How does one capture the essence of music in writing? Especially a toe-tapping, get-up-and-dance kind of music like Baila? Inspired by listening to some of the best loved Baila songs that are still available on CD, I set out to find out what this rhythmic music is all about.
But first, let me try and describe Baila. It’s also sometimes referred to by its “6/8” time. It’s a style of music that is fast paced and meant for dancing. It is a simple, repetitive beat. The music is often accompanied by songs full of meaning and which often tell a story, whether a love ballad, a humorous slant on Sri Lankan life, or satire.
Baila was developed into a music form by Sri Lanka’s Kaffir community. The Kaffirs trace their ancestry to Portuguese traders and soldiers and African slaves who intermarried with the local Sinhalese. Theirs is an oral history, and the stories of their forefathers are passed on through generations in the form of stories as well as songs. Originally, the Kaffirs had two forms of music – the “Chicote” and the “Kaffrinha.” Chicote is a slower, more ballad-like form of singing while Kaffrinha was the predecessor to Baila, with its fast pace and a style of dancing that is reminiscent of the Spanish flamenco or Caribbean calypso. With time the Kaffrinha style was also loosely called ‘Baila’.
The Kaffirs loved to spend their evenings in singing, music and dance. And just like the Blues in USA and Reggae in the Caribbean, Baila came to be born in the homes of the Kaffirs. The lyrics were often in the Portuguese Creole spoken by the Kaffirs. Traditionally there were only four instruments accompanying the singer – a guitar, a mandolin (banderinha), a single-headed frame drum (rabana), a triangle or rumba shaker and sometimes a fifth instrument, a violin (or a viaule, a 13-string instrument) would join the ensemble. Baila was little known outside the Kaffir community until the 1960’s when Wally Bastian, a traffic policeman who also played in the Police marching band, started popularising it in his personal performances. He composed Baila songs with Sinhalese lyrics and he introduced a chorus-format. Within a few years he was joined by two other singers – M. S. Fernando and Maxwell Mendis, who began performing Baila at public events and functions. Tamil Baila was made popular by singers like Nithi Kanagaratnam. With the development of Radio Ceylon, Baila took to the airwaves and the catchy tunes and often-humorous lyrics were soon on everyone’s lips. And the classic songs from this golden era of Baila, are still played and enjoyed at parties today, proving the timelessness of many early Baila songs.
No cricket match in Sri Lanka would be complete without a “papare band”. The only difference to the usual Baila music is the inclusion of one or more trumpets, which increase the noise level and make it more effective at a loud cricket match. These hired musicians play upbeat, catchy Baila tunes and keep the audience engaged and motivated throughout the match. These papare bands are unique to Sri Lanka, and especially Sri Lankan cricket.
Baila and dance go hand in hand. The traditional dance to Baila music was the “Kaffrinha” where women wore flamenco-styled long, layered skirts and frilly blouses, topped off with a wide brimmed hat or scarves. The men wore creased black pants, and shirts with puffed sleeves gathered at the wrist. The costumes were colourful and bright, and the dance steps simple and quick.
Baila has been adapted to contemporary times and has remained the country’s favourite party music. There’s an unwritten rule in Sri Lankan society that the party only really starts when the Baila music starts to play. You will see young and old start to dance when Baila is played, with often the dancers adapting Kaffrinha dance steps with a modern twist. The mandolin, rabana and violin have been replaced with drums, octopads, electric guitars and keyboards
Whatever the contemporary twists and modern takes, Baila has retained its pure form of music. It’s a simple style of music, uncomplicated and uncluttered with a simple, repetitive beat. It’s a music that celebrates life, with all its quirks, its ups and downs, its bittersweet moments and its euphoric memories. And its message is simple – “don’t worry, laugh, dance and be happy”. And so, when you hear the Baila music start to play anywhere in Sri Lanka, you can be sure the dancing will soon begin.