Sri Lanka Baila Star Sunil Perera Dies aged 68

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — As a result, Sunil Perera, who has entertained generations of Sri Lankans on the radio and on the dance floor with his original Latin-inspired tunes, was just fitting to sing.

When Mr. Perera was on his deathbed in a hospital in the capital, Colombo, he requested a guitar that was not given to him. So he turned to the undeniable.

“The doctor said that the day before he died, he sang and entertained everyone there,” said Sunil’s brother and bandmate Piyal Perera.

His brother said Mr. Perera died Monday at Nawaloka hospital in Colombo. He was 68 years old. Piyal Perera said that although the cause of death was unclear, Mr. Perera had recovered from Covid-19 while he was taken to intensive care.

Few have made such an impact on Sri Lanka’s cultural and entertainment scene as Mr. Perera has in half a century. Often wearing bright colors and a bowler hat, she produced hit song after hit through her family group Gypsies, which is preparing to celebrate its golden anniversary this year.

Gypsies specialize in the baila, a cheerful and rhythmic genre mostly sung in Sinhalese but influenced by the Portuguese, who colonized much of the island in the 16th and 17th centuries.

For decades he has used his lyrics and voice to raise concerns about Sri Lanka’s shrinking democratic space. The country is still recovering civil war yearsbesieged by government pressure against journalists, activists and minority groups. Mr. Perera often ate the decaying political elite, which he believed were entangled in strife and dashed the hopes of the nation.

“He was both popular and protesting,” said Lakshman Joseph-de Saram, a Sri Lankan film composer. “There’s rarely a Bob Dylan and a Michael Jackson in a package.”

“He was our baila king,” Mr. Saram added.

Posthumous accolades poured in, including from politicians whom Perera openly criticized. He directed his anger towards the country. ruling Rajapaksa family and in opposition disappointed many times with chaos in her ranks.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa described his death as a “great loss”. Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa said Mr Perera “led a modern revolution in Sri Lanka’s music history”.

Uswatta Liyanage Ivor Sylvester Sunil Perera was born in 1952 to a Roman Catholic family and grew up in the Colombo suburb of Moratuwa. He was one of 10 children born to Anton Perera, a former soldier, and Doreen Perera, a housewife.

Old Mr. Perara built the Gypsies largely around his children. Sunil was a teenager when he joined the group before becoming the lead singer of the group. Sunil described her father as a disciplinarian who wanted her to complete her higher education but supported her choice when she dropped out to focus on guitar and singing education. In 2017, Gypsies recorded a family tribute to the founder.

Sunil Perera’s stubborn lyrics and public stance set him apart from other high-profile musicians in Sri Lanka. In his songs, he addressed corruption and politicians who had become soured after election losses. One song depicted aliens who had landed in Sri Lanka and turned down an invitation to stay.

“It has been 72 years since our independence,” he said in an interview. “We owe it to the whole world. Is it people’s fault? Whose fault is this? I’m not blaming a group. I blame all the politicians who run us.”

She has been open about her personal life, discussing what she sees as hypocritical attitudes about sex in Sri Lanka’s conservative society. But his language often got him in trouble, especially when he described women as “baby machines” in a debate about how large Sri Lankan families were in his father’s generation.

Friends and family acknowledged that Mr. Perera could be divisive, but said his outspokenness came from his firm belief that Sri Lanka could overcome the ethnic and religious divisions that have fueled conflict for decades. His brother Piyal said that Mr. Perara declared that it would be the happiest thing for him if all four of his children were married from four different communities.

“He wasn’t swelled up by the fame – it was simple,” said Mariazelle Goonetilleke, a musician and friend. “He was not afraid to speak the truth, he always spoke his mind. There were also those who did not like it.”

Mr. Perera contracted Covid-19 last month and was hospitalized for 25 days before being discharged, but this time in intensive care, only to be re-admitted a few days later.

He was survived by his wife, Geetha Kulatunga; two daughters, Rehana and Manisha; and his two sons, Sajith and Gayan.

Inside video message After his first discharge from the hospital, Mr. Perera looked weak but determined as he thanked the hospital staff, fans and well-wishers. He was wearing a white shirt and a gray hat, missing his usual colors.

We thank God for giving us such a crowd.” “We will definitely get that blessing again. When the time comes, let’s meet again, like in the old days.”

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