Review: Baliphonics at 2017 Kala Pola Festival

A ritual was coming to a thundering close on stage. Giant bats took to the sky. The demons had been run out of town and even the tuk tuks’ polyphonic swirl abided in the delirious, sweaty air. Then the drums stopped, the four bowed and left quietly. In and beyond the tropical jumble of Colombo, Baliphonics is a gem.

Their second set on Sunday evening, part of the all-day folkloric music performances at the Kala Pola Festival at Viharamahadevi Park, was even more intense. Dancer and singer Susantha Rupathilaka moved like fire. It was as if he never touched the ground, conducting the ensemble (percussion, drums and double bass) through the time and meter changes not with head or hands, but feet. Perhaps close in spirit to free jazz, the formal complexity of this music sheds even that comparison.

Drummer Sumudi Saraweera grinned as Prasanna, Susantha’s brother, threw in new variations on ancient rhythmic cycles, using the yak bera drum. These are unfixed grooves, graceful, organic phrases grown around chants and syllables. They played as one, Sumudi grafting that language onto the drum set, making it look and sound easy. Bassist Isaac Smith has found a place for his instrument in the music sometimes as a melodic compliment, others a harmonic underpinning, always propulsive. It’s without precedent; no small task in an artform so traditional and detailed.

In both 50 minute sets, Baliphonics passed through the same order of invocations with an improviser’s daring. They are never the same twice. one detects. Prasanna alternated between drum and singing and dancing with his brother. Susantha smiled broadly, making direct eye contact with those close to the stage, thriving on their energy and they on his. Moments were almost unbearably intense and joyful. Dervish dancing, bells, arco bass delays, deep interlocking drums. Catharsis.

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