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Sri Lankan singer Yohani who sang Manike Mage Hithe

Singer Yohani Diloka de Silva on becoming an overnight sensation with a Sinhala song, recording it at home, and wanting to learn Hindi

Written by Suanshu Khurana |
September 19, 2021 6:15:58 am
sunday eye, yohani de silvaSinhala singer Yohani Diloka de Silva

Manike mage hithe (In my heart), the Sinhala song has broken the internet, with celebrities and common folk grooving to its lilting tune. A love song with a teen-pop aesthetic, it is an uncomplicated melody that plays on loop, a catchy folk rhythm that is club-friendly, and has a contemporary orchestration with a hint of sarangi. There is also a smattering of rap by Satheeshan Rathnayaka. Sung by Sri Lankan musician Yohani Diloka de Silva along with rapper Satheeshan, it caught Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan’s fancy last month. He tweeted out his obsession with the song along with a video edited by his granddaughter Navya Naveli, who’d superimposed the Sinhala song over Bachchan’s song-dance sequence Jahan teri yeh nazar hai (from Kaalia, 1981). The actor even spoke about it on his Hindi television quiz show Kaun Banega Crorepati when de Silva appeared in a question.

After soothing quarantined Sri Lankans three months ago, the song reached India and garnered over 110 million views in no time. If Hindi-film actors Madhuri Dixit, Parineeti Chopra and Tiger Shroff danced to it on their social media, K-pop boy-band sensation BTS listened to it in a “reaction video”. The popularity spawned covers globally, instrumental as well as in many languages, including Tamil, English, Telugu, Konkani, Hindi, Bengali and Tripura’s Kokborok; spurred TikTok videos, Instagram posts and memes, bringing de Silva instant fame. Her older songs are beginning to find new listeners now.

In Colombo, the 28-year-old YouTube star de Silva sat in her home watching how it felt to go viral. It was the unintended single’s global moment. “This was a really random take on the song. It wasn’t planned… it was a big thing for us. We never thought it could be liked by so many people,” says de Silva in a video interview.

Produced by Sri Lankan composer Chamath Sangeeth, de Silva’s piece is the cover of a single that came out last year. Sung by Satheeshan and written by Dulan ARX who also performed the original rap, it wasn’t even a blip on the charts. “I am a huge fan of Chamath Sangeeth. So, when I saw the song, I did a TikTok version after which Chamath asked if we could do a full version,” says de Silva. The idea and the conversation both came about in the lockdown so she could not record it in a professional studio. She found the next best option — a corner in her home. The video was made in Chamath’s studio in Colombo.

De Silva is also touched by how a song in Sinhala from Sri Lanka, “a tiny country”, is suddenly the rage. “A lot of our music is inspired by Bollywood, probably because we are neighbours. The influence is really strong. But I’m seeing a renewed interest in Sri Lankan music and most importantly in our language… For me, this kind of love is also representative of a bond between India and Sri Lanka,” says de Silva, who also sang a Sinhala cover of Pehla nasha (from Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, 1992) some time back.

De Silva was a child of the internet, learning to play the guitar on YouTube, creating a channel on the platform at 23 and uploading her music and videos on it. Daughter of a former army officer and former air hostess, de Silva grew up listening to different languages and a range of music because of her parents and through her travels. While her parents put her into piano classes early on, she was playing the trumpet and French horn in her school band. She travelled to the UK and Australia to study accounting, where a mix of many kinds of music left an imprint on her. The highlight was Eminem’s Rapture concert in 2019 in Australia.

“My influences are probably why I haven’t stuck to a genre. I like to experiment with my music and explore everything that I can. I rap, I sing, I play the guitar,” says de Silva, who began her career by doing covers of Sinhala songs and Bollywood songs dubbed in Sinhala. She collaborated with friends for music videos and did a slew of original pieces, but it was only after her return from Australia in 2019 that she took up music professionally. She joined a record label, Pettah Effect, brought out Aaye (One day) in 2020, in which she sings of her nudes being circulated, of a life without money, singing at pubs to make ends meet. She followed it with Rawwath dasin in 2020, a song about 30 years of civil war in Sri Lanka. Right now, she’s working on her first album. An upcoming single, which will be released this month, is going to be “completely different from Manike mage hithe,” she says.

Unaware of the melodic structure of Pilu, the Hindustani classical raga of romance, de Silva has loosely followed its pattern — like many a Hindi-film song — in Manike mage hithe. Bollywood and Indian live-show offers are already knocking on her door. “I will begin by learning Hindi. I don’t understand it at all. When I sing it too, I don’t think I get the accent right,” she says, before singing the top-grossing number one more time.

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