City on a jazz tune

Post-war Sri Lanka has taken to the high life and the recent Colombo Jazz Festival hit all the right notes


British band Incognito playing at the Colombo Jazz Festival. Photographs: Sandun de Silva
British band Incognito playing at the Colombo Jazz Festival. Photographs: Sandun de Silva

It’s Saturday night and I’m outside the Bandaranaike International Airport, being hustled into a cab with a jazz quartet from London. Our cabbie doesn’t speak a word of English and we speak neither Sinhalese nor Tamil. We wait until a dozen or so musicians, straight off the Abu Dhabi and Dubai jazz festivals, load their instruments into a trailer, shuffle for space in the van and roll their eyes at the disorder. Shehan De Silva, a young boy with a wild Afro who is volunteering with the Colombo Jazz Festival, maintains his cool.

The bandleader of the jazz quartet in our cab is 56-year-old Londoner Kevin Davy, a trumpeter/flugelhorn player, composer and arranger with a prolific discography. My knowledge of jazz is as limited as his is of Asia, so we get along rather well during the short ride to the Hilton.

Davy gamely runs me through the history of jazz and blues while we check Instagram for updates on the two-day festival—headlining British band Incognito has got the party swinging to its sophisticated funk and acid jazz sound—and the weather—unexpected rain has set back the afternoon gigs by a few hours. The Colombo Jazz Festival, which kicked off in 2016 with 11 hours of music, doubled its line-up this year. It logged 22 hours by 63 international artistes, as well as Bengaluru-based Beer Puppets and local band Brown Sugar.

The next morning, I scope out the festival venue, the sea-sprayed lawns of the Galle Face Hotel. There’s an easy-going picnic vibe with blankets strewn on the lawns and gourmet food hampers; cheese, charcuterie and wine stalls; and a teeny “designer’s market” showcasing local products like batik lingerie from a brand called Pras & Danties. Expats and locals artfully togged out in linens and sunnies soak in the sun and South African band Major Minor. Davy is next, with his soulful tribute to Miles Davis.

For me, the highlights of the event are the two closing acts, Chicago-blues maestro Mud Morganfield Junior doffing his hat to his legendary father with For Pops: A Tribute To Muddy Waters, and American band El Trio with bassist and vocalist Marco Mendoza fusing Afro-Cuban grooves with rock and soul.

“Nobody’s here for the music,” a senior Rolling Stone journalist muses from his permanent post in front of the stage. He’s on backslapping terms with many of the veteran musicians and we strike up an engaging conversation while swaying to Mendoza’s infectious sound. But his observation isn’t a scathing critique of the event or the well-heeled audience. It’s a gentle observation.

Marco Mendoza of American band El Trio.
Marco Mendoza of American band El Trio.

One Gig at a time

“I don’t want us to be another Singapore,” Gehan Fernando says over a cold beer at Curry Leaf, the decadent seafood restaurant at the Hilton. Fernando’s Mainstage Events, which has organized the jazz festival, has been responsible for bringing a variety of musicians to Colombo, like British Jamaican reggae artiste Julian Marley and Swedish-Congolese R&B singer-dancer Mohombi.

Fernando is part of Colombo’s expat brat-pack, bullish on transforming Colombo into an entertainment hub where people fly down to party through the week. “We have grown significantly and we want to grow further,” he says of the festival. “But we don’t want it to be this big commercial event. I like the idea of having a modern city with a lot of heritage maintained within.”

Fernando’s cool-cat sunglasses stay on his face throughout our late afternoon chat and his hipster uniform of linen shirt and trousers stays uncreased despite the heat. He owns restaurants, bars and nightclubs in the city—a South African band is currently playing Aretha Franklin and Erykah Badu at his rooftop bar 41 Sugar—and advises me on venues for my last night in Colombo. The offerings are limited, but gorgeous.

Rising High

Standing at the rooftop Sky Lounge of Kingsbury Hotel, I look at the stunning 180-degree panorama. It’s a hot mess at present. The Sri Lankan government’s Port City project on 269 hectares of reclaimed land, aided by Chinese investment, is in full swing, intent on a commercial blitzkrieg that will convert the lazy coastline into a hot spot of skyscrapers. The Shangri-La, Sheraton, Raffles and ITC are building tony properties in the vicinity.

I grab my chance at a relaxed evening over drinks and uninterrupted views of the Indian Ocean, before they turn this into another Dubai. Four districts away, the month-old Jetwing Colombo Seven infinity pool bar offers an even cosier setting. Rooftop bars with breezy ocean views are a Colombo signature, as are their splendidly located restaurants. I have done a 3-hour (overpriced) lunch at The Gallery Café, set in the soothing courtyard of the former offices of Sri Lanka’s famous architect, Geoffrey Bawa, and shopped for wooden dolls at parent company Paradise Road’s sunny boutique at Dharmapala Mawatha.

A tuk-tuk ferries me from one lovely location to another, like a homey reality check on the sidelines. I miss out on visiting another of the city’s retail legacies, Barefoot. Not that I need any handspun sarongs in jewel tones and linen homeware to bring me back. Jazz is enough.

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