Sri Lankan Alumnus Opens Country’s Only Musicians’ Village and Relaunches Family Label
When Gerald Wickremesooriya created the Sooriya record label in 1968, Sri Lanka was in the midst of shaking off the cultural vestiges of British rule and was looking to rediscover its distinctive voice. But what the label helped Sri Lankans find was that there wasn’t one voice, but many, and each played a part in defining and unifying the country’s pop culture.
Over the next few decades Sooriya would become the first to commercialize pop music in the Tamil language, the first to publish a series of Buddhist chants, and the first to popularize Singhala music, before it stopped producing new acts in 2001, five years before Wickremesooriya’s death.
Last year, Wickremesooriya’s grandson was in the process of planning a museum for the label when he asked himself: Instead of building a memorial to honor the past, why not do what his grandfather did during a pivotal time and make a place to create the future?
“After the end of the civil war in 2009, the country has really opened up to enjoying free time and people are constantly on the lookout for new and interesting things,” says Sanchitha Wickremesooriya ‘15, who graduated from the entrepreneurial track in Berklee’s music business/management program.
The Sooriya Village
As part of an idea he cultivated while at Berklee, Wickremesooriya and his father, Udena, plan to open Sri Lanka’s only musicians’ and artists’ village.
Located in a colonial bungalow tucked away in a serene nook of Colombo, the Sooriya Village will feature a recording studio, library, lecture hall, music store, and a 90-seat restaurant, as well as dorm rooms and practice spaces. The restaurant, whose menu was created by Sri Lankan celebrity chef Koluu, launched August 29 and the rest of the village opens September 10.
“I wanted to open the Sooriya Village to allow people of all ages in any form of art [the opportunity to] practice, perform, and showcase their art with no boundaries or instruction,” Sanchitha Wickremesooriya says. Many Sri Lankans are starting to consider a full-time career in the arts but facilities that can nurture their talents are mostly limited to primary and secondary schools, he says.
Watch this video previewing the Sooriya Village:
Wickremesooriya’s own musical talents first burgeoned in high school, where he directed the choir, rearranged Sri Lankan traditional drama music, and organized several large performances. At Berklee, while pursuing his music business/management studies, he was a vocalist in the Berklee Indian Ensemble and a member of the CharlieChords, a men’s a cappella group. He continues to sing with the ensemble and has appeared on stage with them in Mumbai in May 2016 and at the Bengaluru Ganesh Utsava festival on September 6, 2016.
During his last semester at Berklee he worked to promote Sri Lankan music at the college by bringing in traditional drummers and dancers to perform at a workshop, and by helping to create a music video in celebration of Independence Day in Sri Lanka, a video that was aired on national television there.
Wickremesooriya says he was fortunate to have teachers like Peter Alhadeff, George Howard, and Todd Gardner, who all inspired him to bring his vision for the Sooriya Village to fruition. Gardner would often meet with Wickremesooriya to discuss the project and its logistics.
“Sanchitha is one of those students that comes prepared and brimming with ideas, which makes him a joy to have in a classroom,” Gardner says. “He understands commitment and listens to those dreams that are deep in his soul. He will search to find a way when confronted with obstacles and will view them as opportunities instead of walls.”
In tandem with the launch of the village, the Wickremesooriya family will relaunch the record label and make television documentaries about the evolution of Sri Lankan music and the making of both the Sooriya record label and the village.
Wickremesooriya says he thinks his grandfather would’ve done the same thing if given the time. “My grandfather was a revolutionary who worked towards changing the way people consumed music in Sri Lanka,” he says. “He would be extremely proud of all involved in [this] project.”