Sunday, 31 October 2010


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Kaffirinha - the spurned folk art

Baila and kaffirinha are forms of dance and music that conceptually interlink and are often seen to be treated with implied condemnation by the music elite. It is totally unsafe to mistake baila and the kaffirinha for a specific variety of fast rhythm songs because baila is a type of dance and kaffirinha is the music that is attuned to the rhythm of that dancing.

It is well within the realm of possibility that baila and Kaffirinha are forms of folk dance and music jointly created by Portuguese and the cafre (Kapiri or Negroes) in Sri Lanka - a peculiar type of folk music that enjoys a widespread popularity in certain areas in Sri Lanka. The label of kaffirinha refers to a specific variety of music played by men few decades previously in the city of Colombo and the outlying regions to the accompaniment of violin, banjo guitar, viola, flat drum (rabana), maracas and Spanish guitar. This term that had earned high popularity some time ago, has now become almost outmoded and obsolescent because the word baila has come to replace it grabbing its original meaning. Kaffirinha, which traces its origin to Portuguese times, still remains among small groups of people as a distinctive musical genre particularly in Trincomalee, Puttalam, Negombo, Batticaloa, Chilaw, Puliankulam, Galle, Wahakotte and Thambowagama.

A unique genre

The Sinhala Vishwakoshaya flatly defines the fusion of Kaffirinha and baila as a type of fast musical dance that stimulates intoxicated men and women in dance. The music and rhythm are well adjusted to the dancers’ free movements, steps and gestures. It is possibly better to say that these songs become ‘electrifying’ to the dancers with plenty of twists of rhythm to keep the dancers on patterned succession of steps to the last. This is to say that the lyrics, tune and rhythm of these songs are imbued with a consciously youthful tone and a measure of sly humour in certain points. The word Kaffirinha is made by adding ‘Cafre’ (a Portuguese derivation meaning negroes) to ‘inha’ to denote a type of music that is played in excellent accompaniment of baila dance which is unsoundly understood to be a type of fast rhythm of songs. After the exodus of the Portuguese, Kafirs and Sinhalese brought the Kaffirinha through oral tradition by the name of baila composed in a combined language of Sinhala and Portuguese! Most often, the language of Kaffirinha and baila is far less charged with literary meaning as the composers’ overriding concern has been to keep strictly to the rhythm, melody and beat.

Kafirs in Sri Lanka

The Kafirs were bought and employed as slaves, hired labourers or soldiers by Portuguese in Sri Lanka and, there were about 300 Kafirs in the country at that time. The anthropologists identify Kafirs who belong to the ethnic group of Negros of Africa as a popular tribe. Under Portuguese and Dutch, they enjoyed a comfortable life and engaged in minor occupations such as fanning government officials, cleaning, cutting roads, or as watchman.

They are exceptional in their praiseworthy capacity to mingle well with Sri Lankan communities and the marked tendency of nonintervention in the cultural and political affairs of the country.

They were successful in merging into Sri Lankan surroundings and they worked for the welfare of their limited community with strikingly peculiar character traits.

They were widespread in slums in Trincomalee, Rajagiriya, Slave Island (Kompanya - a Portuguese derivation), Mihintale, Ritigala and Beli Atta during the dark epoch of World War the second. It is said that by 1807, there was an army of 700 Negros (Kapiri) under English in Colombo.

The birth certificate of a Kafir indicates him as a Ceylon Kafir in ethnicity and Roman Catholic in religion. They could speak in Sinhala and educate themselves in Sinhala or Tamil medium but they speak fragmented Portuguese. Fun and frolic is the intrinsic passion for most of the Kafirs from the child to the old man and at least a broken raban drum or a similar instrument can easily be found in their slums.

They display a fine sense of fun and humour whenever they get together at their own functions and virtually most Kafir youth have a collection of Portuguese Kaffirinha songs. Typically they prepare themselves for such parties at the darker stage of twilight with a large bonfire, oil lamps and reed bags full of sweets and savoury food.

Playing a cock against the other (a cock fight) is an inevitable item amidst music and dancing while some spectators savour drinks and food in the moon lit night. Some popular Kaffirinha songs they sing are ‘Tirano tinano’, ‘Nigrimba bassoe de mangera’, ‘Jua se manjua’, ‘Thera isthi thera’, ‘Singali nona’, ‘Arabi chayaka lore’ and so forth.

The kafirs particularly in Puttalam view Baila and Kaffirinha tradition to be as intertwined with wedding ceremonies as wine and cake are. On the east coast of Batticaloa live Sri Lankan Burghers, the other group of inheritors of Baila and Kaffirinha and the descendants from Portuguese.

Wedding ceremonies and birthday functions are the ideal occasions where Burghers sing Kaffirinha and later sing Bailas they have heard on radio or TV. Tamil Bailas too are there. Most of Kaffirinha and Baila in Batticaloa bear the marks of recent composition and some are instantly suggestive of melodies of old English favourites. In other instances, they glorify Batticaloa by the song ‘Thara isthi thara’ which is vaguely suggestive of the melody of M. S. Fernando’s ‘Rasa ahara kawala’ while the melody of “We miga amortha baila” resembles that of “Mee wadayaki jeewithe” by C. T. Fernando.

Sri Lankan maestros

B. S. Perera, a one time director of SLBC orchestra, composed novel Baila tunes for the first time to be popularly influential in the years to come. Subsequently the late Olynton Mervin Bastyan (Wally Bastian) introduced some memorable Baila compositions and gave a new colour to the modern trend of Baila tradition in Sri Lanka. He was an expert guitarist and a top class Baila artiste who notably gained influence over the successive generation of Baila singers.

His melodies reflect the impact of English melodies on him but he managed to preserve the overall identity of Bailas and provided a creative precedent for later Baila artists to follow. His memorable hits include ‘Eirin josephin’, Nona mage nurse nona’, ‘Yaman bando’ ‘Nondi simayya,’ ‘Muhude yamu masun maranna’ etc. While in police service, he seems to have been adequately inspired by the western melodies played in the March Past and has attractively used them in his own tunes. He sang on varied themes and his lyrics exhibit a queer linguistic combination of colloquial English and Sinhala.

A certain level of inspiration from Kaffirinha style remains explicit in some creations of eminent musicians like W.D. Amaradeva. This influence is noticeable in his film songs Pipi pipi renu natana and Malin male renu ura’ etc. Other classic examples of Kaffirinha influence over film songs are ‘Tharuna sithata mihira’ by Premasiri Khemadasa (Senasuma Kothanada), ‘Puruthugisi Karaya’ by Sunil Santha (Sandeshaya). ‘Avilla avilla Sinhala avurudda’ by M.K. Roksami (Deewarayo) ‘Wella simbina rella’ (same).

Another prominent virtuoso in the Baila and Kaffirinha style is M.S. Fernando who popularised the style to a greater extent and won the title of ‘Baila (Kaffirinha) maestro.’ Elien Soiza, Anton Johns, Dhanapala Udawaththa, Walter Fernando, P.L.A. Somapala, Saman de Silva and many others were the foremost Sri Lankan vocalists who sang Kaffirinha (Baila) songs and other songs which had elements immensely bore from the style of Kaffirinha.

Simply because the style of Kaffirinha and Baila tradition originated from Kaffirs in slavery and Portuguese soldiers, it has failed to match up to the expectations by elite masses of music. Consequently the lyrical tradition of Kaffirinha and Baila has not evolved as a literary style and its tempo was limited only to the 6/8 beat that gave it a shade of monotony.

It is simply spurned as a style of folk music. What adds to the general condemnation of this music genre is its trend to be confined to parties or festivities and to be used by men and women dancing on intoxication.

At that, it is distressing to conclude that no adequate research has been conducted into the positive aspects of this old but unique style of music. Yet an eminent scholar, Prof. Sunil Ariyarathne successfully coped with the mammoth challenge of exploring wider aspects of this music style a few years previously.

The singers as he points out do not take responsible measures to improve the quality of their compositions and proceed with the developed quality of the style to have a powerful impact on the music lovers.

That is precisely why the authorities of television channels and radio stations adopt a lethargic policy of broadcasting Kaffirinha songs. As Prof. Sunil Ariyaratne points out, a better literary quality should be injected to the lyrical structure of Kaffirinha.

“Mara nuthen fundu - minya veeda parthira

Roova nuthan laagu - minya morthe parleva

Amor ja fala - minya juntu to mure

jambaya pau resa - ela larga ja kure

Penthiya Kabelu - none mara konde grandi

Asethi noothen falo - loda minya sangi”

“The sea is not deep enough to sustain my life. The road is not wide enough to take my dead body along. I told my lovergirl to live forever with me. But she fled away before my poverty. O’lady comb your hair nicely....”

Source: Sinhala Vishwakoshaya


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