Sri Lanka is an island of the Southern coast of India. Its population is mostly Sinhalese, as well as minorities of Tamils, Burghers and the last remnants of the Veddas, the forest-dwelling aborigines of Sri Lanka.
The two single biggest influences on Sri Lankan music are from Buddhism and Portuguese colonizers. Buddhism arrived in Sri Lanka after the Buddha’s visit in 300 BC, while the Portuguese arrived in the 15th century, bringing with them cantiga ballads, ukuleles and guitars, along with African slaves, who further diversified the musical roots of the island. These slaves were called kaffrinha, and their dance music was called baila.
Baila originally consisted of vocals with a guitar and handclaps or otherwise improvised percussion. Baila remains at the roots of modern Sri Lankan music, but it now includes electric guitars, synthesizers and other modern developments. Baila stars of the 20th century include Paul Fernando, Desmond de Silva and Voli Bastian.
The earliest stars of Sri Lankan recorded music came from the theater, where the traditional, open-air dramatic culture (kolam or sokari or nadagam) remained the most popular form of entertainment until well into the 20th century. After a drama group called Elphinstone came to Colombo in 1870, Hindustani theatrical forms became dominant. Popular artists included C. Don Bastian, Jayaweera Bandara and John de Silva.
1903’s Nurthi is the first recorded music to come out of Sri Lanka, and it was followed by the rise of several Sinhalese stars. Radio Ceylon, which was long a monopoly in Sri Lankan radio, was established in 1925.
In the early 1960s, Indian filmi became the most popular kind of music in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan stars like Sunil Shantha and Surya Shankar Molligoda became popular in India as well as their homeland, and Radio Ceylon soon found itself with more Indian listeners than Sri Lankan ones. Shantha, Molligoda and other songwriters, most notably Mahagama Sekara, soon kicked off a revolution in Sri Lankan lyricism. This new school of songwriting were deeply poetic and expressed simple concepts, many with nationalist ideas; Ananda Samarakoon, a prominent songwriter of the period, later wrote Sri Lanka’s national anthem.
By the time this revolution in lyricism began, musicians like Mohammed Gauss, Premasiri Kernadasa and W. D. Amaradeva began making a uniquely Sri Lankan variety of filmi music. This was followed, in the mid-1960s, by groups like Las Bambas, Humming Birds and Los Muchachos, who played calypso-style baila. This mixture of Trinidadian calypso with native baila was dominated by groups who took Mexican-derived names, owing, it is said, to a single Mexican group that played in a resort hotel. Later stars included The Moonstones, led by some of the biggest Sri Lankan superstars in history, Annesly Malewana and Clarence Wijewardane. The mid-1960s also saw the popular rise of pure Western-style pop musicians like Gabo & the Breakaways and Minon & the Jet Liners.