In the Booth with Sunara

The Oslo World Music festival at Jæger was diverse colourful diorama of music and characters dancing in and out of our basement and lounge, an obscure din that struggles to pull into a focus a few weeks on, except for a singular focal point at its core. It’s an image of the Sri Lankan DJ Sunara, sand it’s not as you expect. It’s not her behind the booth or being whisked in and out of the venue, but rather one of her standing next to the booth, moving on the dance floor or sitting at the bar. Oslo World music festival saw a fair few artists, DJs and heads coming through Jæger’s doors, but Sunara was the only one that we saw each and every night during the course of the event.  

When she wasn’t dancing, or in the booth, she was wandering around the room experiencing the sound of the room and the Funktion one system from various vantage points. “I went from place to place listening for rattles” explains Sunara over a grainy Skype connection from Sri Lanka a few weeks after. Venturing to spots on the dance floor where probably only Ola’s (Smith-Simonsen) ears have wandered, Sunara’s musical interests lies far beyond just the music  – “what impressed me was in that smaller space those speakers working so well”, she says with a wide smile, beaming from the screen. She takes a keen interest in the whole experience, immersing herself in every tiny aspect, from the music to the sound system to the people, everything informing her time in the booth. It’s an “energy based thing” for Sunara and “the crowd and the sound effects the way you play”, shaping her whole approach to the music as she delivers it to her audiences.

Her time in Oslo, was not the first time outside of her native Sri Lanka in the role of a DJ. It comes as no surprise considering the inherent talent of her skill, but it’s still a far-cry from her humble, almost accidental beginnings as a DJ. Growing up with parents that “listened to cheesy music” from the likes of Tom Jones, Sunara knew from an early age she would not form a relationship with that kind of music mat all. “My dad was a singer and that was his love”, she emphasises with a smile that says she took absolutely no interest in the musical delights of the previous generation. She was however “fortunate enough to grow up with a bunch of friends that had good taste in music” and what started as an interest in metal and rock soon also came to find an interest in electronic music, when those same friends started throwing parties with an emphasis on electronic music. “Through partying I was introduced to electronic dance music. Once I got into it, I understood the purpose of it.” Sunara’s assimilation of this music and the culture soon blossomed into an interest, when one of the friends hosting the parties turned her onto a new style of music called glitch-hop. Enthralled by this new music, but unable to hear it in the club-context, Sunara would exhaust her friend’s music library and when it became clear that her newfound passion had evolved into a skill that same friend would eventually ask: “ do you want to play at one of the parties.”

I learn from Sunara that there isn’t a scene that allows for much more than House and progressive House, tech house  in Sri Lanka, with beach parties being the norm and clubs very much catering to a commercial music. Techno in any shape or form is the purview of but a few and although the beach parties do play “Techno to some extent”, Sunara and her peers are very much a small and select few. They utilize organisations like the Goethe institute and the Border Movement, with some focus on promoing ”growth and awareness in south east Asia with regard to electronic dance music”. Through Goethe and The Border Movement Sunara and her peers are able to take part in events, attend residencies- and play in foreign countries. “ This has definitely helped a lot of the young producers as they are able to meet others in the same industry and also see how different countries work, differently.” For a young scene like Sri Lanka’s, which Sunara claims is about 13/14 years young, this seems to be paramount to the development of the music and the artistry and through events like Pettah Interchange it has allowed the likes of Sunara and her musical peers to “play the music we love to play and not conform in being commercial artists.”

The music they play and propagate is very informed by a European and North-American underground standard, a minimalists Techno aesthetic. Sunara sites Canadian producer Alicia Hush as a particular favourite while one of her preferred sets from the Oslo World Music Festival, was the hard-hitting German-informed Techno set from Nastia. “I liked her music and her vibe, that pumping kind of music” says Sunara whose own set streaming here today, bears some similarities to the Ukrainian DJ in its stark minimalist approach. Although where Nastia pumps, Sunara Saunters, making use of melodically-inclined sonic palette that adds some warmth to the cold minimalist aesthetic of Micro House and Minimal Techno. There’s nothing really to imply a Sri Lankan tradition in her sets and when I ask if there are any traditional influences cropping amongst her and her peers in the booth or beyond, she believes not. Although the electronic music came to Sri Lanka through the DJ, it was very much a European sound that has informed it from the start. Even today as some of the DJ’s make the move into production there’s very little of a Sri Lankan tradition, informing the music in Sunara’s opinion. She sites artists Geve, Curio, Asvajit and Nigel as personal favourites with only one record label, Jambutek currently releasing this kind of music at home. “The guys there are really interesting because kids that are making this music; to see them from the starting point progressing into producers is a pretty cool thing.“

It all makes for a very unique situation, the birth of a musical identity for the region right at the chrysalis stage with Sunara and her friends at the epicentre of it all. She too will eventually look to make the leap into production, but like that investigative way she stalked around our basement, absorbing the character of the soundsystem, her venture into production realm will be for research purposes more than anything. “I’m interested in taking it a step further” she says “to understand how it’s done, which would definitely help me to deliver it when I play it.“ For the moment however Sunara is still just at the crux of this next phase of her musical development, but like her work in the booth, which extends way beyond mixing two tracks together, this will surely also see Sunara pouring all of herself into this next endeavour.

We leave Sunara and Sri Lanka at this point, on the cusp of a new musical era, one that we got a small taste of during the Oslo world music festival, and one we look forward to following closely as it develops further.