Have you heard about the Kaffirs?
The Kaffirs' performance at the Barefoot was a magical one which saw
many Sri Lankan African descendants giving us a night to remember.
Pretty Sri Lankan-born African Sherine who is married to a Sri Lankan
said, "We're very happy to be performing here for the second time for it
is good to celebrate the fact that we are African people.
It is a privilege to share our music and culture with the rest of Sri
Lanka through this concert." The Kaffirs (English, also cafrinhas in
Portuguese or kapiriyo in Sinhala) are a Sri Lankan ethnic group who are
descendants from the 16th century Portuguese traders and the African
slaves, brought by them.
The Kaffirs spoke a distinctive Creole based on Portuguese, the
now-extinct 'Sri Lanka Kaffir language' and their cultural heritage
includes the dance styles 'Kaffringna' and 'Manja' which they performed
recently at the Barefoot cafe. It was a fun-filled gig with plenty of
thumb-thumping beats with rhythmic drums and happy-go-lucky 'baila'
dances. The astounding Sufi musician stunned the audience with his
powerful voice and heart-stopping drum beats. It was an amazing concert
of rhythmic mantra and delightful dance.
A performance by the Kaffirs. Picture by Jacobo Quintanilla
Daily News 'Artscope' caught up with the organizer of the concert and
Fulbright researcher of the Kaffirs, Leah Worthington to ask more about
these interesting people who actually hail from Mozambique.
There are a multitude of ethnicities in Sri Lanka. Why is there a
need to highlight the Kaffir people?
As someone engaged in historical research, I think every group of
people, regardless of how big or small, deserves a voice, deserves to be
acknowledged. I'm happy that some of the Kaffir people have discovered
avenues in which they can tell their story. Their story is not only part
of Sri Lankan history but also tied to the broader history of the
African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean region.
Please give a brief explanation about the Sri Lankan Kaffirs and
There is a long history, dating back to the 1500's with the
Portuguese, of people being brought from Africa to Sri Lanka - some as
soldiers, some as domestic help, and other jobs as well.
There are many stories about where in Africa the Kaffirs in Puttalam
originated from. The oral history of the particular Kaffir family that I
spoke with (the family who played at the concert) says they are descents
of former Portuguese slaves brought from Goa, India by the British to be
soldiers in Sri Lanka.
'Manhas' are what the songs are called that are played by the Kaffirs
of Sirambiyadiya - their village not far outside of Puttalam town. While
the music is different in technical ways from Kaffrinha and Chikothi
(both of which are kinds of music with African roots), all of the
movements in their dance point to its African origins, as has been noted
by academics in the past.
As different waves of Africans came into Sri Lanka, they brought with
them various traditions and styles of music that reflect the different
areas of Africa from which they came. This accounts for the variety of
types of music with African roots that have developed in Sri Lanka. The
music and dance that was seen at the last year's November concert was
seen again on June 27th at the second Barefoot concert exemplifying the
history of African music in Sri Lanka.
After the first concert was held, there was enthusiasm and interest
from many to know more about the Kaffir people. Is the Kaffir concert a
way in which the Kaffir people can preserve their traditions and to
enlighten their children about where they originally came from?
The Kaffir concert is certainly helpful in the preservation of their
music and dance, which are the only cultural remnants of their African
roots. While the Kaffirs are proud to be Sri Lankans, they also
acknowledge their African history. Being able to share this tradition of
music serves as a way of both bringing respect to them within their
local community and validating their cultural differences.
While their exact place of origin along Africa's east coast may never
be known for sure because of a lack of documentation and conflicting
oral histories, promoting their music allows for their future
generations to better understand the Kaffirs' history. The more concerts
they put on, the more outside interest the community receives, which has
both researchers and journalists looking for sources to tell the story
of the Kaffirs of Sri Lanka.
Will this be an annual concert? How does this concert empower the
The last concert and this upcoming one have happened because people
that know this Kaffir family have helped them make connections with
people here in Colombo. Jesse Hardman, a friend of the Kaffirs, has been
instrumental in organizing their concerts and getting their CD produced.
I would hope that opportunities for the Kaffirs to put on concerts
will continue to arise, that people will continue to take an interest in
their music - not just because it is important to them, but also because
it is enjoyable for those who attend.
The last concert was a hit with people on their feet, clapping along.
So music is culturally valuable, yes; but it's also something that we
all enjoy having in our lives.
New types of music have a way of introducing us to different parts of
the world, and sometimes different parts of our own country that we
might not otherwise have known about.
Everyone also needs to provide for their family. For the Kaffir
families to be able to do so via their music, allows them to provide for
their family while paying respect to their cultural roots.