The Localist

Kaffir culture: a heritage sustained through music and dance

An often overlooked minority, the Kaffirs of Sri Lanka are African descendants who have been living on the island since the early 1500s. The word Kaffir literally means ‘non believer’ and unlike in most other parts of the world, it is not a derogatory term. In fact, Sri Lankan Kaffirs take great pride in identifying themselves as belonging to this unique minority.

Various tales surround the arrival of Kaffirs in Sri Lanka.  Some believe they were brought over as slaves or labourers from Mozambique, Angola or Congo, while later narratives speak of how the Colonial rulers as well as Sri Lankan kings recruited them as soldiers to fight numerous wars on their side. In the late 1600s, records show that 4,000 Kaffirs helped to build the Dutch fortress in Colombo. These Kaffirs were kept segregated from the general population in a suburb that even today is referred to as Slave Island.

Present day Kaffirs have been assimilated across the country, but three distinct communities in Trincomalee, Negambo and Puttalam still remain. The majority of around 200 families live in the village of Sirambiyadi, Puttalam. While the Sri Lankan Portuguese Creole that they once spoke is almost extinct, it is the primary language that’s used to pass down oral histories through music. Kaffir songs, known as Manhas (little marches) contain few lyrics, just a few lines about the sky, the birds or nature that are then repeated over and over again. Each song can last as long as an hour, starting with a downtempo chant and gradually building up speed until the music reaches a crescendo of drumming, bellowing, and clapping.

I remember being mesmerized by one of their Manja (dance) performances screened on national television. One half of the performers swirled their hips and stomped their feet in unison to the beat of the escalating music, almost as if a group of ballerinas had decided to tap dance, while the other half sang and made all kinds of rhythms with coconut shells, spoons, rabana and tambourines.

You can catch a Kaffir public performance if you are lucky in Colombo or stop by for a chat at the annual Deyata Kirula Exhibition that has given this forgotten group a voice in recent times. I, for one, cannot wait to get my hands on their inaugural CD ‘Kaffir Sthrella’ the next time I head back home!


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