For months this year, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, in protest of government corruption and a spiraling economic crisis. Cars were left street side as fuel was unavailable, food prices were skyrocketing leaving pantries empty, and people fell ill as medicine became increasingly difficult to find. The people stormed government offices and residences until the president resigned, although many of the problems continue unabated. In the midst of all this, independent music carries on. It’s always been a difficult prospect in the former British colony, and the pandemic made things got even more challenging. And then of course, the crisis struck. But Thattu Pattu hopes to help clear the path a bit for these artists.
Founded at the tail end 2021, Thattu Pattu seeks out Sri Lankan artists persevering despite all the hurdles and offers a helping hand. They provide an advisor and financial support to write and record a song, then they release it exclusively on their website alongside a video, photography, editorial writing for context, and a playlist of similar and inspirational music. The seven artists they’ve collaborated with so far come from a diverse range of ethnicities, locations, and genres. Thattu keeps all this on their website, in order to present it in a manner that shines light onto the Sri Lankan scene as a whole, but they allowed us to embed a couple videos within this article.
Imaad Majeed, Thattu’s project coordinator and one of their curators, says their identity as a Tamil Muslim pushes them to bring the country’s Tamil, Sinhala, and English languages together and into conversation. “My politicized identity is something that I have had to work my way through and a lot of that has happened through my art,” they explain. “We hid the fact that we were Tamil by not speaking the language in public.” While Colombo is a multicultural city, they say people only feel comfortable speaking the language out loud in areas that are predominantly Tamil. In most of the city, they switch to English or Sinhalese to avoid identification which would lead to discrimination.
Although the country’s recent crisis has engulfed the whole country, Sri Lanka has been at war with itself for decades. In 1983, a civil war began and a pogrom on the Tamil minority led to many being burnt alive, raped, and their homes destroyed. Human rights groups are calling for the recently deposed president to be investigated for war crimes beginning in the early 2000s and other human rights violations throughout his career. The UN believes 80,000-100,000 people have died since the conflict began. Although the war ended in 2009, its effects live on.
Majeed thinks music, like that supported by Thattu, can help people get over their biases and see each other as human beings. “You might try to prove a point through fact and argument but struggle to get past people’s biases,” they argue. “Through art, you appeal to their empathy. You can ask that someone tries to see through your perspective.”
Thattu’s attention to diversity goes beyond ethnicity and into the music itself, casting a wide stylistic net. He says that scenes come and go, and that the group hopes to help them reach maturity rather than just fading away. From multi-cultural rap and tractor jazz, to folk Buddhism and ambient electronic music; they reach as far for local tradition and global sounds as they do for new ideas and methods.
To choose the artists they would support, each of Thattu’s four curators nominated artists from the scenes they were familiar with, and then they whittled it down to a shortlist over the course of three months. They gave free reign to the artists to create, and offered them $500 each with the support of the Goethe Institut, a cultural exchange program by the German government with a strong presence across Southeast Asia. (This was in December, four months before Sri Lanka’s currency plummeted.)
Much of the Thattu Pattu’s existence has been during the crisis, and each artist addressed it or didn’t in the means they saw fit. OJ Da Tamil Rapper and Bo Sedkid were prescient in their criticism of those in power. Their song was written months before the crisis, but the video, with animation by Kalath Warnakulasuriya, dropped as part of the wider protest music movement. Many of their artists chose not to speak on it overtly. “That said, the personal is political,” Majeed offers. “It’s always there, at least in the subtext.”
Thattu has one more production under way that’s faced a series of hurdles due to the crisis, but they’re committed to releasing it. In addition to supporting the music scene, they also hope to inspire young journalists in Sri Lanka to take independent music seriously and document it with the care that it deserves. “We hope that the artists involved feel the care that we have put into every one of these productions,” Majeed says. “This country has much to offer. One only needs to keep an ear to the ground.”