From Kaffirs To Devil Dance Palestinian group Sabreen
By Raisa Wickrematunge
and Kamal K Pictures by Pavithra Jovan de Mello
It is noon, and the sun is beating down hard on the Samanala Grounds. Scattered across the field are little huts, from which a cacophony of sound can be heard: the clacking of sticks, the rhythmic beating of drums, the off-beat clapping of over-eager onlookers. Noise, mostly musical, and a feeling of rhythmic elevation, is in the air. This is the Galle Music Festival, a free event held last weekend, celebrating the diversity of music and the unity that it brings.
Having walked around the grounds for over an hour, in the blistering heat, we make our way to one of the huts which seems to have more shade in it than the others. Seated inside is an unlikely-looking quartet of musicians, holding various instruments, flexing their metaphorical muscles, getting ready to perform. We are told that this is Sabreen, a Palestinian group specialising in percussion-rich ethno music with a western touch. They are warming up, fine-tuning their instruments and vocal cords, as a curious crowd gathers around them. Soon, the music starts, percussive beats combining with the wail of a saxophone. As the tempo goes higher and higher, the crowd increases in number; and everybody’s spirits visibly soar.
Without warning, Mohammad Abu Hamdah, one of the percussionists and, as we later learn, a master of folk and contemporary Palestinian dance, decides it is time to pick up the pace, and starts picking volunteers to join him. Seconds later, he points at the two of us, who are seated right in front of them, and before we know it, there we are, hopping around in a circle with Hamdah and two others (a local man and a foreign woman, the former looking bemused but interested and the latter positively beside herself with glee), as Hamdah attempts to teach us some of his trickier moves, in a follow-the-leader kind of way. Needless to say, all four of us are off to a pretty terrible start, as Hamdah leaps lightly from foot to foot with sudden variations, never seeming to run out of steam, despite all the jumping – but before you can say Kalas, we’re dancing in perfect sync with the man, as the audience cheers us on. And then, as abruptly as it began, the dancing stops; and we are free to collapse back on the ground. The band, however, continues to play, with renewed gusto as Hamdah rejoins them with his instrument, mopping his brow. There is no fan to cool them, since they had to use the only electrical outlet to plug in an amplifier, but they are every bit as happy as they look.
And so were we, and everyone else in the audience. And not just during Sabreen’s performance.
There were a multitude of other international artists who performed at the Festival, who sought to, and managed to, wow and amaze Galle. But if there was one act that truly blew our minds it had to be the Raghu Dixit Project, hailing from Bangalore, India.
Lead singer Raghu had a powerful, melodic voice that grabbed everyone’s attention from the first note. He, along with his band-members, had that rare, but essential bit of charisma required to own the stage – and own the stage they did! ‘Lokada Kalaji’, which, in the language of Kannada, basically means ‘don’t worry; be happy,’ had the entire audience on their feet, with Raghu helping them sing along, explaining to them the meaning of each and every infectious line in the chorus. There was not one person in the audience who did not feel more than a little dazed after their nuclear explosion of a performance. It was that entertaining.
The Raghu Dixit Project describes themselves as a folk band that do not shy away from fusing traditional Indian music, particularly Karnatic music with more modern elements, such as rock, pop and soul. And they are quite liberal in their use of drums, rhythm and bass, in addition to flutes and more traditional percussion.
‘And we call this original!’ Raghu joked to us later
We were fortunate enough to get a quick interview with Raghu, who assured us that he had thoroughly enjoyed the experience and would love to come back again, sooner rather than later. When asked if the band would return for the 2013 music festival, his response was, “the band will return in 2012.”
He especially relished the chance to work with Sri Lankan artists from across the country, some of whom were very nervous about performing on such a stage with modern equipment.
‘They were so humble. I would love to come back and work with them, especially with those drummers,” he said.
Raghu described Sri Lanka as ‘like India… but cleaner.’ His most telling comment, however, was when asked what performing in Sri Lanka was like.
“Performing in Sri Lanka is the same as anywhere else. There is no language barrier,” he explained.
Which was true, for Raghu Dixit never sang in English during the Festival. Instead, he entertained those attending with everything from soulful Hindi ballads to upbeat Mysore love songs. There wasn’t a hit of boredom in the crowd, but rather, a sense of welcoming euphoria.
While the Raghu Dixit Project was great and glamorous, they were by no means the only international acts of note that performed at the festival. Bangladeshi outfit Chhayanaut Baouls, too, had their fair share of admirers. The group had a lively dhol (double headed drum) player who kept the audience engaged throughout. Their music was more traditional, utilising flute, tabla and dotara (a mandolin-like instrument), and was quite upbeat. The passion of the vocalists and the antics of the dhol player Dasharath Dash made for some highly enthralling music.
Norwegian fiddlers Litjtausa (try saying that ten times!) comprised of Marie Forr Kiapbakken (26) and Julie Alapnes Normann (24). The young, pretty duo was full of energy. One of their pieces was inspired by a local Tuk Tuk drive; it had all the urgency of dashing through the streets of Colombo. Their rendition of Smooth Criminal – one of Michael Jackson’s biggest hits from the late ‘80s – was a real treat, second only to the beautiful, haunting melody that concluded their turn on the stage.
Not to be outdone by the awe-inspiring international artists, some of our very own musicians took to the stage, to mesmerise the audiences with their music. Just like their international counterparts, the local talent featured in the festival – hailing from different parts of the island – managed to transcend language and connect with everybody in attendance.
Of these musicians, none was as fascinating to watch as the Kaffer Manja, a band comprising of African descendants – or Kaffirs as they’re known – who had made this island their home, since the Portuguese days. Their unique brand of music – with a 6/8 beat and a tempo that gradually builds up to a climax – bearing a strong resemblance to the type of baila which is incidentally referred to as caffirinha, took the festival by storm, with their dance-inducing, party-friendly melodies.
The Kaffirs believe they are originally from Mozambique, Africa, but this claim is disputed by some, as the Kaffirs themselves do not have a written record of their history.
Those who performed in Galle claim they’re direct descendants of the first slaves brought by the Portuguese, without a drop of Sinhala or Tamil blood in them. They call themselves the last of the “originals,” as quite a few of them are now married to Sinhalese people, and their children and their children’s children will be mixed further into Sri Lankan communities.
One of the female performers introduced us to her daughter, the offspring of a mixed marriage with a Sinhalese man. The pre-teen girl’s mixed-ethnicity was evidenced by a distinct lack of curls in her hair. In fact, it was rather unusually straight for a Sri Lankan girl of any ethnicity.
The group who have now gained their fair share of fame and popularity, following exposure to mass media a few years ago, still remain true to their roots, and do not use their identity or their music as a means to earn a living. Most of them are engaged in professions that have very little to do with music, such as carpentry, masonry or even selling lottery tickets. They have, however, worked in collaboration with at least one major producer, under whose guidance a studio album has been released. Regardless, they still maintain that their music is only something they do out of passion, to preserve their cultural identity, if not for anything else.
This passion is evident when watching them perform. The Kaffirs love to have a good time. Their music is rhythmic, starting slow and speeding up to a crescendo, with the singers spontaneously breaking into dance when they feel like it. It is compelling and fun to watch.
Equally riveting were the Sanni Yakuma group hailing from Matara. The Sanni Yakuma have a unique style found nowhere else in the country. They specialise in casting out demons from possessed individuals, and are largely unconcerned about earning the wrath of the devils they dare oust. They are not exclusively exorcists, but that is what they are best known for.
The Sanni Yakuma work hand in hand with the demons, the leader of the troupe informs us. They act as a kind of intermediary between the yakkas and us mortals.
Part of the ritual in Sanni Yakuma consists of the exorcists wearing elaborate masks, each one representing a different disease associated with a demon.
You might think ‘patients’ are usually unaware, or might even refuse to acknowledge that they’re possessed by the devil, but according to the troupe leader, there are cases where the patients refer themselves to the exorcist.
A typical exorcism is performed by offering incentives (called Dolapideni) to the demon, usually in the form of various delicacies. A person may be possessed to one of many reasons, and anyone can be a victim of such malevolence, but those who of a weaker mental disposition are more likely to be favoured by these dark spirits. It is up to the troupe to cast those spirits out and ensure the physical and psychological well-being of the patients who seek their help.
The evening performance was theatric and compelling, with fire dancers ‘eating’ flame to the beat of the yak bera.
Then there was Kolam, a dying art form showcased by a group from Mirissa, a mixture of dance and drama. This usually consists of Buddhist jathaka kathawa and lasts for hours. Or Vasanthan Koothu, a Tamil form of dance that described people working in the fields, with each participant using sticks to create a beat.
All of these and more were showcased, the highlight being the evening show where the local artists performed on a large stage in front of thousands, many of them performing in front of such a large audience for the first time ever. It was an unprecedented demonstration of Sri Lankan folk music and dance, including act that might otherwise might fade into the shadows of obscurity. When the now-legendary Bathiya and Santhush closed the show along with Ashanthi de Alwis, Randheer and Umariya, singing baila and Sinhala pop favourites that kept everyone dancing, in addition to their much-loved and very modern and very ‘pop’ originals, we were left hopeful of a future for Sri Lankan talent that didn’t look as bleak as it once did, not too long ago. It is thanks to endeavours such as the Galle Music Festival that such talent is discovered, and we hope the people of this country continue to support them, and take our music to even greater heights, in the international arena.