This story of a Sri Lankan drummer boy will tug at your heartstrings
When an LA rocker saw a video of a barefoot boy playing drums made of plastic bottles and tin cans, he vowed to find him…
Last February, a YouTube video touched the hearts of thousands. It showed a young boy, barefoot in blue shorts, playing drums outside a basic brick hut in a clearly hot, but unknown, country.
His kit was obviously home-made, constructed from old tin cans, plastic bottles and scaffolding poles, with random scraps of wood and sticks for pedals. Yet what made the clip so memorable wasn’t so much the makeshift equipment, but the huge passion and talent of the child, whose name, age and background were all a mystery.
The post went viral, quickly attracting more than 30,000 views. Soon it was spotted by Richard Danielson, drummer with the LA-based rock band Vintage Trouble, who promised to give the boy a professional Gretsch Catalina drum kit worth £600, if only he could be found.
“[The video] reminded me of myself when I was young,” he says. “I wanted drums so bad that I made a kit out of big steel 50-gallon drums and old bottles, and what have you, much like this kid, but nowhere near as elaborate. Thing is, this kid really has got some impassioned innate ability. It’s my true feeling that he was born to play the drums.”
Inspired, one fan, David Tradewell, 43, a digital marketing consultant from Brighton, based in New York, set about tracking down the mystery boy. “I thought social media is used for so much nonsense, usually involving selling s— and posting selfies, so for a change let’s turn it into a force for good,” he says.
Months passed before Tradewell traced the video’s original poster, Gayan Nishanta, a man in his 20s living in a remote village near Galle in southern Sri Lanka, an area still recovering from years of civil war and the 2004 tsunami.
He spoke barely any English, so a local fixer was engaged who discovered that the child was nine-year-old Wanni Pura Thushan Anushka Dulanjana, known as Anushka, living a few miles away with his father, a cinnamon farmer, and 14-year-old brother, while his mother, who worked in Qatar as a maid, hadn’t seen her son for two years. “When I found that out, I knew we had to make this happen,” Tradewell says.
Having appealed for donations to cover travel, on January 5, Tradewell left his wife and baby son at home to fly with the drum kit to the Sri Lankan capital Colombo. “In Sri Lanka, items have a habit of getting ‘lost’ in transit, so we couldn’t just ship it out there.”
From Colombo, it was a half-day journey down dirt tracks, via the local Buddhist temple where a monk gave their mission his blessing, to Anushka’s “dirt poor” village on a hill. (Its elevated status had helped it to escape the Boxing Day tsunami.)
“So many people thought I was crazy to take on this assignment, so as we drew close I felt almost drunk with excitement,” Tradewell says. He had decided not to warn the family, who spoke no English, that he was coming, in case of mishaps, so when he pulled up, they were “completely perplexed”.
“Through our translator we explained to Anushka that we’d come from the US, because we’d seen him drumming on the internet, and had brought him a T‑shirt and a few CDs.
“But then we brought out the tom drum from the kit and he was confused. Next we showed him the snare and he said, ‘But this is not enough to do a drum solo.’ Cheesy as it sounds, I got him to talk through exactly what he would need, then I said, ‘Ah, yes, but I also brought you this,’ and we set up the kit.”
Still stunned, but smiling irrepressibly, Anushka started playing, with his whole extended family gathering to listen. “It took him about 15 minutes to adapt to the new kit, but then he was knocking out rock ’n’ roll rhythms,” Tradewell says. As they left, Anushka’s father kissed Tradewell’s hand saying he wished he knew more English, to thank him properly. “It was a bit weird and very emotional. As we drove off, we could still hear Anushka drumming.”
To Tradewell’s surprise, the kit in the video turned out to have been made by Anushka when he was only six. “It was so sophisticated, I assumed he’d had help from his dad.” Tradewell was especially impressed by the hi‑hat, or cymbal, “ingeniously” made from an old tyre and wood, rather than aluminium.
Drumming has been part of Sri Lankan village life for centuries. Drums are used to mark every occasion from births to deaths, for Buddhist ceremonies and to communicate between villages. “Although it was hard to talk to Anushka, I’m sure this is where he found his inspiration,” says Tradewell.
Figures show that about 6.4 per cent of Sri Lanka’s 20 million people live below the poverty line, and 90 per cent live in rural areas. Boys like Anushka usually go into the armed forces or the police to escape their background. Few get any chance to explore any artistic talents.
“A few people criticised what I was doing as ‘white man’s burden behaviour’, the patronising colonial urge to interfere,” says Tradewell. “They said, ‘Anushka lives in a poor but proud and happy community, why disturb him by rocking up with a drum kit?’ But for me, it came down to the fact I will be able to afford to buy my son any instrument he wants when he grows up, but Anushka might never have the opportunity to fulfil his talent and his calling.”
Now back in the United States, Tradewell hopes to persuade corporate sponsors to donate more instruments for promising child musicians, not just in Sri Lanka, but in his adopted home, New York. “I’d love to take pianos to Afghanistan and guitars to deprived areas of Brooklyn,” he says. “Nothing moves people on an emotional and spiritual level like music.”