A great ‘Baila-Story’ that does bring back some precious memories to this writer, who migrated to Melbourne in 1962, continued with my rudely interrupted Showbiz career, by attending some early dances in Melbourne, where the organisers PAID me almost as much as the rest of the band combined, to do a session of about 40 minutes of Baila Classics,  

because I was the only ‘known’ BaIla-Singer around, In the City of  Melbourne, of that era.


 Desmond Kelly (Mr.Music)
(Editor-in-Chief)   e’Lanka.

‘Chorus baila is ‘Made in Sri Lanka’ music, like Ceylon Tea’




  • University of Cambridge Lecturer in History Prof. Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya on the uniqueness of the different concepts of baila

No matter where you are in the world, no Sri Lankan party is complete without

that infectious dance beat that we all know as baila. It is an undisputed fact that

Sri Lankans love their baila.

Baila has Afro-Portuguese origins, and over centuries has become unique to Sri

Lanka, from its beginnings as folk art music and subsequently blending into mainstream music in the 1950s and 1960s up to now, changing with the times

along the way. From the era of Wally Bastiansz and the indomitable Sunil Perera of

the Gypsies to the crowd-pulling Bathiya & Santhush, baila has progressively

endeared itself across generations.

On Kaleidoscope this week, we delve into the roots and history of baila with

University of Cambridge Faculty of History Lecturer Prof. Shihan De Silva

Jayasuriya, who was visiting Sri Lanka recently. She has not just written about but

also researched deeply into the roots of this phenomenon that has gripped Sri

Lanka for decades and discussed the rhythmic, lyrical, and auditory wonder that is


Jayasuriya is the Chair of the International Council on Monuments and Sites

(ICOMOS) National Committee on Intangible Cultural Heritage Sri Lanka, Senior

Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced

Study at the University of London, Visiting Fellow at the Lucy Cavendish College of

the University of Cambridge and the International Institute of Social History (IISG),

Amsterdam, Visiting Professor at the College of International Relations at

Ritsumeikan University – Kyoto, Collaborative Lecturer at the University of Hawaii,

and Collaborative Researcher at the University of Colombo. She has authored

numerous books on history, ethnomusicology, literature, and linguistics.

Following are excerpts.

Why has baila become so central to our culture?

Baila is our common Sri Lankan identity – it gives us all a unique “Sri Lankanness”.

People seem to think the word “baila” – because it is Portuguese (in origin) – is

something foreign, but what we call “baila” today is chorus baila, and its

composer was Ollington Mervin Bastiansz. All this emerged after Independence in


Bastiansz was the supreme Kapiriña artiste and also the best “waada” baila (i.e.

debate baila) artiste. Combining these traditions together with his background as

a policeman playing in the Police Band and being exposed to Western music as he

had a Sinhalese mother and a Dutch-Portuguese father, hailing from Galle,

Bastiansz mixed and matched and composed his own unique style of music.

The reason he held the pulse of the people was that just after Independence, the

nation wanted a change. They didn’t want to carry on in the colonial way. He

composed this baila at a very important time in our history.Are there African roots to baila?

Most definitely. The Portuguese introduced a new element to our music: Harmony

– playing several notes that work well together. The African roots come through

syncopation, and Kapiriña illustrates cross-rhythms, with the left hand playing in

3/4 timing, which is three crotchet notes to a bar, while the right hand plays to the

6/8 beat – six quaver notes to a bar. This is what drives the music – the

syncopations. It lights up the music and it makes everyone want to dance.

What influences has baila had over the years?

The baila referred to today is chorus baila. But “waada” baila became very popular

and survives in places like Moratuwa. It’s basically challenge-singing, impromptu

baila where the words are composed to the music at that moment of challenging

your opponent.

Sumathipala Perera was one of the foremost “waada” baila singers in the country.

When I interviewed him for my research, he told me he had challenged Wally in a

“waada” baila competition. And he remembered Wally’s retort: “Aagama

Christian, samaagama Wesleyan, mama Wally Bastian, all-Ceylon baila champion.”

It’s a matter of wit as well; impromptu composition is also called “hitivana baila”,

but Sri Lankans know it by various names.

Are there any lesser-known facts about baila?

The most important fact to understand is that chorus baila is “Made in Sri Lanka”,

like Ceylon Tea. It’s not something foreign. It’s not Portuguese either; (although)

the word “baila” is Portuguese, it has Latin roots – “bailar” means “to dance”. The

other fact is that baila is a narrative poem set to music to which you can dance.

Baila has various contexts – storytelling, educational, and even comical. If you

listen to Wally’s songs like Mathakai Amme, he was also educating the nation. Kusi

Amma Sara would be a comical song.

Wally sang in five languages – Sri Lankan Malay, Sri Lankan Portuguese, English,

Tamil, and Sinhala – so that Sri Lankans could understand what he was singing about. After Independence, his songs began to speak to everybody, and by singing

in these five languages, he felt he was not excluding anybody.

There’s a myth that baila is Sinhalese, but that is not so either. Sunil Perera sang a

baila called Buongiorno, Senore, a bilingual baila in Sinhala and Italian. I remember

requesting him that with his popularity and following, if he could promote baila in

an international language – not Portuguese or English, because nobody wants to

be reminded of the colonial era, but perhaps Spanish – baila could be promoted

internationally. Baila is so catchy because the Africanised rhythm makes people

want to dance.

Do you think the younger generation will embrace baila the way older

generations have?

For anything to survive, it has to change. Listen to Bathiya & Santush’s Baila

Gamuda Remix Karala – a big change from the likes of Nona, Mage Nurse Nona

and Mathakai Amme. I strongly believe the younger generation will continue the

tradition. We may even see the birth of “rap-baila”.

Sri Lankans are the subject of envy for the people of Goa. The Goan Catholics have

three types of music which are legacies of their Portuguese rule, but these are

relegated to festivals now. Our baila is a living tradition. It brings us all together

and I love to watch all ethnic groups unite on a single dance floor, showing the

world that we are all one, we are all Sri Lankan!

(Savithri Rodrigo is the host, director, and co-producer of the weekly digital

programme ‘Kaleidoscope with Savithri Rodrigo,’ which can be viewed on

YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. She has over three decades of

experience in print, electronic, and social media.)

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