write her own piece of jazz history as the surprise replacement for Annie Ross in the renowned trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.
It was as Yolande Woolf that she went to London and when she began making her way as an actress, her friend Indian film director Waris Hussein who had cast her as Cleopatra in the production of Caesar and Cleopatra told her that going as just ‘Yolande’ as she had been doing since she got on stage simply would not do.
“It sounds like a stripper,” he said disapprovingly. “You should be Yolande Bavan – Yolande Bavan from Ceylon.”
She is back in her island home this sunny January on holiday; disappointingly for those who remember her lyrical voice there is no performance, her only engagement a talk at a Rotary luncheon not surprisingly titled ‘All that Jazz’ and time to enjoy the Literary Festival in Galle and an unending supply of tea.
“Too much tea,” she says smiling, remembering how growing up she had disdained tea even though on her stepfather’s estate there was this wonderful aroma of tea wafting from the factory.
“I thought coffee more sophisticated until I lived in London and suddenly had a turn of tastebuds.”
My Sinhalese is coming back, she adds in some surprise, that after sixty years the memory still pries it out from the recesses of her mind.
Yolande’s mother Irene Cecilia Walles was a concert pianist and as young as three she began playing the piano and later breezing through the Royal Academy exams.
That this would be her career was never disputed. But her parents’ shattering divorce left her sister Jean and her as wards of court and necessitated a move from Holy Family Convent, Bambalapitiya to Good Shepherd Convent, Kotahena where the Irish nuns were strict disciplinarians.
Only one Irish American nun realising her passion for music gave her the freedom to sing and play the piano and organ for Mass. But the music lessons with her mother were over and a dream that she and her mother had shared, had died.
Her mother had not even let her have her vaccinations on her arm for it would leave a scar unbecoming on stage, she says. After her mother remarried, Yolande divided her school holidays between her parents.
A painful memory is of being dropped off at one end of Good Shepherd Convent and having to make the long lonely walk across the length of the school, past the deserted netball and tennis courts to where her father would pick her up from the other gate.
Only the orphans were still there in school she says remembering how sorry she felt for them. It pricked her consciousness that they would be so bereft, she says.
Her parents’ divorce left deep scars. To this day, she says she cannot bear raised voices and anger –“I try to stay away from anything that is really jarring,” she says.
But her father later put her into St. Paul’s Milagiriya “a lot of Burghers were there” and in that more relaxed atmosphere, young Yolande blossomed.
The glory days: A Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan album
She became sports captain, formed the school’s first cricket team, going on to become school captain or head girl. And of course, she played the piano and sang.
It was her friends at St. Paul’s who taught her a Doris Day song and pushed her to enter a competition conducted by Radio Ceylon and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
She won and was given her own fortnightly radio show on Radio Ceylon ‘Swingtime’ backed by the likes of Stuart de Silva on the piano, Ghazali Amit on the guitar, Cass Ziard on drums, Jimmy van Sanden on bass.
One of those involved in the show was an Australian – Graham Evans, who insisted she should go to Australia.
Peter Wille, a well known cricketer who had lived down Dickman’s Road (“I had gone to school with his sister”) took her to meet Graeme Bell, a famous pianist in Australia. Bell hearing her sing took her on to his Dixieland band. Yolande was 16!
She can see clearly now the pattern that emerged in the fabric of her life and that strong underlying pull of destiny that took her forward unwavering.
“You know when you are young you have such confidence, maybe foolhardy but still confidence. As you get older you start getting insecure because so many arrows have come your way, so much criticism, judgements, gossip.
You have to have your faith. Somehow I felt something was undergirding me. I went in innocently, thinking it’s all going to work out.”
If her mother had schooled her in the classics, it was her father who awakened a feel for jazz. “I came home one day – I had to do a paper on Aldous Huxley and he was listening to Radio Tangier and he said ‘You have to hear this song’.
I think it was Charlie Parker. I remember he said ‘that man is in terrible pain’.” Her father began playing more jazz for her, and his friends Al van Starrex, Cass Ziard, Dan Durairaj and Lawrie Perera would go to the docks when the American ships came in and buy jazz albums and play them for her. “I loved the piano so I listened to George Shearing.”
Hearing Sarah Vaughan her father likened her voice to a choir of angels. Years later it was Sarah Vaughan who recommended that Yolande go to America.
When Bell and his band were asked to go to Korea to entertain the combined services, Yolande went too, performing to a largely male audience, and then joining Bell to perform in jazz crazy Japan.
Back home after one and a half years, singing briefly for Donovan Andree, her father realising that Ceylon could not offer the platform for her considerable talents suggested she go to England.
Looking back she sees how much pain the separation would have caused him. “He lived alone at No. 3, Dickman’s Road, with me and one servant. He never had anybody, but he gave me the freedom to go.”
She hardly knew anyone in London but Graeme Bell had told her to go and see the jazz musician Humphrey Lyttelton who sent her to his agent Lyn Dutton.
Dutton became her agent and soon she was performing on variety shows. When the call came to audition for a TV play, she was sick with bronchitis and running a fever, but went nevertheless.
“I was to play a terrorist from Algiers who comes to England to kill. I hadn’t acted in my life.” She landed the role.
Was it God or fate, she asks. The great master director, the Cecil B de Mille of the heavens, she says, with an expressive, expansive gesture.
Yolande’s career as an actress had taken off. “I was doing plays. I got cast in two more TV plays, I did another play where I played Sammy Davis Jnr’s wife in ‘Day of the Fox” for the BBC.
Then she was Cleopatra which started at the Cambridge Arts and then moved to the West End at the Duchess Theatre, followed by the Greek tragedy Oresteia at the Old Vic.”I was never better in my life,” she says, marvelling at what chances came her way.
How she came to sing with the top jazz vocal trio in the world is a story worth retelling. Busy with her acting career, she was deeply immersed in jazz hanging around the bands when they performed, “like a groupie” she laughs.
In early ’62, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross came to England with the Count Basie band on tour and Yolande who was doing a revue called New Cranks by choreographer John Cranko, met Annie Ross who had been in the original show called Cranks. Twelve days later she would be replacing her in America.
It happened at a party –Lambert and Hendricks were there, she says. There was a lot of smoking and drinking. “I was helping my friend clean the ashtrays and hit the high note singing along to Dizzy Gillespie. “This voice next to me said, ‘who did that’ and I said, ‘I did’. It was Lambert.
“You’re a singer?” “I’m an actress.”
It was about 1 a.m.on a Monday morning in London, a few days later when the phone rang. It was Jon Hendricks. “There’s a plane ticket and your work permit at the American embassy, we want you to come on Wednesday,” he said.
“To do what?” she asked, totally bewildered and sleepy. “To sing with us,” came the reply. “I cannot sing that high.” “You were recommended by Sarah Vaughan and Joe Williams. Will you please study our music,” he said.
Agreeing to join them on Saturday, she borrowed the records and tried frantically to learn the songs.
“I thought I would get to New York and rehearse. My friend Waris Hussein took me to the airport and I wore a saree.” She had never been to America. Even if nothing came of it at least she would have seen the skyscrapers, she thought. It was May 5th, 1962.
Dave Lambert was waiting to meet her. They boarded another plane and flew upstate to Schenectady, to Union College. The concert had started: Tom Paxton, a well known folk singer had opened the show and there was a crowd of 2,500.
The announcement came “Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. “They pushed me out on stage in my saree with my PanAm bag still on me.”
That was the baptism of fire for the diminutive saree-clad singer from Ceylon. As Lambert, Hendricks and Bavan, the trio had a brief, dazzling stint recording three albums. It was at a party thrown by RCA records that she met Hollywood legend Cary Grant and an unlikely friendship began.
The day after she remembers the phone call from his assistant inviting her to his office at Universal Studios and the silver blue Rolls Royce arriving to pick her up. Grant showed her around the sets, took her to lunch and they talked.
In the four weeks she spent in Los Angeles, they met many times. “It was not romantic, I think he admired our music,” she says. “He was always kind and solicitous.”
The star however, who had the greatest influence on her life was Billie Holiday, who had told a bashful saree-clad Yolande at a Paris restaurant, that if she had a daughter she would want her to be just like her.
There grew a strong bond between them, with Billie teaching her songs. They met again a year later in London when Billie came to the UK to do a TV show and Yolande stayed with her in her dressing room as she taped the show trying to keep her from drinking. It was the last time she heard her sing.The emotion was there but the voice was failing.
“She was like a mentor in a way,” Yolande reflects. “She would say ‘When you come to America, if I hear that you are smoking dope I will come and slap you upside your head – it was an American phrase.
She would also say she would get me the 28 flavours of ice cream at Howard Johnson.” Significantly, five days after Yolande got to New York with Lambert and Hendricks, they did a late night tribute to Billie Holiday (Billie died in July 1959) and the thought came to her that if Billie were there, she would have got her the 28 flavours.
In the whirlwind days of Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan, they were at all the famed jazz venues – the Newport Jazz Festival, the Monterey Jazz Festival and even after she left the trio, the roles kept coming, on stage, on TV and film, with some of Hollywood’s biggest names.
Three years ago though an unfortunate fall on a dark stage while in the play ‘My Granny the Goldfish’ in Toronto, necessitated spinal surgery.
Five difficult weeks compounded by an infection kept her in hospital. Your life gets altered, she says, talking frankly of confronting the frailties of age.
These days she focuses on mindful meditation: to be in the present, to be mindful of the present, not be caught up in projecting problems to the future.Books are never far away – the 13th Century Sufi poet Rumi is a favourite. “And the Serenity prayer..I read it every morning.”
Not much known is that she has long been narrating books – a grand total of 540 audio books under the Talking Books programme done by the Library of Congress for the Blind, for which she received the Alexander Scorby Award for Narrator of the Year.
The first book she did for them in 1975 was ‘a body stripper’ – a steamy Barbara Cartland where she confesses, she was hard pressed at times not to dissolve into laughter.
Narrating the Bhagavad Gita by Swami Yogananda in three hefty volumes, was the toughest -it took a gruelling six months and was only possible thanks to the help of a kind and erudite Buddhist monk who helped her with the slokas.
At the Rotary luncheon, she talked of the wheel, the Rotary symbol, the cycles, the circles of life, some interweaving, some drifting off and that quest for greater compassion and service.
Though she leaves next weekend back to her New York apartment and her beloved cats ‘Rama’ and ‘Sita’, this country will not be far from her thoughts.
“I really would like to come back and do some masterclasses and talk to young people, about how to steer their own truth and not someone else’s.”
“That’s the wonderful thing about getting older – you have experienced things and you can talk about it. Everything is not roses – there are always thorns but you have to learn how to put the bandage when the thorns stick and not let it disrupt your faith. It’s easy to say but difficult to do.”
“Everything with me has a cycle, or a circle or some unknown factor,” she reflects. “That’s why I think I am so blessed in my life. Every morning I say ‘dear God thank you for making me be born in Sri Lanka’.