Wednesday, 20 November 2019 06:02

Music keeps me feeling young!

When you listen to that emotional tune, it takes you back to the good old days, and most certainly to the good old times when there was no wedding, important occasion or a celebration which was not complete without this song. Give it an acapella tune, and the song sounds lovely.

Upto now, it’s has been a major favorite with every audience , be it young or old. During those days it was known as the ‘Ceylonese wedding song’ and became an instant favourite with everyone, from the ordinary listener to the high profile and expat audiences. It created such an impact on all audiences that it was considered as a crucial song to be played at all occasions, and it was none other else than ‘Mangala mohotha’ sung by Mignonne Fernando, the first Sri Lankan to be signed up by EMI records UK, and Keith Prowse music London, who gave life to the song with her extraordinary vocals and charismatic nature, back in the 1960’s . ‘Mangala Mohotha’ was her first song to be copyrighted by KPM in 1972. It became her trade mark song, and even to this day, she considers it as an ‘auspicious Song’ which has brought her many good things in life, rejoices in calling back the good old memories.


Earlier she was known as Mignonne Rutnam, but after her marriage to the late Tony Fernando, where the Jetliners earned popularity and fame under his guidance as the manager of the band, she became Mignonne Fernando .Apparently, music was in her blood. She won the Radio Ceylon’s talent contest at the age of 7, and her passion for music overtook her interest in Law, where she received a sound training in Western classical music , speech and drama. She’s also known as a singer, song writer and composer, which makes her an individual of multiple talents. The Jetliners started in the 1960’s , where it was selected to play at every event and party , and during the early years of the group the Jetliners enjoyed playing at the Coconut Grove ‘’night club which was at the Galle Face hotel, Colombo.

In 1973, her song, ‘Coconut man’ entered the finals of the world Popular song festival in Tokyo, following her previous songs, ‘Love don’t let me down’ (1971) and ‘Someday my love’ (1972) thus making Mignonne the only woman composer /performer to date have been selected into the finals for three consecutive years in the history of the World Popular song festival. In 1974, she was conferred with the membership of the American guild of Variety artistes (AGVA status) in Honolulu, by a select committee. In 1975, she was selected by the Asian Composers league to represent Sri Lanka at the league conference held in the Phillipinnes. Her band, Mignonne and the Jetliners was selected to perform at the Regent of Hong Kong . That earned them a contract which lasted for 16 years, and was reported by the South China Morning post as ‘A veritable record for an expat Resident band’. In 1981 she was elected a member of the Composers and Authors society Hong Kong, (CASH) after her success with ‘Island song’ in the RHTK song writers contest. Her accomplishments doesn’t stop there, during 1997-1998, she composed and recorded ‘Proud to be Sri Lankan’ which was released for Airplay on February 1998 to celebrate the golden jubilee of Sri Lanka’s Independence. She received the Zonta Woman of Achievement award of the year 2004 in the category of creative and performing Arts, and the most outstanding citizen award in 2006, for Arts and Literary work, and she was awarded the National Honor of Deshabimanaya Keerthi Kala Shri Bhushana in 2019.

From 2016 to date, she performs as a trio with Suraj Gunawardena and Russel Gomesz , and continues to perform at selected events in Sri Lanka as well as abroad. Still stunning and yet sincere and smiling, Mignonne sat down for a chat with us to talk about her best days, and latest progress of her musical career.


Q: What inspired you to enter the music field?

There was nothing inspiring. It seems to me, when I was about four-years-old, my mother said when she had me in her tummy that she had prayed she’ll have children who wanted to do music ! she was a music teacher at St. Bridget’s Convent , apparently I followed her and by 8 wrote my first composition,’’ Desert drums’’ so I think it was probably in me. Later on I liked things such as English Literature and Law, but mostly I was an Arts person. But I couldn’t complete Law, because music was my bigger passion. So that was there from my early days.

Q: Your trademark song was ‘Mangala Mohotha’ what was the impact it made on your musical career?


Yes, I wrote ‘Kedelle Athi Vu’ in 1972. I never expected it to be such a hit, because even now, in 2019, still people are playing it for weddings. I also wrote ‘Dan Niwadu Kale’ for the school holidays, ‘Jeevithe Wasanthe’ for the teenager and ‘Mangala Mohotha’ for the girl who gets married. So those three I wrote together, plus ‘Bombay Mere Hai’ one of my most successful hits. I wrote the tune and I had the idea of the song in English. I’m not really a Sinhala Lyrics person.

I actually did French as a second language! So it was the late Karunarathne Abeysekara who helped me with the Sinhala lyrics. He used to come and listen to the tunes, and I would say, ‘’I would like to take that note’’ etc. Then he would write it in Sinhala. He was a brilliant lyricist, and it was him who wrote the Sinhala version of the song. Later we went to England , about 3,4 years after I met Tony , and when we went to speak to the EMI representatives, as my husband was also the EMI agent in Sri Lanka, and Sir Joseph Lock would listen to all the songs and say, “we don’t want you to sing Diana Ross and all that’’ because she was very popular at that time ,and said “I want you to sing something of your own”. He said, “there is a piano , play and sing” so I played and sang! He liked it so much he asked me to complete writing the English words and record a bit there. And they put it in the library there at EMI, as the ‘Ceylonese wedding song’. We were not Sri Lanka then. So now it is registered and copyrighted there. It’s like the wedding song for Sri Lanka.

All the children used to sing ‘Dan Niwadu Kale’. The radios used to play ‘Jeewithe Wasanthe’. ‘Bombay Mere Hai’ became a very popular dance hit. Then I wrote ‘Proud to be Sri Lankan’ even the Soul sounds sang it. In that way ‘Proud to be Sri Lankan’ is like a country song, I mean, it’s for the country. Now I want to take some time off and write love songs or whatever comes. I write the tune first. Then after that only I think of other aspects. Whether it’s going to be happy or sad I don’t know, but later to think what the subject is, I have to decide. And I have to get a good lyricist as well. But I must get down the tunes and write first. Music is what keeps me feeling young!

Q: What kind of an impact did the song ‘Mangala Mohotha’ make on your music career ?

‘Kedelle’ seems to me, a very auspicious song. Whenever I played it, I found that it made people very happy. And nostalgic and emotional too. And when I played for the non-aligned summit at the intercontinental , which is Kingsbury now, we were the only band to entertain the non-aligned summit representatives and I remember one of the sheiks, amidst tight security, came down there and said that he wanted to listen to us for a while. He said “I just want you to play me a good song which you think is suitable.” So I sang ‘Mangala Mohotha’ and he gave me USD 2000 which was a very big sum at that time. This was in the 1980’s. I later shared the money with my group, but seriously, you would never expect that someone would give a tip like that! It came even in the Newsweek! so, that song has had a lucky effect for me, and people consider it as my signature tune, and I’m very particular about it. I allow the soul sounds to sing it, people sing it in their homes, but with the new rules ,the copyright rules and the performing rights etc , they have to pay something ,it should be nice if they do. Because as we get older, it’s nice to know that what you composed and your own work should bring you some remuneration. As a principle, I don’t sing any of the other singer’s songs. But they might sing my songs. And even the new people who are coming to do programmes, as a principle, they should check who are the authors, composers , of the original song and the copy rights. In foreign countries these rules are very strong. Likewise, the copyright law should be honored. After all, that person sat up so many nights and wrote those songs. If they want to play a song , they are paid hundred and twenty five thousand something , why they can’t pay some ten thousand or something for the artiste who wrote it ? if it’s going to be an important song. I feel very sorry when they are taking it for granted, because it’s not nice. I wouldn’t do that. All the songs which I have sung are the songs I sang when I was around 15 years old, with artistes like H.R Jothipala, C.T Fernando, so I’m not trampling on anybody else’s toes. When everybody sings the same thing also it becomes too cheap. For ‘Mangala Mohotha’, I wouldn’t let anyone distort it, because it’s a wedding song. I have always kept the Sri Lankan image wherever I have performed.

Q: How do you recollect the music industry back then and how would you feel about it now ?

The music industry back then... I think it was a little bit more sophisticated .The music industry I’m referring to is the western music industry, because I was not very much into Sinhala music. But I sang for movies like ‘Sanakeliya’. In western music, when I was playing with the Jetliners, There was mainly Harold Senevirathne, Peter Prins combo and those were the bands we had. That was mainly dance music, ballroom dancing etc. My husband is the one who recorded C.T Fernando singing ‘Wanabambaru’. And C.T didn’t mind our Bass guitarist singing it. We played it not for recordings or something, but for the western music people to start dance. That was one of the first times that a Sinhala song was played for western music dances. It became quite popular and the, little by little, we did ‘Sihina Lowe’ and ‘Bombay Mere Hai’ and then the Bailas came. But we didn’t do too much either. There was a good rapport between the Bands those days. If two bands were playing t the same time, same venue, if one band played ‘’Lucky lips’’ the other band wouldn’t play the same thing. There was no competition. Today, of course, if one band is playing something, the other band is also playing the same thing to show that ‘’they did it better’’. Those are little things that happen in these times’ dances. It’s very important to read the music notation if you’re going to play abroad. People don’t have the time to rehearse with it there. If a band wants to go overseas and do well, that’s one thing they should learn. I taught the Jet liners in Hong Kong, who are of the second generation, and they can read the notes so well that they can play for any artiste.

Q: You have performed in so many countries. What was the response like from the foreign audiences?

When you have performed in lots of countries as a composer- artiste, I found when I wore the ‘cloth and jacket’ or the ‘Nalal Patiya’ , or the Kandyan saree, they were fascinated, especially the Europe market . Fascinated by that ethnic look! Because they have seen western styles quite enough. So I didn’t want to wear western. When I wore it, some 20,000 people in the stadium –they liked it so much , I got the endorsement for the best evening kit ,when all the other were wearing Dior and branded dresses! So what I’m saying is , it all depends on how you portray yourself .I was determined to show that ethnic, exotic difference. I think the best response I had for our music was from Hong Kong, because we played 18 years there, and we played from the teenagers to very sophisticated people like the Duchess of Kent & Queen Elizabeth 2. So having played for all those, it gave us a lot of variety in our performance, and we were able to spread our music over generation gaps. We had quite a few musicians under us, and then we became Jetliners international. That was one of the best periods of my music career. Early period like performing ‘Bombay Mere Hai’ gave us the first breakthrough. We were the first to bring genres like Disco etc. That was a very good start. We played for Singapore, Hong Kong . Even in Hawai we played. We never played in a country without getting their permission. If you keep the laws, I think it can be a very pleasant occupation.

Q: What can you tell about your album, “Celebration of life’’ which was a major hit?

A: I actually dedicated it to my husband because he passed away. And when I did that –When I say ‘’celebration of life’’, I wanted the person who purchase that get all the good things. In the booklet, it was like my life story, the words and everything. And that’s like, a celebration of my musical life. So that is why it is so popular, because everything is on it. Songs like ‘Bombay Mere Hai’, ‘Jeewithe Wasanthe’, ‘Ada Api Inne’. About 14 songs I have included. I wanted that to be like a hallmark. So that is what is important to me. So even when somebody is taking it as gift, he’s taking a most integral part of my life. Nowadays the priority is for the DVD. I have not done anything related to videos recently, but if someone is doing a video, it must be very meaningful. These days’ videos don’t have anything related to the song.


Q: What was the experience like, being with the Jetliners?

Jetliners were like family to me. When I was 16, Tony came and met me, saying that there were four good musicians who can play the guitar, etc, and that he wants key board player, and to sing .And then we worked together. When we went to foreign countries, staying there, they become family. I played with the Jetliners right till 2001.

So that’s family to me. Now of course I have a very nice trio, Russel and Suraj, and I play at the California Grill at the Galadari, and Fridays we play as a duo, and on Saturdays as a trio. We cater mostly to the corporate level people songs like ‘Stand by Me’ and even a little cha cha. That crowd which we played for at Coconut grove, are all in top seats now. Around 2016 I again started music and trained these guys and up to no we’re playing as a trio. Even the last Jetliners band which I trained, they now play with Chinese and Philippinos, and are doing very well.

Q: What are the most special moments of your music career?

First of all, when I was small, I loved to sing poems , and put music words etc. So I thoroughly enjoyed the fact that I was able to record in the studio. Even in foreign studios. So those were very special moments to me. And also taking my son who was just born at that time to the Intercontinental, which is now Kingsbury, taking care of him and singing to the audience at the same time! That was kind of special to me because I didn’t let my son down, nor the audience. Another special moment was, when I was chosen for the world popular song festival 3 times, and became the only female composer/performer in the world to get that award. Also winning the Zonta was memorable. It’s really nice to be recognized and appreciated. When I won the Kalabhushana award in 2019, I was so thrilled because I think I was one of the only western music artistes among all those oriental and Sinhala music artistes. That was the best honor for me. Even the ‘’Island song’’ it was all about the country. My main concern is we should respect the intellectual property act.

Q: What’s your favourite music style which you like to perform?

I would like to perform all types of music. That’s why thy call me Ms Music! I like clSassical music too, but my favourite is a mixture of pop, jazz, R&B. But it depends on the mood also. And also depending on what the client wants. I can relate to all types o music. Even ethnic music there’s some beautiful things I have seen, because I did a bit of Sitar with George Harrison etc. I just love music. Can have references, but can play all types of music. I don’t run down anything. Mostly it’s R&b, 80’s music and also I like ABBA. We love music as a while, and I think we can respect every music and everybody’s music, as long as it’s mild and listenable.

Q: Any plans for next year?

The plans at the moment we’re playing for Christmas, at the California Grill, we’re open to play at the Galadari and other places also for events, and as a person I’m free to discuss with clients and even for other events. Some hotels are still under renovation, so we have to consider that and apart from that, the name of our group now is ‘’Rhapsody’’ . We are open to play any type of music, but always with elegance and class. We play the 60’s and the 80’s and anything that the audience can talk to each other and enjoy. I think you have to programme your music in such a way where the people can enjoy.

(Daily news)

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