Barefoot on Galle Road is where the chic of Colombo spend time to look for what is chic. The young and the modern browse through the book shop, saunter through painting and sculpture exhibitions and stretch out in the frangipani garden-gallery-cafeteria over pasta and lime juice (wine and beer are available) On a lucky Sunday afternoon, a jazz quartet could be playing Dave Brubeck in the background.
Last Saturday, a more ancient music was playing in the open air gallery as locals and foreigners packed the gallery and the bar. Performing were a group of men and women from the Kaffir community — an ethnic Sri Lankan community who could trace back their ancestors to Africa, in all probability, Mozambique.
Their curly hair, thick lips and dark skin have survived hundreds of years of intermingling on this island along with the rhythms of their percussion-based music. The haunting melodies narrated tales of a lost long land .
They used instruments like the ‘dholak’ and the ‘rabana’ (sort of a Lankan tambourine) and household items like spoons, bottles, and coconut shells.
They were brought here by the Portuguese – Mozambique got independence from Portugal in 1975 – around the 15th century to work as slaves and soldiers. The Kaffirs were handed over from one coloniser to the other (the Dutch and the British) and their distinct identity gradually assimilated into the cultural cauldron that the island was. For one, the 12-member troupe can only sing in Sinhala and Tamil. Their possible mother tongue, Portuguese Creole, is lost now.
Mostly Roman Catholics, the remaining 1000-odd Kaffirs now stay in the Northwestern province in Puttalam district. Few live in the East, near Trincomalee and Batticaloa. Most work as labourers. Few are doing better because of a member working in the middle-east.
Their story is similar to that of the Siddhis in the Junagadh district of Gujarat whose ancestors were also Africans. They were also brought to India as slaves and their assimilation into the local society still continues.
The Kaffirs’ concert was a short one. But the music will continue to echo. A reminder that a diverse society can flourish and be happy too.