By Algi Wijewickrema
A few months back Sri Lanka’s first ever television station, ITN (Independent Television Network), concluded a competition among Sri Lanka’s schools, titled “Band the Band” (thankfully it wasn’t ban the band) and Holy Cross College, Grampaha were crowned champions. Not to be left out, St. Peter’s College, who were runners up also bagged the most popular band award.
Delving a little deeper into the history of school bands, the writer finds that St. Peter’s College band was the first school band that ever existed in Ceylon (as our country was then called). So I set out to find someone who could tell me about those early days of the Peterite band.
Hector Pietersz, a member of the original band and the second of the Peterite band leaders after Dodwell de Silva, was the genial Old Peterite I met and chatted with. Hector is a businessman in his own right distributing pet food and the leader in that segment of an industry not too well known. But more about that later.
It is usual for different people to remember different things about the same matter or event when trying to recall things but Hector recalled not only facts about the band but had a few anecdotes to relate and stories about schoolboy escapades. But let me first of all, give you the members of the band as Hector recalled and he has a remarkable memory for a person of his age.
Recalling the Rector at the time, Rev. Fr. Arthur Fernando – the 3rd Rector of St. Peter’s, Hector said that Fr. Arthur was the one who was responsible for singlehandedly creating a school band at a time when no band existed in any school in Ceylon. As Hector recalled Fr. Arthur had taken over the reins at St. Peter’s in 1956, a school that was only 34 years old at the time, but even in that short period had earned a reputation as a fine educational institute on par with schools much older.
Known as the Fife and Drum band of St. Peter’s College the newly formed band gained popularity so fast that it was invited and performed at the Independence Day celebrations in 1957. That was in addition to the many invitations received to lead march pasts at many a school sports meet, with details to come later.
Speaking about the Rector whose brainchild it was to have a band, Hector said that Fr. Arthur (whom the boys called ‘Billa’ – admittedly with no malice), had brought some instruments from England when he returned form a rare visit there. He also added that the Rector had had excellent relations with the Army, the result being some second-hand instruments donated to College by the army, notably the leopard skin that the base drummer wore. In fact, Hector recalled how ‘mace drills’ for the band leader were conducted at the Army Camp at Panagoda and how they were sent in the College van (a Volkswagen van driven by the late Juse), a rare treat for school boys as the van was almost exclusively used by the priests.
He recalled with genuine pride how in 1960 the Band had played in ceremonial garb, gauntlets and all, in the presence of the Army Commander at the time and the Governor General of Ceylon, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke.
Always ready with a story, Hector added “the white gauntlets were polished using ‘Blanco’ (a whitening compound) and when Sir Oliver shook hands offering his congratulations after the performance, he ended up having ‘Blanco’ on his hands”.
Speaking about playing at schools’ sports meets, Hector added with a twinkle in his eyes, the elation of the boys when invited to play at sports meets of Holy Family Convents (both Bambalapitiya and Dehiwela), Visaka Vidalaya and St. Bridget’s. Most of these sports meets were held at the College grounds he said. Hector related another of his little anecdotes here. After playing at the Visaka sports meet, Hector as the band leader, had received an envelope from the Principal of Visaka Vidyalaya and opening it later had had found a Rs.50/- note, a princely sum at the time. This windfall he had used for a ‘feed’ for the boys at the canteen including popsicles. Having heard of the gift from the Visaka Principal, Fr. Arthur had summoned Hector as the band leader, to his office the next morning. The conversation had gone as follows:
Fr. Arthur: “I say Hector, did you get an envelope from the Principal of Visaka?”
Hector: “Yes Father”
Fr. Arthur: “What was in it, I say?”
Hector: “Rs.50 Father”
Fr. Arthur: “Where is the money”
Hector: “We had a feed, Father”
Fr. Arthur: “I say, Hector, that money belongs to me.”
Hector: “Yes Father”
Fr. Arthur: “I say, Hector, you’re a rouge no men”
Hector: “Yes Father”
Fr. Arthur: “Don’t do this hereafter, men”
Hector: “Yes Father”
That, he said, was the end of the matter.
Speaking about band practices, he reminisced when seven of the band members including himself were sent to Rangala, Diyatalawa, during the period Commander Darley Ingleton was the Commander in charge of the Diyatalawa Camp. This was for training on Bagpipes, which Fr. Arthur had been offered by the Navy. The training was to be one week and a Scotsman, (Band Major) Close, was assigned the training of the boys. Hector said they had only seven lessons and practice sessions, and were only allowed training on the ‘chanter’ a training instrument and not on Bagpipes for as they were advised it would take 7 months and not 7 days to be trained on the Bagpipes. Fr. Marcelene Jayakody who had also gone to chaperon the boys had ended having a holiday at College expense said Hector and added “that ended Fr. Arthur’s dream of adding Bagpipes to the Peterite band”.
On one occasion, he proudly declared “our band was allowed to lead the Army cadet corps from the Diyatalawa railway station to the Army Camp there.
Coming back to practices, “on schooldays practice would begin at 3.00 p.m.” said Hector and said that after he had taken over the leadership of the band, he would proudly go around with a ‘chit’ signed by the Rector himself at 2.45 p.m. before the last period began, seeking the release of the ‘band boys’ and no teacher would refuse though they did so grudgingly.
On one such Friday, after a few minutes of band practices the boys had gone to the Savoy to watch “The Magnificent Seven”. This had come to the ears of some students and teachers and everyone had expected the band and its leader, Hector, to be publicly caned at the Monday morning assembly. But to the detractors’ disappointment no such thing happened. Immediately after assembly, Hector had been summoned by the Rector and the only question he had asked was if they had band practice on Friday evening and Hector had said “yes”. Though Hector suspected that Fr. Arthur knew that he was not saying the whole truth, he had said OK and let him go.
Speaking about the dedication with which they had to attend to practices and assignments Hector recalled an occasion when they were asked to be at College by 3 o’clock in the morning so they could be taken to the Fort station by 5.00 a.m. as they had to catch the train to Kandy. He said the boys who could not make it to College at three in the morning had slept on the bare cement floor of the College pavilion (there was only one pavilion that existed then and should not be confused with the brand-new pavilion opened recently).
Narrating stories is almost second nature to Hector and he related how a student his junior, Didacus de Almeida (later a famous ruggerites who represented College and then CR & FC and Ceylon) had been summoned by the Rector for some misdemeanour and had approached Hector for advice. Hector had suggested that he should say ‘yes’ to anything Fr. Rector says. On visiting the office, he had been questioned by the Rector pointing to the three front gates of College “I say Almeida, do you see the three gates there?” and Didacus had dutifully said “yes father”. The Rector’s response had been “choose which one to get out from, men”.
Speaking about Didacus de Almeida (Dida to everyone who knew him), Hector recalled another incident of how Dida had challenged the Peterite boxing captain, David Weldt for a fight. This was thought to be madness on the part of Dida as David was well known for his boxing skills. So, on the appointed day and time, after school, they had met in the quadrangle in the presence of a large number of students, all of whom loved a good fight, and David had asked Dida “are you ready”. Dida had answered “yes” and before anyone had realised what happened, had punched David so hard that David, the boxing captain, had been floored.
Hector claimed that the most memorable time of his life was at St. Peter’s but hastened to add that it was no holiday. His regular routine had started with boxing practice at 5.00 a.m. after which they were treated to a cup of ‘Oxo’ and raw carrots, band practice at 7.00 a.m., regular school at 8.45 a.m., band practice at 2.45 p.m. Some in the band, he said were athletes training under Mr. Van Twest the athletics coach while a few others were ruggerites training under Mr. Archibald Perera. Despite such a crowded schedule he said that they were dedicated to what had to be done and enjoyed doing what they did.
Hector recalled the carnival held at St. Peter’s College in 1961, the ‘Fun-O-Rama’. Here again it had been the Rector at the time, Fr. Arthur Fernando who had been the brains behind this mega effort. It was billed the carnival of carnivals in view of the features that were a novelty at the time. These features included Close Circuit TV, Fountains with coloured underwater lights, a model train exhibition, variety entertainment in the College Hall (which was seen outside through CCTV), etc. Hector’s recollection of the carnival of course had a personal reason and that was the formation of a quartet called the ‘Four Quavers’ to participate in a competition conducted at the carnival. Needless to say, he was a member of the foursome along with Dicky Delpachitra, Patrick Hingert and Buny Reimers and “we won the 1st prize” said Hector with obvious pride.
Reminiscing about the priests and teachers at the time, Hector was of the opinion that they were gentlemen of high calibre whom the boys respected even after leaving school. No doubt they were punished at times but bore no grudges. Speaking of how straight forward the Rector was in dealing with parental pressure, he spoke of an incident, where a parent had offered to buy cricket equipment for the team provided his son was appointed the band leader. Fr. Arthur had told the parent “I don’t mind you providing equipment for the cricket team but I can’t change my decision”.
Illustrating the close relationship between teacher and student, Hector recalled meeting Fr. Marceline in his old Morris Minor 20 years after leaving school and when Hector had said “Hello Father, do you remember me”, Fr. Marceline had said in Sinhala “Hector neda”?
Recalling an incident while at school, involving Fr. Marceline, he said that on one occasion at choir practice a boy had sung a wrong note and Fr. Marceline had quipped “I say I am composing and you fellows are decomposing, no”. Incidentally Fr. Marceline had been responsible for introducing Kandyan dancing to St. Peter’s under the renowned dancer Heen Baba and they had also performed for the ‘Fun-O-Rama’
After leaving school Hector who had been determined to learn to play the Bag Pipes had met Commander Darley Ingleton and joined the Navy. But instead of being assigned to the band, he had been assigned laboring duties. When told of this, his father who had been advised to purchase the discharge, attempted to pay the requisite Rs.500/-, a small fortune at the time, and apply for his release but that request had been refused and his mother had appealed to Fr. Arthur and a letter from him to the Navy Commander had done the trick.
On leaving the Navy after that very short attempt at being a Navy man, Hector had joined the Police Department and a few years later a well-known multi-national Company where he had served 25 years. He had then moved to Brighton in England and joined his BIL. While in UK he had seen a dog shampoo which he had been looking for in Ceylon and he had purchased it. Later on, back in Sri Lanka he had set up business to manufacture and market the shampoo and also another product “Brewer’s Yeast” a vitamin supplement for pets.
Not resting on his laurels as a successful businessman, Hector has recently forayed into the leisure sector. His six-room villa with a 9-hole putting green, off Ingiriya, is now gaining popularity and has been featured a few times in the press.
Hector had had two brothers at St. Peter’s, Louis and Royston (Poggy). He is married to Wendy who helps him run the business. Hector has two daughters and five grandchildren.
Lastly his advice to girls and boys involved in school bands is to avoid dance routines and related music and to concentrate on march music. He also advises that band members must follow the cue of the band leader.
Without taking away credit from the eventual winners, perhaps the Peterites would have won the ‘Band the Band’ contest had it been decided purely on the performances of the bands at marches instead performances on stage.
Hector ended the interview with his congratulations to the Peterite band.