When invitations went out the other day for the Sunday Times Business Club (STBC)’s unusual event “An Evening of Baila’, one of the invitees worryingly, commented: “Is this a time for the Baila?”. He was alluding to the violence in Beruwela (around the same time) where Muslim residents were attacked by marauding mobs just ahead [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Baila: Heartbeat of a nation


When invitations went out the other day for the Sunday Times Business Club (STBC)’s unusual event “An Evening of Baila’, one of the invitees worryingly, commented: “Is this a time for the Baila?”.

He was alluding to the violence in Beruwela (around the same time) where Muslim residents were attacked by marauding mobs just ahead of the holy fasting month of Ramadan. However in a witty way, he continued, “This may be a good idea in fact. Baila could bind communities together.”

That is in essence why this column is discussing a favourite form of entertainment in Sri Lanka and moving away (for the moment, for the day) from the maddening crowd of daily issues like the economy, corruption, mismanagement, governance (the buzzword of corporates and stock market regulators), exports, inflation, cost of living, etc.

Readers may be surprised and puzzled and even annoyed when they start to read this commentary. But read on (a more detailed version of the event is on Pages 6-7) and we hope you would be enriched as many others present were that evening by the breadth and diversity of the discussion, its history and roots traversed until a traffic cop Wally Bastianz, considered the godfather of Sri Lankan Baila, put words in the 6-8 rhythm and created a new genre of music that has been enjoyed by at least five generations of Sri Lankans.

Music is the food of love, the food of the soul … so why not profile Baila as a music, dance and art form that could bond communities. It was somewhat of a communal musical fling together on the Beira when the STBC on Tuesday played host to a unique and creative evening where the origins and history of the Baila was discussed, played, danced and enjoyed by a group that included Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, Malays and Burghers. 

Consider Wada Baila or ‘Debate Baila’ which was once a popular form of entertainment in Sri Lanka. It was like a musical debate and a contest of wit. In many ways it is akin to the rap music of today and if so, one can argue that the roots of rap came from the ‘Debate’ Baila of yesteryear or its Portuguese traditions.

Traditionally Baila was played with instrumental combinations of banjo or mandolin, violin, guitar, rabana, a pair of congas or spoon (tablespoon) clappers.

Today it is played with a mix of electronic keyboards, electric guitars, trumpets, saxophones and drum sets.

At the event held on the Cinnamon Lakeside’s floating restaurant, Mariazelle explained that the Baila is infectious and cuts across any barriers (political, social or race) or any boundaries because its 6-8 rhythm is similar to the heartbeat. For example when opposing politicians Harin Fernando and Dayasiri Jayasekera were trading verbal insults and physical blows, a couple of Baila songs would be calmed the turbulent waters ending with the Baila twist.

Furthermore when politicians go for each other’s gullet in parliament, the Speaker should play the Baila and without a doubt, turn things around. Without a doubt!

On a serious note however — and why Baila and music can bind communities together in the cultural mix of Sri Lanka – there is a need to take this genre of music, dance and song to a different level. Consider the depth of veteran Sunil Perera’s music in bringing social and economic themes close to the heart and pulse of the people through his latest offering – ‘Koththamalli’.While some may disagree – depending on which side of the fence you are – with Sunil’s songs which deal with political themes and social concerns, it in fact portrays the very essence and tragedy of society today where greed, money, power, politics and corruption have overtaken a tight family unit built on values, tradition, culture and an integrated society. On the other hand modern society could argue that the old family unit is incongruous with modernity and globalisation. Debatable however considering the web of politicisation at every level in Sri Lanka (and tragically would dominate any future administration as it seems to be ingrained in society) and the creation of a group of powerful people who could be described as ‘The Untouchables” made up of a few favourite politicians, businessmen, artists and thinkers.

On the positive side, Tuesday’s STBC event on the Beira is food for thought for the leisure industry – both public and private – in providing a window in an entertainment economy with foreign travellers playing a big role. Colombo has been lacking in proper traditional entertainment for tourists and why not an evening of Baila or even Sinhala classical music.

The other day, attending a concert to honour Amaradeva, one of Sri Lanka’s greatest classical singers, it was music from the heart. There were tears in the audience listening to the maestro as he sang all time favourites like ‘Sasara Wasana Thuru’. Like Mariazelle’s expression of Baila of the rhythm – reflecting a heartbeat.

The rendition of ‘Master Sir’ by Nimal Mendis himself was poignant. Amaradeva, though aging, stood like a rock (he didn’t like to be seated) singing for a near 90 minutes with others.

Baila originated from the word ‘bayle’ (pronounced bay-lay) a dance created in Spain. Interestingly a popular video today on cable TV is ‘Bailando’, a song by Enrique Iglesias and Sean Paul.

Baila – played right, profiled properly, marketed effectively and nurtured by both the state and the people – could be Sri Lanka’s greatest export similar to Ceylon Tea and Sri Lankan Cricket.

Imagine an evening on the Beira or the Madhu Ganga starting off with a historical perspective of Sinhala classical music, the ragas and cruising to the origins of the Baila. And, ending up with Amaradeva and Sunil singing a fusion of classical and Baila as music for the masses with appropriate dances! For the moment and one great moment the Dayasiris’ and Harins’ of this world will leave their ‘fighting’ tools aside and join in a hearty session of song and dance. Moments where warring factions come together; where the rich and poor become equals; where mothers and fathers stop fighting; where sons and daughters learn the rich tapestry of Sri Lanka’s culture through song and dance; where inflation, cost of living, corruption is forgotten; and where foes become friends.

Moments that bond communities and show the world that we are one: there is a future, together, for all Sri Lankans. So for the moment, think Baila; great moments together.

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