From Moratuwa to Hollywood

THE BUDDHI DE MAL STORY

How do I describe the anomalous Mr. Buddhi De Mal? On the one hand, I could throw out some public facts that a Google search could also proffer up. Scroll lower and archives will tell you about Wagon Park the blues-rock/hard rock band he co-founded and fronted in Colombo. Or about his solo career experimenting with an intrinsic Sri Lankannes he brought to western folk and country music. Buddhi is also a unique lyricist; his love songs, sad songs and raging choons are all created with an uncanny wit and wisdom. 

One search offered this description of Wagon Park: Six musicians, six diverse musical influences, steadfast dedication, and a stroke of traditional spice come together to bring you the Wagon Park Experience, an experience so exclusive one has to live it to believe it. Founded by Buddhima De Mel and Mohamed Firaz in the Summer of 2007, Wagon Park have marched on from an unforgettable debut performance, to become Sri Lanka’s most potent Hard Rock outfit.

More recent news will tell you that the Moratuwa-born Buddhi went on to Hollywood a few years ago, garnering himself a spot at the coveted Musicians Institute – whose famous alum include the late Jeff Buckley, Bollywood musician Shruti Hassan, Mr. Big’s Paul GIlbert and legendary axeman Steve Vai.

Within a year, Buddhi formed a second band, The Sutra, with fellow MI students, Marie Weill/Charly (France), Bhargav Choudhury (India), Andrew Tokko (Los Angeles), Shae Garrett (Inland Empire) and Anthony Kuo (Taiwan). The band’s name pays tribute to the multiethnicity of its membership, as does The Sutra’s music. Buddhi also released several solo singles and an EP titled ‘And God’ in early 2017. His latest single, Colours of Hate (No More) is a mammoth of a peace ballad featuring 20 musicians and Buddhi’s iconic half-speak, full-speed vocals.

But there is also another Buddhi I would like to talk about – the less obvious, anomalous nature of his being. Musicians are special not only for their albums and accolades – much more interesting to a fan are the stories behind the music, the persona behind the personality. De Mal is a glitch; he is both gentleman and mad-man, drunk and sober, high and low in a single heartbeat. He is at once Leonard Cohen and Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan and Bob Marley – and undoubtedly Sunil Perera of the Gypsies. His undefinable nature makes him hard to pin down or boxed in to any idea. It would be unfair and quite impossible to describe someone like Buddhi in singular euphemisms.


In Sri Lanka, things are always on a downward spiral. Be it chili powder in parliament, racial violence in Kandy or a woman’s ability to purchase alcohol, we seem to present a pathetic state-of-affairs to the world. Throughout the world, in troubled times like these, music has helped us rise out of our circumstances. From Woodstock in 1969 to Rage Against the Machine setting up stage across the road from the Democratic National Convention in 2000, we know this to be true. Buddhi’s multifaceted identity as man and musician are probably just what Sri Lanka needs right now. Listen to songs like Colours of Hate and Jayaganwan Sri Lanka – the latter, a celebration of Wagon Parks decade in the music business – and you’ll know what I’m on about.  

Watch him perform and you’ll be quick to note that it goes beyond the music; Buddhi brings a level of showmanship to his performances that fall in the realms of a good old-fashioned Sri Lankan Baila session. He grabs hold of his audience by interacting with them – reminiscent sometimes of Freddie Mercury’s live shows, as he engaged and played with his audiences instead of merely performing at them.

Let’s talk about his audiences. I have on occasion witnessed grandmas and aunties shake a tail feather to Buddhi. So, if you are deterred by the idea of rock music, don’t let that daunt you from Buddhi de Mal. Just like Sunil Perera, he is universal in appeal. Buddhi is an old soul and young gun, able to rock us all out of our comfort zones.

This is also true of his bandmates and collaborators. De Mal has a knack for surrounding himself with like-minded musicians who continue to work together, making music across the world. Last January, Buddhi and his original outfit Wagon Park did just that, recording live music from opposite ends of the planet. Wagon Park stepped into the studios of Sooriya Village in Colombo to record a session of the band’s favourites, while Buddhi recorded his vocals in Hollywood.

To make things really interesting, a global production team was also on board; with audio engineering carried out by Ranil Goonewardena in Sri Lanka, mixing and mastering by Indian Sashank Venkatesh and post-production on the accompanying video by Benjamin Gabriel in Los Angeles, this live release was one of the most fascinating cross-border projects to come out of the music business.  

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Postscript: Buddhi is the kind of creative that makes us want to push ourselves beyond traditional creative limitations. The photos featured here are proof of that. Taking Buddhi to the streets of Fort and Pettah, with nothing but a box guitar and a willingness to try out something different, proved to be a magical experience. We went down alleyways and into marketplaces, climbed into lorries and created impromptu performances on the streets – to spontaneous audiences that formed wherever we went. I had wanted to understand how my inner documentary photographer andgig shooter could meet in a single piece of work – and I wanted to prove just how universal Buddhi really is.

Natalie Soysa
February 2019

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