B. MURALIDHAR REDDY
Two nights before the United States created history by voting in the first African-American to the most powerful office in the world, Sri Lanka’s national capital witnessed a unique and melodious spectacle: a live concert of music, and dance by a band known as Kaffirs, a 12-member troupe of Sri Lankans of African origin.
The Kaffirs, who have a fascinating history, are perfect example of continuity with change. Their complete assimilation into Sri Lankan society while retaining links with their roots is a tribute to the tenacity and adaptability of the human race.
Coming to the island
The Kaffirs came to Sri Lanka with the Portuguese, the first colonisers of the island nation in 15th century, as soldiers and labourers. They speak perfect Sinhalese and Tamil but have forgotten the language of their ancestors.
After centuries of assimilation, three characteristics continue to link them to their past: Roman Catholic faith, African music and curly hair. The Kaffirs originally spoke a form of Portuguese Creole. Today there are approximately 1,000 Kaffir descendants (200 families) in the Northwestern Province in Puttalam district and another 15 families live in the East, near Trincomalee and Batticaloa.
The November 2 concert was organised by an international NGO to showcase the amazing diversity of cultures in a country ravaged by conflict for over four decades. Concert coordinator Jesse Hardman, who works for Internews, an NGO that supports local media worldwide, told the audience that the event is an important reminder of “the importance of celebrating and supporting the amazing diversity in Sri Lanka and as a way to promote ethnic, religious and cultural understanding”.
The Kaffir’s past remains largely unknown and their oral history unrecorded. Barring an odd reference in scholarly works on the country’s colonial past, the Kaffirs rarely figure in the recorded history of the country.
Victor Ivan’s photo-essay Paradise in Tears: A Journey Through History and Conflict — a treasury of 442 photographs covering the period from 1800 to 1994 — has a photograph of the Kaffirs dating back to 1890s.
The sketchy records show that when the Dutch defeated the Portuguese in 1658, many African soldiers switched alliance. Some began fighting for the king of Kandy, a Dutch ally; while others worked as labourers in the building of Dutch fortresses.
According to one Dutch governor, around 4,000 Kaffirs helped to build the Dutch fortress in Colombo in the late 1600s. At night, they were segregated in an area appropriately called Slave Island. That area in Colombo is still referred to by that name.
In 1796, the British took over and continued the colonial tradition of using the Kaffirs as soldiers.
In the 1800s, the British Third and Fourth Ceylon Regiments included 874 Africans. When the Third Ceylon Regiment’s detachment in Puttalam was disbanded, the soldiers were given land to settle there. Some Kaffirs held a relatively elevated role because their military skills were in demand.
However, their story largely is one of extreme hardship, according to Widyalankara of the University of Colombo. “The colonial rulers who brought the Kaffirs into this land treated them harshly. Some travel documents from the 17th century talk of how the Kaffirs often attempted to run away and hide themselves amid the Sinhalese. The story of Ceylon Kaffirs is a tragedy because they were severely suppressed by their colonial rulers,” he says.
The Kaffirs kept their musical traditions alive even as their community became increasingly assimilated with Sinhalese and Tamil culture. Most surviving members work as domestic servants and labourers. Only a few members still speak the Portuguese Creole of their ancestors and there are few, if any, African influences in their clothing, food, or language.
“Our grandmothers and grandfathers were always playing this music,” George Sherin Alex, a member of The Kaffirs, said. “And we listened very carefully because we love this music. We are addicted to it,” added Kovilaga Lowstey Christy, also a member of the band. “We dance exactly like our grandmothers and grandfathers did.”
The Kaffirs in Puttalam call their music manja, a Creole version of the Portuguese word manha derived from marchinhas or little marches. The songs contain just six or seven lines, sometimes fewer, which are repeated again and again.
But each song can last as long as an hour, starting with a slow beat and increasing in tempo until the music reaches a crescendo of drumming, shouting, and clapping.
The Kaffirs use instruments like the double-headed dholak and the tambourine-like rabana, played by both men and women, and also everyday household items like spoons, bottles, and coconut shells.
Also performing that night was Naina Marikkar Bawa, a fakir of Indian descent who sings Sufi-inspired songs of faith and devotion in the streets of Puttalam. He mesmerised the audience with his rich voice and skilful beats of the tambourine.