The musical influence of the African Diaspora pop up in all sorts of places that you wouldn’t expect. Sri Lanka’s great pop music tradition from the 1940s through today is called baila, and it contains hints of the almost 500 year African presence on the island.
In our radio documentary “African Sounds of the Indian Subcontinent,” we explore the cultural flows that led to the creation of this surprising sound, through interviews with Afro-Sri Lanka expert Shihan de Silva. De Silva has written extensively on baila music and Indo-Portuguese creole languages (for example, here). Below is a YouTube-curated crash course in baila to learn more.
The Sri Lankan Kaffirs
Today, there are several small communities of African-descended people living in Sri Lanka, known as the kaffirs. Kaffir – coming from the Arab word for “unbeliever” – is a vicious slur in South Africa, but it’s not considered derogatory in Sri Lanka at all. It’s the word the communities themselves use to describe themselves.
The presence of Africans in Sri Lanka has been documented as far back as the 6th century, when Ethiopian traders are known to have stopped by the island. We know that people of African descent have been living in Sri Lanka since the early 16th century, brought as slaves by the Portuguese, who were the first of the island’s long list of European colonizers. The Dutch, the next colonizers to take control of the island, also brought Africans to the island. Finally, the British arrived in the 19th century, and are known to have brought free African soldiers to Sri Lanka to fight in its conquest of the Kandyan Kingdom, who had continued to control the interior of the country throughout the colonial period up until then. We know that the Kandyan army also employed descendents of runaway African slaves from previous waves of African immigration.
Over the centuries, the music of the many Africans who stepped foot on the island has filtered into the culture. The Kaffir community in Sirambiyadiya maintains a music tradition they call manha or manja, a polyrhythmic using voices and percussion. The songs are sung in Indo-Portuguese, the Portuguese-based creole language once spoken as a lingua franca on the island but mostly forgotten.
Kaffrinha: Afro-Portuguese Dance Music
Before there was baila, there was kaffrinha, a style of uptempo dance music connected to the Portuguese presence in Sri Lanka and played since the 19th century. The music’s connection to Africa is signaled first and foremost by the name: the word “kaffrinha” comes from the portguese use of “kaffir,” meaning “African” and the diminutive “-inha”, meaning “a little bit African,” suggesting that the music was a Portuguese take on African music played on the island.
The music is played with percussion and string instruments: violins, mandolins, banjos and guitars. It’s always in 6/8 time, with very syncopated, three-against-two beat, another suggestion of its roots in African music. One thing that hits you right away when you listen to it is that, apart from the Sinhala language, it has no obvious musical traits from South Asia: the harmonies and melodies are all based around the Western major scale.
This Kaffrinha is often associated with the so-called “Burgher” communities descended in part from Europeans, who continue to live on the coasts. This kaffrinha song, “Meegalu Maalu” by the Sri Lankans, was recorded in 1978, so it’s probably not what the music would have sounded like in the 1800s, but it gives a sense of what the music was about.
Wally Bastiansz: Birth of Baila
The father of baila music was Wally Bastiansz, a traffic warden from Colombo who was half Sinhala and half Dutch Burgher. Shihan de Silva, a baila researcher we spoke to in our program, says that there was a tradition where lower-class burghers would go to rich burghers households during holidays and dance kaffrinha music while dressed up as Africans, so Bastiansz probably had a lot of exposure to kaffrinha.
Wally created baila by giving kaffrinha a more lyrical style. His songs became massively popular on the island. Shihan de Silva told us she didn’t think it was a coincidence that the style emerged around the time of Sri Lankan independence.
“That’s the time when people want to throw away everything that’s Western but they realize that they can’t do that. Four hundred and fifty years of Westernization can’t be thrown away. So, you know, Wally Bastian comes up with mixing three elements: African, European and Sri Lankan. Something that’s palatable to the changed people because they can’t go back to what they were in the 15th century after their exposure.”
One of Wally’s most famous songs was “Irene Josephine.”
Baila’s Latin Tinge
As baila grew over the years, it continued to absorb all sorts of music from everywhere into it. In the late ‘60s and ‘70s Caribbean Calypso and various Latin American sounds became a major part of the sound. Paraguayan harp music, of all things, became a temporary sensation in Sri Lanka – allegedly brought over by a Paraguayan cargo ship that somehow ended up docking on the island. All of sudden there was a flurry of bands with names like Los Caballeros, Los Amigos, and Los Flamencos.
This ‘60s performance of the Mexican song “Chiquita Linda” on Sri Lanka’s Radio Ceylon, by Los Caballeros is a trip – there’s not too much baila in here, but worth listening to for the impressive Spanish pronunciation, despite being half-way across the world from the nearest Spanish speaking country.
MS Fernando: The Next Generation
After Wally Bastianz, the most recognizable name in baila is MS Fernando, who was big in baila in the ‘70s and ’80s. Influenced by rock and roll, Fernando and his contemporaries put lots of organs and surf-rock electric guitars in their baila. Fernando was also a major music star of the Sinhala film industry. The song below, “Menike Mama Aai Gedera Enawa” deviates a little bit from the baila formula, but gives a sense of what MS Fernando was up to.
Papare: Baila for Tailgating at Cricket Games
Show up at any cricket game in Sri Lanka, and you are sure to hear papare, the pump-up music played by fans on trumpets and snare drums. Often the melodies played on the trumpets come from baila music, and you can definitely hear that 6/8 baila beat in the drums.
The talented ladies in the video below aren’t Sri Lankan from what we gather, but perhaps it’s telling that African diaspora dancers are being connected to the music in this video.
The Modern Sound of Baila
Baila never stopped changing with technology over the years – today’s sound is filled with digital synthesizers and drum machines. The music has lost ground to newer genres like R&B and hip-hop, but continues to be played for weddings and parties around the country. The potential cheesiness factor in modern baila, mostly due to those digital synth patches, can be hard for the uninitiated to handle. But as this clip shows, the bands can really rock out live.