COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – In the end, it was only fitting that Sunil Perera, who had entertained generations of Sri Lankans on the radio and on the dance floor with his distinctive Latin American tunes, would sing along.
On his deathbed in a hospital in Colombo, the country’s capital, Mr. Perera had requested a guitar, but none was provided. So he turned to what could not be denied.
“The doctor told me that the day before he died he was singing and entertaining everyone there,” said Piyal Perera, Sunil’s brother and bandmate.
Mr Perera died in Nawaloka hospital on Monday, his brother said. He was 68 years old.
Although the cause of death is unclear, Piyal Perera said, Mr Perera was recovering from Covid-19 when he was rushed to intensive care.
Few of them have had such a big impact on Sri Lanka’s cultural and entertainment scene as Mr. Perera has for half a century. Often dressed in bright colors and wearing a fedora, he produced tube after tube through the Gypsies, the family group, which was preparing to celebrate its golden jubilee this year.
The gypsies specialized in the baila, a joyful and rhythmic genre sung mainly in Sinhala but influenced by the Portuguese, who colonized much of the island in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Over the decades, he has used his words and his voice to amplify concerns about Sri Lanka’s shrinking democratic space. The country, still recovering from years of civil war, has been beset by government pressure against journalists, activists and minority groups. Mr. Perera frequently attacked the country’s decaying political elite, which became bogged down in feuds and which he believed were dashing the nation’s hopes.
“He was both popular and a protester,” said Lakshman Joseph-de Saram, a film composer from Sri Lanka. “We rarely have a Bob Dylan and a Michael Jackson in one package.”
“He was,” added Mr. Saram, “our baila king.”
Tributes poured in after Mr Perera’s death, including from politicians he had openly criticized. He directed his anger against the ruling Rajapaksa family in the country and against the opposition which repeatedly disappointed him with the chaos in its ranks.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa called his death a “great loss”. Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa said Mr Perera had “pioneered a modern revolution in Sri Lankan musical history”.
He was born Uswatta Liyanage Ivor Sylvester Sunil Perera in 1952 to a Roman Catholic family and grew up in the Colombo suburb of Moratuwa. He was one of 10 children of Anton Perera, a former soldier, and Doreen Perera, a housewife.
The elder Mr. Perera built the Gypsies largely around his children. Sunil was a teenager when he joined the group and later became the lead singer. He described his father as a disciplinarian who had wanted him to complete his graduate studies, but supported his choice when he left school to focus on guitar and vocal training. In 2017, the Gypsies recorded a family tribute to their founder.
Sunil Perera’s stubborn lyrics and public stance set him apart from other top musicians in Sri Lanka. In his songs he dealt with corruption and embittered politicians after their electoral defeats. One song depicts aliens landing in Sri Lanka and declining an invitation to stay.
“It has been 72 years since we achieved independence,” he said in an interview. “We are in debt to the whole world. Is it the people’s fault? Whose fault is it? I don’t blame a group. I blame all the politicians who have governed us.
He spoke openly about his personal life, discussing what he considered to be hypocritical attitudes about sex in conservative Sri Lankan society. But his tongue has often got him in trouble, especially when he described women as “baby machines” in a discussion of the size of Sri Lankan families in his father’s generation.
His friends and family recognized that Mr. Perera could be a source of division. But they said his outspokenness came from his firm belief that Sri Lanka could overcome the ethnic and religious divisions that have led to conflict for decades. Piyal, his brother, said Mr Perera said what would make him happiest would be for his four children to marry in four different communities.
“His head wasn’t swollen with fame – it was simple,” said Mariazelle Goonetilleke, a fellow musician and friend. “He was not afraid to speak the truth, always said what he thought. There were people who didn’t like it.
Mr Perera fell with Covid-19 last month and was hospitalized for 25 days before being released, to be readmitted, this time to intensive care, days later.
In addition to his brother, survivors include his wife, Geetha Kulatunga; two daughters, Rehana and Manisha Perera; and two sons, Sajith and Gayan.
In a video message after his initial discharge from the hospital, Mr Perera appeared weak but determined as he thanked the hospital staff and his fans and supporters. He was dressed in a white shirt and a gray hat, his usual colors missing.
“We thank God for giving us such a crowd,” he said. “We will certainly get this blessing again. When we have that time, let’s meet again, like in the good old days.