Sometime in the middle of this year, a little-known Sri Lankan singer-songwriter conquered the Internet with a Sinhala song. The music video of the extremely infectious romantic track went viral all over the world overnight, raking in over 176 million views and counting on YouTube. The 28-year-old singer captivated the hearts of millions of viewers with her coy smile, dulcet tone and girlish demeanour.
Yohani de Silva’s peppy cover of Manike Mage Hithe – originally released in 2020 by Satheeshan Rathnayaka – became so popular that several versions of the song, in different languages, surfaced online, including in English, Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, Telugu and Malayalam, among others. US violinist Karolina Protsenko’s instrumental version of the song while busking in California has also gone viral.
Not only that, Bollywood also got hooked to the number. Veteran actor Amitabh Bachchan shared a parody video that showed him shaking a leg to the song. Tiger Shroff wowed us as he swayed to the beats of the song. Madhuri Dixit admitted her fascination for the song by sharing a clip. “Coz I love this song,” she wrote.
Now, fans in the UAE will be excited to know that Yohani has been chosen by the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau to perform in Dubai soon. She will be headlining at Expo 2020 Dubai in the first week of March 2022. “Yes, I have been to Dubai once (in 2019). And yes, I am coming to Dubai soon to perform,” Yohani told City Times, without confirming any dates.
We caught up with the busy singer, during her tour of India, to discuss how she feels about becoming an overnight sensation, her fascination with Bollywood, A.R. Rahman’s music and her early days. Excerpts from the interview:
ON THE SUCCESS OF MANIKE MAGE HITHE:
What is it about Manike Mage Hithe that anyone who hears it can’t stop humming or grooving to the beats of the number? How does that make you feel?
Firstly, I’m very excited and passionate about my music. There’s nothing better for an artist than to see the crowds singing along to your music. I have experienced that feeling earlier when I used to perform in pubs, and now, I’m getting that kind of response in my concerts, too. I do my best whenever or wherever I perform, whether it’s a pub or it’s a big concert.
You started your music career by gigging in hotels and became an overnight global sensation. Did you ever anticipate that your song would scale such phenomenal heights?
It still feels like a dream. It’s unreal – meeting so many celebrities and people who I have looked up to while growing up. I’m still adjusting to the enormous love and support that is coming my way. It’s overwhelming, but I’m humbled and grateful. I would like to think that I am a simple person.
Has all this adulation changed you in any way?
I love music and experimenting with it, so that hasn’t changed for me. You will see it in my next music video. Believe me, I haven’t had a single day of rest since the song (Manike Mage Hithe) was released. I haven’t even had the chance to step into and hide in my studio (my happy place) ever since (the song became a hit).
Manike Mage Hithe has a universal appeal to it. The number has spawned several versions in regional languages like Telugu, Tamil, Hindi, Bengali, Malayalam, and even Kokborok (Tripura). There are also viral instrumental versions. What do you think makes people get hooked to the song?
It’s truly an honour to know that my song has been so well-received. I really don’t understand many of these languages (the song is being rendered in), but it’s amazing to know that music truly speaks several languages, and without any barriers.”
At its heart, Manike Mage Hithe is a love song – a cover version of a Sinhala original. What inspired you to come out with your version, which has a teen-pop vibe to it?
The song was originally produced by Chamath Sangeeth and sung by Satheeshan Rathnayaka. It has lyrics by Dulan ARX, who is also a rap artiste. Chamath and I have known each other for a long time. He helped me during the early stages of my career. It happened that during the Covid lockdown, I recorded a piano version of Manike Mage Hithe in my home studio and put it up on TikTok.
Chamath happened to watch it. He then called me up and said, ‘Let’s do an official cover of this song with the original singer’. The next day, I landed at his studio only to realise that he had brought in an entire video crew as well. At this point, we hadn’t even worked on a basic track for the (song) recording. However, he had already done a track and asked me to sing on it, and that is how this version of Manike Mage Hithe came into being.”
The song has now received over 176 million views on YouTube and the number is rising by the day. To what would you attribute the success of the number?
Honestly, I have no idea. We did this project for fun. We never had any strategy nor a marketing plan (to promote the song) for it.
ON BOLLYWOOD/PERFORMING IN INDIA:
We heard that you’re a huge Bollywood fan. How does it feel coming to India and getting all this adulation, especially from some of the biggest stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Salman Khan, and Madhuri Dixit; Tiger Shroff even danced to your song?
I still don’t know how to comprehend all of this. It feels like a dream. I hope that they will continue to listen to my music.
Did you enjoy performing in India with your band Lunu?
Both the concerts (Gurugram, Hyderabad) that I performed in India were very successful. The biggest surprise for me was seeing the crowd responding to Sinhala songs. I am grateful that the audience appreciated my music despite the language barrier. I want to give special thanks to my band Lunu for having my back. They have been there right from the beginning.
Is it true you’re a huge fan of A.R. Rahman? Have you reached out to him for any collaborations yet?
Yes, I am a huge fan of Rahman. It will be a great honour for me to work with him. I have tried to reach out to him (for a collaboration) but no luck as yet. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, that I will get an opportunity to work with him in the future.
ON HER MUSIC:
Your music incorporates folk influences, which seems to be the main hook in your hit song. Is that the reason the song attracted so many music lovers?
Actually, I am influenced by many genres of music and a variety of artistes. I try to incorporate all of that and my experiences into my music, and I always collaborate with the producers I work with. I really can’t put a finger on what worked best (in the song). But I try to do my best in every song. It’s not like I have a method or a theory (to compose music). I just lock myself in the studio, try out different instruments, and different combinations. That’s it.
Rapping was not common in Sri Lankan pop music until you found a way to bring it to the fore and earning the title ‘Rap Princess of Sri Lanka’. Tell us about that?
There was rapping earlier, but a female artist rapping was something new in the Sri Lankan music scene. I started doing rap covers because I simply enjoyed rapping. When I returned to Sri Lanka (from Australia) to pursue music, I worked with several producers and artistes and learnt a lot from them. I’m still learning and trying to do my best every time.
If given a chance to perform with an international artist, who would it be?
A dream scenario would be a collaboration with either Eminem or Kanye West.
A Hindi version of your hit track (Manike Mage Hithe) is being composed by Tanishk Bagchi for the Ajay Devgn starrer, Thank God. What else are you working on?
Right now, I’m focusing on releasing my debut album. I hope people will like it. Of course, I want to continue making music and performing.
ON HER EARLY DAYS:
How did music happen for you? When did you have that light-bulb moment that led you to take up music as a career?
After completing my master’s in professional accounting in Melbourne, Australia, I had two choices – either to stay back and settle down or come back to Sri Lanka and start (life) all over again. Music was my passion even while I was studying there (Australia). I used to do cover songs whenever I got a break from studies. I finally decided to return to Sri Lanka, take up the challenge and pursue music as my future career.”
You’ve also lived and studied in London. Did the exposure abroad influence your music in any way?
A lot. I have been fortunate enough to meet inspirational people around the world. I think they pushed me to do something I love.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF YOHANI:
What’s a typical day for Yohani - practice, work, chilling out, watching movies or something else?
Usually, I start my day with a workout, then do voice training, and of course, get busy with recordings and practising with my band. Chilling out hasn’t been a part of my daily routine for a long time now. But I try to take a break during the week, after every third day, when I play sports or go diving (Yohani was a celebrated swimmer and water polo player in school).
How has life changed for you after achieving fame? Do you get mobbed outdoors?
I’m really finding it difficult to adjust to it (fame). People recognise me everywhere, but I always talk to everyone I meet and be friendly (with them). I’m humbled and grateful (for the success).
What keeps you humble, even after achieving stardom?
I must mention that I didn’t get into music for fame. I wanted to do it because I love music. I’m true to the music. It’s humbling to see people embracing my music. But I must say that I have a lot more to learn and that I’m learning something new every single day. I don’t think any amount of fame will change who I am. I said this when I released my debut single (Aaye), too.
Finally, any advice for budding YouTube performers?
Do what you love. Do not listen to anyone who tells you otherwise. Teamwork is very important. It’s (making music videos) not something you can do alone.
About Manike Mage Hithe
Manike Mage Hithe is a Sinhala romantic track sung by a man to a woman that expresses his admiration of her. The original was performed in 2020 by Satheeshan Rathnayaka, who also features in Yohani’s cover version that was released in May 2021 and went viral in three months. The song was produced by Chamath Sangeeth during the Covid lockdown in Sri Lanka. The song has appeared on TikTok and Instagram Reels. The number has versions in several South Asian languages, but the Tamil and Malayalam versions have been done by Yohani.
Yohani will be performing on December 2 at the Trade Centre Arena. Book tickets through Platinumlist App.
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