Podcast Episode 1 - Prasanna Puwanarajah on 'Freedom Come All Ye'

Prasanna Puwanarajah is an actor, writer, playwright and director for film and theatre. 

His story is about how a Scots folk song called 'Freedom Come All Ye', (performed by Karine Polwart) gave him the sense of belonging he had been yearning for his whole life. 

Here's a transcript of Prasanna's story:

"Hi everyone, can you hear me alright?

I sort of know the feeling about the homework of this, what are you going to bring in, in show and tell. But the thing that surprised me most about the starting point was how quickly I knew what I wanted to share with you. And in to my head straight away came - surprisingly - a Scots song, by the poet,  intellectual, activist and songwriter, Hamish Henderson, which is called 'Freedom Come All Ye' and it was written in 1960. I know that's probably a bit of a surprise. 

The version of the song that I want to share with you is sung a cappella by Karine Polwart in the Italian Chapel in Lamb Holm in Orkney, and was recorded by Andy Crabb as part of Cape Farewell's Sea Change project, in which artists of all denominations explored the landscape and history and art of Orkney. And I heard this recording for the first time last year around the time of the Scottish Independence Referendum, when it was shared by a friend, and it went through me like a cold wind. I want to tell you a little bit about that, and then we can hear the song. 

As you can probably tell from my name, I am Sri-Lankan Tamil East Anglian, South coast English - which, on the census, falls under 'Any Other Asian, Please Describe'. I've being trying to describe it my whole life, with varying success.  

But following the coverage of the referendum from the relative distance of England, I found myself  feeling a desire, a yearning again to explore and fill that gap in me. Because, whereas I'd never known how to describe myself - even to myself - here, on my TV, were brown people saying 'I'm Scottish'. Brown people, being Scottish. Not Scottish/Asian. And rejoicing in that. In that, being them. And I felt so jealous of them I cannot tell you. And I've never seen anything like it. 

My name is a slayer of primary school register takers. Someone recently said, 'Ah yes, once you hear the name Prasanna 'Pu-Wan-Jar-Ah', you never forget it'. 

So what I remember was being bullied on the way home from secondary school for wearing an England football shirt.

So NOT English.

Not English/Asian.

Not really Asian. Not British Asian.

Just me. 

And given that for me, identity is an act of community and plurality as much as it's about the self, 'Just me' was far too small a group. It's an insignificant, nervous, nation of one. 

My friend, the actor and poet/musician Riz Ahmed, is so much more eloquent than I am on this subject, so I'm going to nick some words from him to try and articulate the disconnect in me when I tell you that I've looked in the mirror my whole life -  I don't mean I've looked in the mirror my WHOLE life, I mean... But I've seen not a man, but I've seen a brown man. 

"Here we are", says Riz, "the bastard children of modern Britain. You're not quite fully accepted into the family, into the nation's self-image. There's a heartbreak around that feeling, an anger. It's similar to feeling like a jilted lover - you have a right to be in the room, to partake, but by dint of your birth, you're excluded. You're not considered to be the proper thing."

That's Riz. 

And he's right. And for me, being a brown boy, who used to wish that he was white, who now feels quite a lot of guilt for feeling that, but hasn't quite replaced that guilt with anything complete; and whose owner ship of self feels like a shifting mosaic of colonisation from the outside and belligerence from within, I realise when I listen to Karine Polwart's version of this song, 'Freedom Come All Ye', that I had wanted so badly, and for so long, to be in the presence of something - anything - a song, a poem, a word, a view that would so completely and roundly speak for me, and to me, to my core, to every twist of my genome and self, and show me who I might be. 

And then along came this song, and it was sort of out of nowhere. 

Henderson himself described it as, "expressing my hopes for Scotland, and the survival of humanity on this beleaguered planet". And it is luminous, profound, quite unromantic. It speaks for Scotland as a nation, and for a nation of people from everywhere. It's about a country that is part of a Union that has a dark colonial past - a past that, outside of songs like this, we are not talking about. And we need to. Badly. 

What have we done to broken families in lands we've harried? What's been done to us? What have we been made to do? How do we reconcile? How do we hold anything to account? How do we mourn?  How do we self-determine? All questions about Sri Lanka as much as they are questions about Scotland - or about anywhere, in any time. 

But overarching everything, this song hopes for a better, war-less world, that it conjures up itself. And that world is equal, peace is everywhere. It belongs to everyone. 

And it's a world where the greatest act of self-determination is the freedom to love whoever you love. To be whoever you are. 

And it talks, as my Mum does, of sharing food. So, Sri Lankan after all. 

So about a year ago I listened to this beautiful song, and wishing I was Scottish. Or more specifically, wishing I was part of anything so radiantly hopeful, with such a distinct local habitation that still reflected the weird black and white of every past and future. And this song was a window into a feeling that I'd yearned for my whole life. As I suspect have many, if not all of you, in this room. 

And as Riz says, I think it's a feeling that is like love. 

I listen to this song regularly, and it returns me to that feeling. And I think it's the  feeling of not being jilted - or being not-jilted. 

So Karine sang this in a chapel, that I've been to, that I've stood in, on Lamb Holm in Orkney. The winds that you will hear before her gorgeous, timeless, beautiful, exposed performance, are the same Orkadian winds that this brown boy has felt on his skin. 

My mum comes from a breezy island off the coast of Sri Lanka. So I think that there's more that connects us, than divides us. If we hope for that to be true."

The story was recorded at Wilton's Music Hall on May 20th 2016. 

On the good chance that you don't understand Scots, here's an English translation of the song:

It's a rough wind in the clear day's dawning
Blows the clouds head-over-heels across the bay
But there's more than a rough wind blowing
Through the Great Glen of the world today

It's a thought that would make our rodents,
All those rogues who strut and swagger,
Take the road and seek other pastures
To carry out their wicked schemes

No more will our fine young men
March to war at the behest of jingoists and imperialists
Nor will young children from mining communities and rural hamlets
Mourn the ships sailing off down the River Clyde

Broken families in lands we've helped to oppress
will never again have reason to curse the sound of advancing Scots
Black and white, united in friendship and marriage,
Will result in the military garrisons being adandoned and empty

So come all you who love freedom
Pay no attention to the prophets of doom
In your house all the children of Adam
Will be welcomed with food, drink and hospitality

When the spirit of John MacLean returns to his people
All the flowers will blossom
And black Africa will bring crashing down
All Imperialism's dreadful apparatus of oppression

Hamish Hamilton (1960)