Dompe Ayah

The origins of baila, a popular dance-music genre of Sri Lanka, are steeped in the history of conquering nations, colonial powers and a rich tapestry of dance and music. On one hand, the genre is intimately linked to the British conquerors in South Africa battling the Boers, settlers of Dutch and German origin, while on the other, it is equally linked to the presence of the Muslim Moors in Spain (eventually seeping into Portugal) during the ninth century, when a dance form called bayle (pronounced bay-lay) evolved from Flamengo. Centuries later, bayle was to become the baila of Sri Lanka.

Veteran singer M S Fernando's son, who sings his father's songs, with an unidentified dancer.
Photo credit: J Weerasekera

According to Shelton Weeraratne, a veteran musician and the author of a recent book on Sinhala vocal harmonies, when the Portuguese and the British brought Boer prisoners to Ceylon during their respective periods as colonisers of the island, black South Africans came along as jailors. Eventually, communities of these jailers, known to the British as Kaffirs, settled in Puttalam, on the island's northwestern coast, and in the eastern town of Batticaloa.

In both of these areas, small communities of Kaffirs remain recognisable today, with tightly curled hair and dark features, even after generations of intermarrying with local Sinhalese or Tamils. Although the new-generation Kaffirs are often identified as Sinhalese, there are still around 1000 Kaffirs in Sri Lanka today. Because of their small number, they are politically inactive and are almost forgotten by the other communities. The Kaffirs of Sri Lanka are Catholics, and their 'traditional' language is Portuguese Creole. Their music remains heavily influenced by Portuguese and African forms, and many occasionally sing and dance what is known as kaffrinja, the most direct roots of today's baila.

The Kaffirs were, however, not the only new arrivals to marry local Tamils and Sinhalese. In another direct consequence of colonial rule, and of crucial importance to the popularisation of baila, marriages between European men and native Sri Lankan women gave birth to a whole new ethnic/demographic group called the Burghers. Today, the Burghers make up 0.72% of Sri Lanka's population and unlike Kaffirs, they have their own associations and welfare groups. However, in a country with a population of 20 million of which 75% are Sinhalese (mostly Buddhists), the Burghers, who are Catholics and active in church, are still a minority and are therefore, politically inactive. Socially, however, this ethnicity is known for having a lot of fun and merrymaking.

Even though the majority of Burghers are located in Colombo, there are around 20,000 Burghers in eastern districts of Trincomalee and Batticaloa. It is in the latter that the Burghers have the closest contact with the Kaffirs.

The connection between the Kaffirs and Batticaloa Burghers is essentially one formed through dances and songs, especially baila. During weddings in Batticaloa, the Kaffirs and Batticaloa Burghers sing and dance kaffrinja and baila. However, despite Batticaloa being the place where the Burghers have the closest contact with Kaffirs and thereby, Baila, Moratuwa is known as the cradle of baila as many of today's baila generation come from this suburb in Colombo.


A Kaffir woman creating baila sound with coconut shells.
Photo credit: J Weerasekera

The popular baila originated several decades ago as an offshoot of kaffrinja. In its original form, kaffrinja was an instrumental form consisting of a violin and clapping of hands, accompanied by dance movements. Members of the Kaffir community would sit on their verandas, playing and dancing, occasionally bringing in the rabbana, a traditional Sri Lankan drum, and coconut shells to form a beat. This form of music quickly gained a great degree of popularity across the country, particularly in the coastal villages, standing as a catchy counterpoint to the austerity of the India-rooted Sinhala classical music which was, at the time, the only widely available alternative. There were religious music of Buddhism and folk poems, popular and unique to members of different castes (farmers, cart drivers, miners, etc) as well, but these music were not as widely available.

During the 1960s, a police constable and music enthusiast named Wally Bastian – widely regarded as the godfather of baila – introduced lyrics to some kaffrinja tunes popular at the time. Soon thereafter, box guitars, conga and bongo drums, and percussive steel triangles began to be incorporated. Bastian was known to sit outside his office mess playing his guitar and singing songs such as 'Dompe Ayah' (a reference to a town in central Sri Lanka) and 'Nurse Nona', both of which went on to become baila hits. Indicative here is how both of these early songs utilised Portuguese words – ayah means maidservant, while nona means grandmother. Indeed, many baila songs continue to have a sprinkling of Portuguese, Spanish or Dutch references.

Veteran Sri Lankan emcee Vijaya Corea, who was instrumental in popularising many Sinhalese pop bands through his radio programmes inthe 60s and 70s, says that while baila has evolved in many ways, it is always played to what is called a '6-8' beat. It began with the violin and string instruments and moved on to the Spanish guitar, which groups of youngsters used to sing West Indian calypso songs backed by maracas.

Evolving out of and later, away from baila, the era of Sinhala pop began in 1967, with the advent of a band called the Moonstones from the central town of Ratnapura. This was a period dominated by the Beatles, electric guitars, keyboards and drum kits, all of which the Moonstones used to popularise a new form of baila music. According to Maxi Rozairo, a well-known Colombo singer, 'There were both the old and the new forms, with new bands performing different versions of the same songs, including new remixes by the younger generation of Sinhala pop bands.' By the 1970s, owing largely to the contributions of musicians M S Fernando and Maxwell Mendis, who by singing about people and their lifestyle and incorporating baila dance in on-stage performances, baila grew to become a recognised and a respected style of Sri Lankan popular music. In its evolved form as Sinhala pop, baila today dominates the recording industry and the radio waves. 

 Marians, a progressive and very popular Sinhala pop band which also plays a lot of baila.
Photo credit: J Weerasekera

At present, there are two types of Sri Lankan baila. The first is known as the chorus baila, the standard form where everyone sings the song and joins in. The second is waada baila, which is often a contest between several baila singers. In waada baila (waada is a Sinhala term meaning 'debate'), contestants are given topics by a judge and are asked to compose lyrics for a specific baila rhythm within a few minutes. Points are given based on the lyrics' meaningfulness and its delivery. A band (made up of guitars, a violinist, tabla and serapina organ) plays while two singers begin the competition. While one sings in favour of the topic, the other singsagainst it.

Today, this catchy music and easy, two-step dance form is a must-have at any party, dance or family gathering in Sri Lanka. Common wisdom has it that 'the best is kept for last' and the last segment of any party is the baila session. Some Sri Lankan baila artists, the majority of whom are Sinhalese, have remained superstars for decades, including M S Fernando, Desmond de Silva, Anton Jones, the legendary Clarence Wijewardene and Sunil Perera of the Gypsies band. In particular, Sunil and the Gypsies have created a new genre of baila music, with songs on the people of Sri Lanka, their problems and the foibles of politicians – some of which have gotten the band in trouble with the politicians.

Feizal Samath is a veteran journalist based in Colombo, who is also a part-time musician and loves writing about music.

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