Meet M Samuel Abeysekera, a music composer who thrives on the Christmas motif and composes at least two new songs every Christmas
For five years in the mid-1950s, M Samuel Abeysekera played the piano in the worship services twice a week at Madras Christian College, where he studied. He was the accompanist for the John Millns Singers and the John Millns Chorale, led by the late Jabez Janagaraj, for four decades. The Tamil Nadu Government Staff Choir and Secretariat Fellowship Choir also enjoyed his services at the pipe organ and piano in St Mary’s Church, Fort St George, for decades until he retired as a Joint Secretary to the State Government of Tamil Nadu.
To crown it all, Abeysekera, 82, has been the organist and choir director of the CSI Wesley English Church, St Thomas Mount, for the last 64 years. To quote John Fredric, a noted bass, “I think Abey uncle holds the record for the longest serving choirmaster in Chennai. I deeply admire his love and passion for church music.”
This octogenarian musician is a byword in Tamil Christian homes across the globe, as the founder-director of The Three Chords, the famed gospel trio of the seventies and eighties. The composer, pianist and choir conductor is an epitome of humility and has a good wit to boot.
His father, late Rev James Muthiah, was the presbyter at the Tamil Wesley Church in Royapettah in the 1940s when Abeysekera began as an eight-year-old boy soprano. He had the opportunity to play the piano in Wesley School, but when its headmaster locked it up, Rev Muthiah purchased the piano for his son. Though nearly 70 years ago, Abeysekera still remembers the day, “I was so excited, I brought my cot to the room where the piano was and went to sleep with my hand resting on it that night. I woke up at 5 am and began playing the keys until my mother came and shushed me.”
Though his father was keen he should play classical music, Abeysekera preferred the light variety. His first try was at the old Tamil hit, “Iyyahsaami, aavojisaami”! Once he joined the Secretariat, he found among his colleagues three like-minded gentlemen eager to sing Christian hymns and songs: Sam Rajkumar (melody), Reuben Theodore (tenor) and Jeyakumar Israel (bass). Thus was formed The Three Chords in 1970, with Abeysekera as composer-accompanist who wrote the songs, tuned and played them. In 1974, Sam was replaced by Edwin Paul. The trio was one of the first groups to sing Tamil gospel songs in harmony in Chennai.
Then Abeysekera thought he would try his hand at composition. He opened the Bible to Psalm 1 and out came ‘Dhunmaarkarodu pazhagaamalum’. Eventually, 10 beautiful songs emerged from the Psalms alone, including the popular ‘Maananadhuneerodai-yai’ and ‘Devan illai yendru madhikedan solluginraan’.
The present trio includes Sanjeev Mervyn, Ernest Sundar and Winston Isaac.
Bharati Paul, a well-known Tamil gospel singer, who has sung a few of Abeysekera’s compositions, calls him a born musician. Ebenezer Stephen, organist, Anbunathar Lutheran Church, Chennai, shares, “His prowess on the keys inspired me to think out of the box. As a church organist, I would always go strictly by score (notations), until I learnt from uncle that there’s a lot to experiment with music.”
Abeysekera released four cassettes of his original compositions in the 1980s and ‘90s. Recently, he has also released three CDs of his songs and two books of sheet music with the help of his daughter Hannah Lauvanya, son-in-law Felix Chandran and bass artiste, Winston Isaac. The sales proceeds of these items go to charity.
Christopher Sherwood, choir director, Madurai Choristers and The American College Choir, says, “I see him as a person who has qualified himself to be the recipient of such great melodies that cannot be produced by mere human effort.”
Never one to sit idle for a moment, even during the lockdown, the Mount Wesley English Church choir under his leadership has been releasing evergreen hits like ‘En Aathumavae nee’ and ‘Mannor Mozhiyil Paesinaalum’, online. His wife, daughter and son-in-law also sing in the same choir.As the world still reels under the pandemic, this Christmas season has become more meaningful than before. “ Christmas is a celebration of hope, joy, peace and love — everything that the world desperately needs this year. For a while it looked like the usual Christmas music scene will not be happening because of COVID-19, but thanks to technology, musicians have been able to put joy back into this festival. Just goes to show that nothing can beat the spirit of Christmas, not even a virus!” he concludes.