Cover story: Sri Lankan singer-composer Yohani on how her music surpasses language barriers, her connection to India

Sri Lankan singer-composer, Yohani of Manike Mage Hithe fame talks about the Hindi version of the song, pronunciation challenges, and the message behind her debut album
Sri Lankan singer-composer Yohani Diloka de Silva
Sri Lankan singer-composer Yohani Diloka de Silva

In September last year, if there was one song that made everyone groove to soulful tunes, including the likes of megastar Amitabh Bachchan, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Madhuri Dixit and Parineeti Chopra — it was the Sinhalese ballad Manike Mage Hithe. Sung by Sri Lankan singer-composer Yohani Diloka de Silva, the song became an overnight sensation and brought her into the limelight with over 30 million views on YouTube, and lakhs on Instagram and TikTok. The song also has an equally successful Tamil version. And now, she is looking forward to the Hindi version of Manike Mage Hithe in the upcoming film Thank God, featuring Ajay Devgn, Sidharth Malhotra and Rakul Preet Singh. “It was really a great experience recording Manike in Hindi but it’s not my mother tongue so it took a little bit of time for me to understand the pronunciations. It took about five days to record after a lot of failures. But it was a learning process and I really enjoyed it,” says Yohani.

Originally performed by Satheeshan Rathnayaka, Manike Mage Hithe is a Sinhalese ballad sung by a man to a woman, to express his admiration of her character and beauty. But more than the original sweet lyrics, Yohani’s soprano tones and gazes into the camera give it a simple teen-pop vibe that has enraptured millions. “This is the first time that a Sinhalese song has gone viral to this extent and I never expected that. It is a simple love song with a very simple video. I never expected this will blow up like that. We just did it for fun during the lockdown,” says Yohani, who is on an India tour and is expanding her base and collaborating with Indian musicians. “It has been amazing, so far. I always wanted to come to India and represent my culture and also collaborate with Indian musicians.”

Bigger stages

On her India tour, Yohani has already locked a few music deals and has recorded her first song for Kunal Deshmukh’s Shiddat which is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar. She has also shared the Bigg Boss 15 stage with Salman Khan, as well as Ranveer Singh in The Big Picture. “It’s been beautiful but challenging to learn Hindi. I am learning the language and vocals, so I will be able to sing a lot better in the future. There are many things that I want to do. For instance, there are so many music genres in India and I want to try everything because it’s always a learning process,” says Yohani. The 29-year-old composer has been putting up her songs since 2016 on her YouTube channel but it’s only after Manike that fame came to her. She tells us that her first cover on YouTube was Satellite by Above & Beyond, who she says has been a very big part of her musical life.

Back to her roots

Though Yohani has aspirations of singing and composing Indian music, she wants Sri Lankan music to be an integral part of whatever she does. “That’s primary for me. I want to bring my essence and influence to Indian music. I was born in Sri Lanka and I want to bring that essence to the songs I sing in India. And I have a lot of songs that can have Hindi versions. I can always bring in those influences here,” says the singer who also finds similarities in Indian and Sri Lankan music. “I feel Sri Lankan music is influenced by Indian music and there are a lot of similarities. But it also has its own genres like baila and nadagam apart from Sinhala, which is unique. I want to try Sri Lankan music in Hindi, Telugu and Tamil to bring their cultural essence to my music,” she shares.

Sri Lankan singer-composer Yohani Diloka de Silva
Sri Lankan singer-composer Yohani Diloka de Silva

Growing up with parents who listened to the BeeGees, Spice Girls and Elton John and AR Rahman, Yohani says these artistes have a lot of influence on her music style and she listens to these artistes even today. “I listen to a lot of music in many different languages to explore other genres and try and include them in my music,” she says. Although Manike made it big on the internet, Yohani is not driven by numbers and wants to make more music. She also released her debut album Kella (a girl or woman), which features the track Ithin Adare, which has over three million views on YouTube. The album comprising 12 tracks is her narration of what it means to be a young modern woman in Sri Lanka in terms of friendship, relationships, independence and the mundane. The other popular songs by Yohani are Rawwath Dasin with Chanuka Mora, Merry Christmas Baby and Pana Senehasa.

Bonding over music

Apart from her love for AR Rahman from India, Yohani also likes Indian musicians like Jubin Nautiyal, Guru Randhawa, Neha Kakkar, Honey Singh and Badshah. The singer aspires to do live shows in India to reach out to her fan base in the country. “I am already preparing for it. Once my basics are sorted I will be performing live. I got to meet some of the singers in India and there is respect for the art. There is no difference as far as music is concerned. We bond over music. There is a lot to learn from Indian musicians and there is a lot of scope for exchange between Sri Lankan and Indian musicians,” she says.

When asked about her favourite genre of music she quickly responds with hip-hop. “I love rap and hip-hop. Hip-hop is my go-to genre but as of now I am focusing on folk music,” she tells us. Apart from her musical endeavors in India, Yohani is also speaking about the ongoing economic crisis in Sri Lanka. She is running an online campaign with other musicians to raise one million dollars for Sri Lankans. “As an ambassador to my country, with an international platform, I’ve decided to break my silence and lend my voice to my people back home considering the gravity of the situation,” she wrote in a recent Instagram post.

In addition, Yohani is releasing two of her English originals on August 26, Submerged and Cold Sunday. The songs are made keeping things about her day-to-day life and keeping in mind things around her. She has done 360degree work being the singer, lyricist and composer of the song.



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