Going Down Memory Lane : A Few Thoughts about Sunil Perera of the Gypsies


Sunil Tantirige

Flashback to September 2021:

In September 2021 my sister texted me. “Sunil Perera of Gypsies has been readmitted to the ICU.” He had contracted covid-19 about a month ago and had been discharged from the hospital a couple of weeks ago. “This is bad.” I texted my sister back. Just few minutes later came the bombshell text from her. “It was just announced. Sunil is dead.”

I felt as if a family member had passed on. He was not just Sunil Perera of Gypsies. He was “sunil ayya” to so many of us, who knew him only from his songs and his performances. My sister, who is older to him, still calls him Sunil ayya. He was larger than life. Many celebrities disappoint you when they come under public scrutiny. Not him. What you saw was what you got.

He and his band of brothers came to our attention in early seventies. I grew up in Mount Lavinia. His family was from the neighbouring town of Moratuwa, so we would see them in Mount, Ratmalana, Moratuwa areas frequently. I remember one evening I was at the Mount beach with a bunch of friends. Close to us was another small group of boys our age. We were doing our thing; they were doing theirs.

Suddenly one of my friends recognized them. “Hey guys, those are the Gypsies. Let’s go and say hi.” We walked over and talked with them for few minutes. Sunil was there, but he did not say a word. That was the first time that I came face to face with someone who would be a legend among us.

Over the years, their music became increasingly popular. There was no party, cricket match, beach time, road trip, or a wedding, where his music was not played. I don’t think there is anyone from seventies onwards that have not danced or swayed to their brand of music at a party or concert. Affectionately we called them “the guppies”.

I still vividly remember University of Moratuwa dances that Gypsies played at. Besides the catchy melodies and hilarious verses, they were also incisive social commentary. He railed against injustices of the society, corruption in the system, and hypocrisies that prevails to this day in Sri Lankan societies. When others sang about love, devotion, and faith, he sang about common man and woman, podi nones, uncle Johnston, and signores. He sang about absurdities in the society and asked “I don’t know why”.

Sunil Perera was not scared to say what he thought, and he suffered for it, sometimes even physically. But he never stopped saying what he believed. Those who close to him in the music industry say that he treated them impeccably. He was someone who walked the talk.

After we moved to Toronto and settled down here in the eighties, Gypsies was one Sri Lankan musical act that we would see here regularly. It seems as if they made an appearance in Toronto almost every other year. We went to countless concerts and dinner dances in Toronto that they played. I remember after one such concert, my wife and I went to the stage to just greet them, one of the gypsies there, not Sunil, recognized me and asked me “Your face looks familiar. Are you from Mount?”

My first time ever to have a conversation with him came in 2018. We were at the wedding of one of my cousin’s sons at the Shangri La and Gypsies were the band for the occasion. During a break from the music, I went up to their table to talk to him. Although he did not know me personally, he was gracious enough to talk with me for about 10 minutes. I thanked him for his music, and I told him that I appreciated his social commentaries even more.

I also made the remark that if Sri Lanka had a few more people who straight talked like him, the country would be a better place. When he heard that, the famous smile of his spread across the face and he told me he would never ever get involved in politics again. He had been involved with one political party in the elections that ended in 2016 and that experienced had left him very disillusioned about Sri Lankan politics. He also made a very interesting remark. He said had he had urged Kumar Sanggakkara to enter into politics, but Kumar had refused.

So, Sunil Ayya is no more. Sri Lanka has lost a national treasure to the dreaded virus. For fifty years he stood on the pinnacle of his profession, towering over the music scene on the island. But to the end, he was the unpretentious kid from Moratuwa. Sometimes I think this country does not deserve people like him.

He was a Christian who knew his Buddhism very well. I can see him approaching pearly gates with that traditional fedora and that million-dollar smile and St. Peter requesting he sing a few of his hits before he is admitted in. Heaven does not know what they got – or maybe they do, and maybe that is why he had to leave us this early. At sixty-eight years, way too soon brother, way too soon.

Postscript – September 2023:

A couple of years now has passed since that fateful September when he left us so suddenly. So many things have happened since then. Sri Lanka as country has gone bankrupt due to the criminal enterprises of politicians and we have had an unforgettable year in 2022 when the people arose in anger and had thrown the rulers out. Of course, nothing is settled and where this beloved land will end up is anybody’s guess.

Sunil Perera railed against many things, urged us to look hard and see things for what they are, and take action. For a brief moment in time, in those fateful days of mid 2022, people did exactly that. It is indeed such a sad fact that he was not around to see that.

I wonder what Sunil ayya would have thought of all these events. One thing I am certain about. If he was around when aragalaya started, he would have been at the Galle Face cheering the boys and girls who adored him. Wherever he was, I am sure he would have looked on with pride as younger generation rose up and said enough!

I have seen many artists and singers come up and be famous in the multi-decade life that I have had. We have had many heroes, who on closer scrutiny, withered and passed into insignificance in our estimation. Not sunil Perera. He was one in a century. Not a saint, not perfect, with his faults, but genuine. I don’t think we will see the likes of him for a very long time.