The Colombo Traffic Officer Who Became a Musical Icon

Introducing the infectious rhythms of baila, Sri Lanka’s unique form of dance music that originated among Portuguese fishermen and African slaves in the colonial period. Modern baila is now popular in Sri Lankan communities around the world, played at parties, weddings and dance clubs. What started as traditional folk music though, didn’t hit the mainstream until a traffic officer swapped parking tickets for royalty cheques to become a musical icon.

Baila grew out of kaffrinha, a style of dance music that came about with the mixing of Portuguese and African cultures on the island. The name comes from the Portuguese kaffir meaning African and inha, meaning a little bit. Full of syncopated rhythms and lilting melodies, the uplifting tunes were played on percussion and strings usually in 6/8 time, giving them a folky, jazzy feel.

Enter Wally Bastiansz. With Dutch Burgher heritage, Wally would have been familiar with all the traditional tunes growing up – lower-class Burghers used to go to wealthier Burgher households during holidays to dance kaffrinha music. He was a gifted musician, studying orchestral music as a youngster and becoming a multi-instrumentalist, adept at vocals, guitar, banjo and violin. He started out by transforming European folk songs in the off-beat kaffrinha style but his mainstream success came when he added a lyrical element.

Working in the traffic division, Wally couldn’t be closer to the average Joe – or Janani. He observed the normal lives of the people and sang about everyday things. It seems this is what caught the public’s imagination. One of his most famous songs is Nurse Nona, an ode to his sister and her everyday trials and tribulations working at the hospital.

As baila grew in popularity and started to spread outward to the world, new influences came the other way. In the 60s and 70s, Latin and Calypso elements were introduced by the next generation of artists. With the 80s came rock ‘n’ roll and surf-rock with the introduction of electric guitars and organs. There’s undoubtedly a touch of the shadows about MS Fernando’s brand of baila – one of the most popular singers of the era. Modern baila has moved towards a tropical, beachside vibe akin to the music of the Caribbean islands which share the Afro-European blend of influences. Although the use of the local Sinhalese language does give a sense of its origins on the Indian sub-continent.

Today, you can find further synth and electronic elements in this musical genre that refuses to stop evolving. But the soul of Wally’s baila and the kaffrinha music that came before remains. Born from a fascinating story of explosive popularity, baila is a symbol of Sri Lanka’s rich heritage, providing a nostalgic soundtrack to the happiest of celebrations on the island.

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For more celebratory vibes, learn how to party like a Punjabi or check out our ultimate guide to karaoke etiquette.

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