Rock Music in Sri Lanka dates back to the early 1970s when Kumar Navaratnam and friends staged the first Rock Festival at the Havelock Park in Colombo Sri Lanka. Kumara Navaratnam could be hailed as the Main strength behind the evolving rock music scene then along with others like Prins Jayaratnam and the Unwanted Generation, Prasanna Abeysekara’s Coffin Nail, Neville of Acid, Gobbledegook and Sweetie Pie, which was led by pianist Nimal Goonawardane, Mary was the only Rock band to play all original music at that time and was led by Ravi Balasooriya of “Bugs” fame. Other members being Aruna Siriwardane, Benjy Ranabahu, Dilup Gabadamudalige and Dwight Van Gramberg. Ramesh Weeratunga, who was a composer/solo performer of this period, went on to become a professional musician/songwriter in Germany, releasing several solo albums.
With the exception of a handful of senior college students who obviously had recourse to vinyl LP’s and music trade papers, the rest of Sri Lanka’s music enthusiasts had to rely on the occasional radio program such as “Progressive 30” presented by Mahes Perera to vaguely ascertain the evolving soundscape of the 70’s or listening to the vinyl records at the British Council and the American Center.
What was later to become “Rock Company” had its start around this time. The self same college students acquired guitars, drum kits, keyboards, hired rudimentary sound systems and started to hang out together and attempted to recreate the records of their heroes with differing levels of success.
All this without the aid of decent guitars, effects pedals, drum kits, synthesizers, sophisticated PA systems or recording studios! The first ever Rock events in Sri Lanka revolved around bands such as “The Unwanted Generation”, “Graveyard” and “Coffin Nail” featuring such musicians as Prins Jayaratnam, Chris Dhasan, Nimal Gunawardena, Ramesh Weeratunga, Imtiaz Hameed and Kumar Navaratnam responsible for organizing extravagant rock concerts featuring multiple Sri Lankan bands who introduced Colombo’s wide eyed and newly hatched youth culture to the underground sounds streaming in from the UK and the US. The “Wall Band and Gun Chorus” that centered on a well known neighbourhood hangout in Colombo 6 spawned a lot of the aforesaid musicians.
A few years later, another important milestone was attained with the formation of “Cancer,” the first ever Sri Lankan band that took the initial step of composing and playing its own material. Led by Prasanna Abeysekera and his brother Ranil, together with a cast of musicians that included Brian Knower, Leo Pasquale, Sumedha Kulatunga and sundry other enthusiasts, “Cancer” defiantly rocked to a different beat.
One that they could truly call their own. However, the lack of recording facilities and a proper medium to spread the band’s original output ensured that only a tiny handful would appreciate their attempts at creating a Sri Lankan rock identity.
“Cancer” and their ilk, did find a regular hangout where they and like minded bands could rehearse and showcase their abilities to the true believers, within the suitably run down walls of “Koko’s, – the closest local equivalent to a rock venue located in Thimbirigasyaya.
Hard on the heels of “Cancer” came such luminaries as “Rattlesnake” and “Venom” who for the most part, played hard rock covers and helped to keep the music alive through the gigs that took place at “Koko’s and other venues. The late 70’s saw a notable change in the rock scene with the emergence of a whole new generation of bands with a different agenda- Punk Rock and new wave bands and songwriters reintroduced high energy and a DIY work ethic that flew in the face of established mainstream acts throughout Europe and the US.
Largely unaffected by these changes, Sri Lanka’s Rock bands soldiered on until many of the pioneering musicians emigrated or found themselves with little or no time to pursue music as family and economic demands focused their attention away from power chords and heavy riffs. Rock Company itself wound to a close in the late 80’s and the decade that followed saw the music being just about kept alive by a handful of devotees along with Rattlesnake, Venom, Cancer and Brass Face.
Sri Lanka now has a significant underground metal and hard rock community, which is growing in popularity among upper-middle-class teenagers and young adults. Some internationally known Sri Lankan metal bands include Stigmata, Paranoid Earthling, Plecto Aliquem Capite. Many other bands too have emerged ever since the 1990s making the heavy metal underground much bigger. While Colombo is a breeding ground for many hard rock bands like Stigmata, Kandy gave birth to the pioneer grunge outfit Paranoid Earthling, which was the first rock band to emerge from the Hill Capital. Kandy is also the stronghold for black metal bands like “Forlorn Hope” “Pariah Demise” “Necro Horde” “Goatmunition” and some doom metal bands as well.