The Sri Lankan Kaffrinha as Embodiment of African-Asian Hybridity

Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya, providing an Abstract of her article  Africa in South Asia: Hybridity in Sri Lankan Kaffrinha”

As public spaces become arenas to display cultural memories, Afro-descendants in South Asia become more visible. Emerging local histories further complement the trajectories of Africans and facilitate recognition of Afro-descendants.  In my paper “Africa in South Asia: hybridity in Sri Lankan Kaffrinha” published in South Asian History and Culture (2020).  I explore connections between Africa and Asia through a genre of music and dance called kaffrinha which enriched the colonial Sri Lankan culturescape and, continues in the postcolonial. In the absence of historical records of kaffrinha for centuries, I have explored alternative narratives – song texts, music scores, dance movements, paintings and frescoes in order to map the dynamics of kaffrinha.

Kaffrinha, a Portuguese legacy, is not limited to those who claim Portuguese descent.  African input to kaffrinha is evident through its etymology – kaffir (from the Arabic word qafr which the Portuguese adopted as cafre and which the Dutch adopted as kaffer and the British as kaffir).  Sources available from the nineteenth century reveal the context of kaffrinha; kaffrinha was a social danceArrangements of kaffrinha music in the early twentieth century by the Rodrigo brothers, Norbert and Vincent, contain well  known tunes that have survived to-date such as Singale Nona which I learnt from my aunts and uncles who danced the kaffrinha to this song, at the finale of every party they attended during their youth.  Music scores survived amongst Sri Lankans who embraced an urban modernity.  Amongst the Portuguese Burghers, those who claim Portuguese ancestry, kaffrinha is a necessary part of the marriage ceremony.  Kaffrinha’s entertainment quality is exploited within the theatrical performances of the Nadagama.

Scores of kaffrinha published by Charles Matthew Fernando (1894), in his paper “The Music of Ceylon”,  also reveal African links evident through the titles of songs such as Viltao de Mazambicu (‘Villain of Mozambique’) and Zulu Baba (‘Zulu father’).  Cross rhythms and syncopations, characteristically found in African music, can be established through music scores.  Nineteenth century manuscripts illustrate that kaffrinhas were sung in Sri Lanka Portuguese, the lingua franca for most of the island’s colonial era, which has, against all odds, survived to-date.  The vivid narrative describing kaffrinha musicians and dancing by Carl Muller, in his Jam Fruit Tree contrasts with that of Alex Van Arkadie’s personal account where a Burgher couple with blackened faces and wearing white gloves entertained Burghers in Colombo, Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Galle, Kandy and Jaffna.  Deva Suryasena (1948) in the Pageant of Lanka to celebrate Independence of Ceylon (1948), wrote that the kaffrinha was danced by the Portuguese mercenaries, some of whom were Africans.  Suryasena adds that Sinhala words were immediately put to the kaffrinha melodies and that the kaffrinha was danced with gusto.  Extemporising was a popular art; Sinhala words for the kaffrinha Singale Nona (‘Sinhalese lady’) illustrate:

Yaman Selō Yaman Selō

Pēra Kadanne

Pēra motade jumbo hondai

Dōsi damanne

which means ‘Let’s go to pluck pears, Selo, Why do you need pears? Roseapples are good to make sweets’.

Kaffrinha was also danced by British soldiers in military camps in Ceylon, as the island was called by the British.  Whilst the various contexts of the kaffrinha remain to be explored through further research, the Africanness of kaffrinha is clear.  It is important to note, however, that kaffrinha is not manha, performed by the Afro-Sri Lankan communities in Sirambiyadiya and Kalpitiya.

Kaffrinha is also associated with another genre of music and song called chorus baila. The composer of chorus baila, Mervin Ollington Bastianz, I argue was inspired by kaffrinha and vada baila (debate songs or challenge songs) of which he was the superstar.  Unsurprisingly, the rhythms associated with Africa were thereby transmitted to chorus baila, a genre of music that became popular in postcoloniality.

The African contribution to the Sri Lankan culturescape and social life is played out through music and dance genres.  Narratives on kaffrinha also enrich our understanding of cultural heritage.  Diverse contexts and representations of kaffrinha are evident through the sources, indicating that kaffrinha has evolved in various ways over the centuries.

Shihan De Silva Jayasuriya

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One response to “The Sri Lankan Kaffrinha as Embodiment of African-Asian Hybridity

  1. Sanath jayatilaka

    With the 1st lecture of Mrs. Jayasuriya on the African migrants at the ICES I followed her to the German Cultural Centre and attended almost all her lectures. I recall a very enjoyable evening at the ICES where the troop performed.

    As usual I questioned her about the black BurgHers as I had lived with a family that had both colours. I questioned her about the colony at Bakkiela in the Ampara District.
    I asked her what we were not taught this part of Ceylon’s History. She inquired as to which school I attended and when I confessed she said Ceylon’s History has been written by Catholics and had I attended St Josephs like her husband I would know all this.
    A Local troupe had been taken to USA and soon after the performance a Black American had walked up and inquired whether they were from Mozambique. and he was thrilled to hear his native music.
    Hence these Africans were from Mozambique and the baila which we all thought was a Burgher contribution is wrong. Sri Lankans improved on it as we gave done to so many contributions made by “Invaders”. Ex. buriyani, hoppers, string hoppers, pittu, koththu, brooder, lumpfrai etc.

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