By Marwan Macan-Markar


When I first heard the strains of “Manike Mage Hithe” (baby in my heart) shortly after it was uploaded on YouTube in May, I had little idea this song in Sinhala — a language only spoken in Sri Lanka, where I come from — was going to become a phenomenon across South Asia. Its lyrics speak of youth and romance and the melodic tune begins with touches of a ballad and is fused with rap.

By September, it had scaled a cultural summit no song or film or book in Sinhala had ever done beyond the island nation’s shores. Over 133 million people had viewed the song as it was embraced across many corners of South Asia. The shout-outs were led by Bollywood royalty, such as megastar Amitabh Bachchan, who called it an “incredible Sri Lankan song” in a tweet, a sentiment echoed by ordinary listeners from Bangladesh to the Maldives.

It has made Yohani Diloka De Silva, the 28-year-old singer, an overnight star. Her rendition, delivered in a mellifluous voice, was part of what fans call “Manike’s” magic. And her pleasant, open-faced expressions in a video that can only be described as very minimalist had equal appeal. They complemented the structure of the tune, with its slow buildup, a catchy melody and finally a pulsating tempo.

The song’s success offered millions a chance to hear the Sinhala language for the first time. After all, the language of Sri Lanka’s majority ethnic community is one of the smaller tongues on the margins of South Asia’s linguistic multitude. There are only 17.2 million Sinhala speakers, according to one estimate. It ranks as the world’s 70th most spoken language and is rarely heard outside of Sri Lanka.


Sinhala has difficulties in getting a hearing in South Asia since the region is home to more than 650 of the world’s 7,099 living languages, making it the most “linguistically diverse” in the world, according to a report presented at the International Conference of South Asian Languages and Literatures in India a few years back. The span of the region’s tongues is led by Hindi, with some 615.4 million speakers, which makes it the world’s third-most-popular language after English with 1.13 billion speakers and Chinese with 1.11 billion. This is followed by Bengali with 265 million speakers (the world’s seventh-most-spoken language), Urdu with 170.2 million (the world’s 11th-most-spoken language) and Tamil with 80.9 million (the world’s 19th-most-spoken language). All of them are widely spoken beyond their home regions. Tamil is typical. It is spoken in Sri Lanka by the country’s largest minority population as well as in Singapore and Malaysia due to migrants in the 19th century. It is also kept alive overseas by a steady stream of films and music that flows out of Tamil Nadu, a southern Indian state.

Even if we don’t understand the lyrics, as in opera for example, we will listen to a song if it is universally appealing. A scene of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Nabucco” is performed at the Caracalla Baths in Rome in 2007.    © Getty Images

The universal appeal of music combined with the pervasiveness of social media has given less-known languages such as Sinhala a chance to reach new audiences. We have seen this before. A decade ago, “Why This Kolaveri Di,” a song with an idiosyncratic mix of Tamil and English, was a South Asian rage. Look further east, and this global reach is magnified by the K-pop phenomenon led by South Korean groups like BTS.

Yohani’s success shows that we listen to songs if the tune appeals, even if we don’t understand the lyrics. Three that come to my mind among many favorites from decades back are “Guantanamera,” a Cuban song in Spanish, “Pata Pata,” sung by South African icon Miriam Makeba in Xhosa, and “Ta Pedia Tou Pirea,” a Greek song sung by Melina Mercouri in the film “Never on Sunday,” which is also the song’s English language title.


Classical music in the form of opera provides other examples. There is the universal appeal of the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves,” sung in Italian and from the opera “Nabucco” by Giuseppe Verdi, or the aria “Habanera,” sung in French from the opera “Carmen” by Georges Bizet. The libretto of both is still foreign to me.


Yohani’s song has enabled her marginal language to get a rare international hearing. Her most resonant message is that other singers, with similarly “small tongues,” can take heart and leap linguistic barriers.


Marwan Macan-Markar is an Asia regional correspondent for Nikkei Asia.


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