Feizal Samath of CMF-Sri Lanka:
Helping the Needy Through Music

Category : , , ,

By Andoni Urkiaga

Feizal Samath, President of the Country Music Foundation of Sri Lanka

We know that country music is a universal language, and that is why we celebrate the International Country Music Day: to promote country music internationally and to unite fans all over the world. Yet sometimes we are surprised Xabout how far country music has gone and how it can touch people’s hearts with its magic.Sri Lanka´s Country Music Foundation (CMF) was launched in that country in South Asia in 1988 as a non-profit organization with three objectives: promoting country/western and folk music, raising awareness on children's rights and raising funds for children in need.

This outfit was founded by Feizal Samath, a part-time country/folk singer and professional journalist then working for the Reuters news agency, who, having visited children in several refugee camps across that island nation as a writer, wanted to help these children and brighten up their lives. He was joined by his music colleague Juragan Majid, who is now responsible for the tasks of music production and concert organization.
All through these years, the CMF has heralded a range of activities, the most important being an annual concert titled "COUNTRY ROADS". The CMF acts as a bridge, bringing together the business community –as a socially responsible group-, UNICEF and Save The Children, and the public to work towards improving the lives of underprivileged and deprived children.

The concerts promoted by the CMF have helped to raise public awareness on children's rights and needs through music in addition to raising funds for these projects. Perhaps the most important message of these concerts has been the need to help children, particularly those affected by war or poverty.

This link between country music and charity in a distant country like Sri Lanka has amazed us, so we recently interviewed Feizal Samath for the new ICMDAY website.

ICMDAY: How come you have a passion for country music in a country like Sri Lanka? Do you identify yourselves with country music? I mean, your culture seems to be rather different from American country & western...

Feizal Samath: Yes. However it’s not quite amazing. There is a lot of interest in English pop music and in the 1950-60s, the most popular singers were Jim Reeves, Ricky Nelson, Elvis, etc, who were mostly country/country rock artists. In the 1990s, while there is a segment of the English-speaking population who enjoy all kinds of western music, country music and jazz have come to stay as popular forms of music enjoyed by many. Shops are filled with country cassettes and CDs. It’s not difficult to attract a 1,000-person audience for a good country show with top billing artistes. However there are very few bands here as not many hotel lobbies (where most bands get work) prefer to use country music artistes which is still not commercially popular. It has its own following.

ICMDAY: You are a journalist that loves country music, but one day you decided to launch the Country Music Foundation of Sri Lanka… Why did you have the idea to organize the Country Roads Festival?

Feizal Samath: I grew up on the music of Jim Reeves, Ricky and the guys in the 1960s and started playing a ukulele before progressing to a 6-string guitar and now a 12-string guitar. If I didn’t go into journalism as a profession (I have been a journalist for more than 25 years), I may have ended up as a professional musician! However in the late 1980s when I worked as a journalist for REUTERS International News agency in Colombo I traveled to many parts of the country covering the war that has ravaged this land. I regularly visited refugee camps and wrote about them, got a nice byline and many of the stories were carried across the world in newspapers. When I go back to these camps a few weeks later however I found that their plight (particularly children) hadn’t changed despite bringing local and world attention through my work as a journalist. This was the turning point: I thought to myself “I get a nice byline and a pat on the back for writing a nice story” but what about the plight of these kids, their life doesn’t change.

Since I was doing music as a hobby, I thought maybe I’ll do a small concert for children to raise some money for them. It was just meant to be one show, a feel-good show for me – to get the feeling that I have done something for them.

ICMDAY: How has this festival evolved through the years?

Feizal Samath: Continuing from my earlier response, the first concert in 1988 was an unbelievable success. We raised 30,000 Sri Lanka rupees (small change then and just US$300 according to current exchange rates) and donated this money to the government to help in a home for children orphaned by the war. A UNICEF official who came for the concert was impressed and asked whether UNICEF could get involved. I said yes and that’s how the show has evolved over the years into 16 concerts (with the March 16, 2008 event) and in which we have brought musicians from across the world to perform for needy children in Sri Lanka, playing side by side with their local counterparts. For the past two years our partners are Save The Children.

ICMDAY: Children are the innocent victims of many disasters. Do you think that music is a way of moving the wheel of positive change?

Feizal Samath: Definitely yes. Our message is using music to cut across all barriers and blocks and bring children into the spotlight in terms of their rights and needs. My work as a journalist has helped me spread this message through music. It has been a very enriching and rewarding experience for everyone who has been on the COUNTRY ROADS bandwagon. We have created change by helping children to read, write, study, acquire knowledge, make sure other non-victims of conflict emphathise with those affected, build schools so that children won’t be idle, etc. MOST IMPORTANTLY WE HAVE ALSO WORKED IN ALL THREE COMMUNITIES OF SRI LANKA – SINHALESE (MAJORITY COMMUNITY, TAMILS AND MUSLIMS, AND ALSO BROUGHT THEM TOGETHER TO WORK TOGETHER AS A TEAM, AS A COMMUNITY.

Another aspect is that the Mavericks band from Germany and Astrid Brook from the UK have no problems coming to Sri Lanka and say they want to help in spite of concerns about conflict, etc ... that might deter other tourists. Their position is that terrorism is happening in many parts of the world and that they want to help children here.

ICMDAY: Tell us about your collaboration with UNICEF.

Feizal Samath: In 1989, we began collaborating with UNICEF where we raise money through the show and handed over all these proceeds to UNICEF for a project that was designed with our input. UNICEF also contributed some costs. We would either have a separate project – building water wells; pre schools, workshops of rights; libraries, etc and join up with a UNICEF on-going project and sponsor a particular aspect of that project. This partnership worked for many years until 2005 (a total of 14 concerts) when we moved onto a special project of providing 15,000 mosquito nets to children and their families in remote areas, and then to work with Save the Children since 2007.

ICMDAY: Save the Children is another humanitarian organization you are collaborating with…

Feizal Samath: That’s right. We partnered Save the Children who have also been impressed by the work of the CMF. In 2007 together with Save the Children’s local community partners, under a 3-month project many events were held. These included providing libraries and books, child rights seminars, health camps, two day camps, etc. The children came from the northwest district of Mannar – in the heart of the war – and the northcentral district of Anuradhapura. At the end of the 3-month project, TAMIL children from Mannar came to Anuradhapura to join their Sinhalese colleagues in a joint 2-day camp. We hope to show the activities under this project on screen at the next concert. It was I would say one of our most productive years in helping children.

ICMDAY: What are your next projects to help children?

Feizal Samath: This year for the 16th annual concert, we are continuing to work with Save the Children, UK and the project this time is to raise money to provide a library and books to 14,000 children in a village in eastern Sri Lanka which has been cleared of terrorist activity. The village wanted a library and that’s how we have got involved. We are also continuing support to the village in Anuradhapura as they have a few unfinished work.

ICMDAY: This year you have done it again, and the Country Roads Festival will have another exciting group of artists playing on its stage. Tell us about them.

Feizal Samath: Yes, the concert will be held on March 16th, 2008 at the grand 200-year old Mount Lavinia Hotel and features the Mavericks from Germany, folk singers Astrid and Amelie from the UK and local artistes.

Astrid Brooks and Amelie in 2010 Country Roads

The german band, Mavericks, in 2010 Country Roads

The Mavericks (4-piece band) will be one of the star attractions. You could view them on www.mavericks.de for details and how they have helped Sri Lanka. The band has been playing in Sri Lanka for the past 10-12 years. In addition we have two folk/country female singers from UK, Astrid Brooke and Amelie. Local bands include the COUNTRY REVIVAL BAND (with myself on 6-string ukulele/12-string acoustic/vocals and four others two of whom are playing banjo and harmonica – we generally do some good, old country songs), and two bands – Cosmic Rays and ANNO DOMINO. We try to change the flavour every year by introducing different instruments. This time we’ll have – in addition to guitars and drums -, ukulele, banjo, pedal steel and dobro. On occasion we have also brought in an east-west fusion set up like an acoustic guitar player backed by Indian traditional drums called TABLA OR GHATAM which provides a rich east-west sound!

ICMDAY: What is the future of Country Roads?

Feizal Samath: Very good – though its getting more difficult for me every year as I am getting on the years (started this show at 34 years and 20 years later, I am now 54 years). Because of my solid contacts as a journalist and now a Business Editor at a local newspaper, I have many contacts for sponsorship and financial support. Without that, we wouldn’t have gone this far. We have solid backing from the US embassy in Colombo too. My involvement in everything – organizing local/foreign artistes, getting hotels/airlines sponsorship, financial sponsors, etc – is paramount as I have all the contacts. Thus I am compelled to get involved in every issue or organization. Every cent we raise goes to children. All costs are kept to a minimum. The CMF doesn’t change a cent for administration and organization.

I am hoping to run it as long as the 25th concert (in 2016) and then maybe hand it over to a TRUST to take it along – that’s if it is physically impossible in terms of my active participation. In the past 2-3 years, every year we raise between Rs 500,000 to Rs 750,000 per year (that’s about US$5,000 to $7,500) which is sizable in local terms and a lot of children benefit from this. God willing this will continue.

ICMDAY: Country music is listened to, danced to, and enjoyed around the world. What is your message to the world for the next International Country Music Day?

Feizal Samath:
Country Music as Sri Lanka has shown is being used to show the world that we need to care for the underprivileged and the needy. Our message is, and always has been – Dedicated to helping the needy of the world through music.

Country Music, as we have also proved, can be any form of music; traditional, eastern, western – reflecting the cultures of the people; the values of society. Country music, unlike any other music form is easily reflected in its name itself “COUNTRY”. Where there is a country and people who are friendly, there is country music.

ICMDAY: Good Luck and Ayubowan (May You Live More), Feizal.

Feizal Samath: Ayubowan.