Oté Maloya-The Birth Of Electric Maloya On Reunion Island 1975-1985.

Label: Strut.

Nothing ever stays the same. That is certainly the case in music. It has been since the birth of rock ’n’ roll just over sixty years ago. Since then, every musical genre has continued to evolve and reinvent itself, in an attempt to stay relevant. No musical genre has been exempt from change. This includes traditional maloya music in the Réunion Island. However, even traditional maloya music succumbed to change.

Things started to change in the Reunion Island in 1975, when  traditional maloya music was transformed by the introduction of Western instrumentation. They were combined with the Malagasy, African and Indian acoustic instruments that up until then, had been making traditional maloya music. This was a game changer musically.   

Having combined traditional instruments with Western instruments like the bass, drums, guitar and synths with traditional instruments, local musicians in the Reunion Islands decided to take this one step further. They started to fuse traditional maloya music with an eclectic selection of disparate musical genres. Suddenly, the local musicians were fusing elements of the blues, jazz, funk, fusion, pop, progressive rock, psychedelia, reggae and rock. This sparked a new era of creativity, and over the next ten years, maloya music in the Réunion Island was totally transformed. This period was recently documented by Strut on Oté Maloya-The Birth Of Electric Maloya On Reunion Island 1975-1985. It’s the much-anticipated followup to Soul Sok Séga-Sega Sounds From Mauritius 1973-1979 which was released in 2016. Both compilations were released by DJ duo La Basse Tropicale, who are based in the Reunion Island. They’re perfect placed to document a hugely important period in the Reunion Island’s history.

The Reunion Island were totally deserted until four hundred years ago. That was when the first wave of settlers arrived. Some came of their own accord, looking for a new start. Others were forced to leave countries in Africa, China, Europe, India and Madagascar. Thrown together in an island in the Indian Ocean, the first wave of settlers started to build their home within their part of the wider, shared space. Gradually, a new society started to take shape.

Before long, the first wave of settlers had their own language and cuisine. However, many of early the settlers retained their own belief systems, rites and influences. Soon, though, the Reunion Island soon, had its own unique cuisine and culture. Playing an important part the culture was dance, music and songs.  This includes séga music, songs, music and dances of the slaves.

Some of the early settlers that arrived in the Reunion Island were from Malagasy and Africa. They brought with them their own belief system and rites.  This was an important part of their culture. So were the ceremonies where they paid tribute to their ancestors during ceremonies which featured songs, music and dance. Often these ceremonies were clandestine affairs and took place at night. 

There was no other option. Some of the settlers in the ‘17th’ Century found themselves forced into slavery, and were even forced to adopt the name of the plantation owner. They forced the slaves to work long hours, and watched their every move. It was only late at night, when they could celebrate the life of their ancestors.

This is part of servis kabaré or servis Malagasy, which is a ritual mediation between the living and the dead. Playing an important part in this ritual is music, which was played by the slaves using a variety of traditional instruments. This included piker, kayamb and bobre. At the heart of the music was a large rouler drum, which was made by stretching an animal skin over a barrel. 

The rouler drum provides a three-part rhythm, a soloist and choir take part in a type of musical dialogue. This is essentially, the equivalent call and response. Meanwhile, the assembled crowd form encircle around the musicians and dancers and this is known as rond maloya. Within the rond maloya, animals are sacrificed and gifts are offered to their ancestors on the altar. Its decorated with representations of the deceased. Sometimes,  alcohol was sprinkled on the ground and onto the bare feet of the dancers. They twisted and turned until they were in a trance. Later, resin was burnt before the sun rises, and this marked the end of this clandestine celebration…until the next time.

On May ‘18th’ 1819, Pierre Bernard Milius, the governor of the Reunion Island, decided to ban the Bal des Noirs, which was referred to as the occult ritual of black peoples’ dance. Up until then, the ritual had been tolerated, and some of the plantation owners had even provided meat and wine. This wasn’t an act of benevolence though. Instead, it was a type of social control, and resulted in what was regarded by slave owners as the “docile slave”. They were unlikely to rise up, and rebel.

As a result, the slaves remained chattels of the slave owner, and very occasionally enjoyed a tantalising taste of freedom. Charles-Hubert Lavollée witnessed an example of this freedom in 1843, when he witnessed the bamboula. While the bamboula is a drum, it’s also the dances and music of African slaves. After witnessing the bamboula, Charles-Hubert Lavollée called this: “the orgy of freedom, the only hours that do not belong to slavery.” However, five years later, freedom beckoned for the slaves.

Slavery was abolished in the Reunion Island in 1848. Despite the abolition of slavery, music, dancing and song remained an important part of the Reunion Island’s culture. The séga maloya was an important reminder of the Reunion Island’s past. It was also something that visitors witnessed, and responded to differently over the next century.

From the 1930s onwards, cultural commentators, critics and writers started to visit the Reunion Island, and wrote about its culture. A few of the articles were contemptuous and even borderline racist. However, most commentators and critics embraced the Reunion Island’s cultural past are were keen to tell their readers and listeners about the music, song and dance.

In 1938, the Parisian literary newspaper Marianne, reviewed a show at the Théâtre des Tropiques. It praised the: “melodious songs, its quadrille dance from Bourbon, and its séga maloya. Réunion shows us all the Créole charm marked by the profound influence of ‘18th’ Century France.” Later that year, Radio Paris played a séga from the Reunion Island,  during one of its evening shows which featured music from all around the world. This introduced the séga to a new and wider audience. 

That was the case right through to the early sixties, when various articles were published about the Reunion Island’s cultural heritage. It was described as variously the: “dance of the Cafre people… the erotic dance of black African workers.” The Reunion Island’s cultural heritage was viewed in a much more positive light. However, little did these commentators realise that within a decade, the Reunion Island’s music about to change.  That was still to come.

The Réunion  Island’s musical heritage cane be traced back to the ‘17th’ Century. Back then, the séga was a dance, similar to the fandango. However, the slaves first sang, played and danced the séga original or séga primitive at the Bal des Noirs. The séga is a predecessor of the contemporary maloya. However, in the early days in the Réunion  Island plantations, many cultures influenced the early music.

This includes the songs, music, dances and trances of the Malagasy and African slaves; the rituals of the people of South India and influences of the plantation owners who arrived from Europe. All these influences were thrown into the melting pot and given a stir. The result was the séga, which through time, took on a different meaning. By the ‘18th’ Century, séga no longer referred to a dance. Instead, séga referred to a singing, music and dance ensemble. That is how the word is used today.

As music started to change, the word Séga was replaced by the word maloya. Historians are unclear about its genealogy, and when the word was first used. It’s estimated that maloya was used around the start of the ‘19th’ Century. It was used in 1834 by diarist Jean-Baptiste Reyonal de Lescouble, who writes of “singing maloya verses as usual.”  However, how long the word had been in usage prior to 1834 is unknown. 

Nowadays, maloya is described by UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as a type of: “world music.” It’s still sung in the Réunion  Inland, with some verses sung in French, including in the traditional maloya Valet, Valet made popular by the legendary  maloyeur Firmin Viry. Some parts of songs are sung in English, including by Ti Fock. Maloya has a fascinating and rich history that stretches back over 300 years.

Even today, the séga and maloya coexist today in the Réunion  Island. The music which is based around music and ancestral traditions, continues to maintain maintained closed links as the music thrives. Previously, albums of séga have been released which can be adapted to maloya, depending on the type of audience the music is being played to. This is fitting, given the maloya is a direct descendant of the original séga.

Nowadays, the three elements of song, music and dance traditionally practised at the sacred Bal des Noirs on Réunion Island can be split over time into two parts. There’s the family and intimate branch of the sacred maloya and the public branch of the profane maloya. During both parts of these ritual ceremonies, the maloya is about paying tribute to ancestors via song, music and dance. Even today, it’s still regarded as an important part of life in the Réunion Island. However, for a time the song, music and dance trio was used for a different purpose.

During the sixties and eighties, the song, music and dance trio was hijacked and used as a culture of resistance, protest and identity. Among the leading lights of this movement were  the so-called cultural maloya or the maloya combat. This included Firmin Viry, the Resistance Troupe, the Rene Viry Troupe, the Gaston Hoareau Troupe, Ziskakan, Danyel Waro, Ti Fock, Ravan and Lansor.  They were later followed by Baster, Ousanousava and Nathalie Natiembe. Maloya and the Reunion Island were changing.

Following this political and social awakening, a number of important groups, including Caméléon, Carrousel and Kabar were formed and took part in a two-part cultural explosion. It began in the seventies, and then continued in the nineties. Gone was the maloya’s militant stance of the sixties, and eighties. The depoliticising of the maloya had been hugely important. If it remained a political weapon, it would’ve lost its cultural meaning or even became irrelevant. The cultural magazine Bardzour No. 2 had warned this in 1976. By then, it was the era of the electric maloya which is documented on Oté Maloya-The Birth Of Electric Maloya On Reunion Islands 1975-1985.

Many of the maloya bands had plugged in and started to fuse Western instrumentation with the traditional Malagasy, African and Indian acoustic instruments. As a result,  bass, drums, guitar and synths were combined with, the piker, kayamb, bobre and rouler drum. This was a game-changer for Caméléon, Cormoran Group, Daniel Sandié, Gaby Et Les Soul Men, Ti Fock, Vivi and Carrousel, who all feature on Oté Maloya-The Birth Of Electric Maloya On Réunion  Islands 1975-1985. Suddenly, maloya music was transformed. 

The new musical movement was variously referred to as electric maloya, maloya fusion or just maloya. It became a symbol of a newfound freedom that the people of the Réunion Island were enjoying and experiencing.

A symbol of the newfound freedom was Caméléon’s 1977 single La Rosée Si Feuilles Songes, which was released on the Diffusion Royale label and opens Oté Maloya-The Birth Of Electric Maloya On Réunion  Islands 1975-1985. This is a cover of an Alan Peters song, and is a landmark maloya recording. It’s an understated recording where Caméléon denounce individuality and celebrate sharing and solidarity.

Jean-Claude Viadère was one of the leading lights in the avant-garde scene, and became one of the pioneers of electric maloya movement. He wrote the ballad Moin La Pas Fait Tout Sel, and when he came to record the song, was accompanied  by Carrousel in Studio Issa. The song is built around the rhythm section, piano and tablas, and has a message that: “gossip is toxic,” Moin La Pas Fait Tout Sel was released on the Disques Issa label in 1978, and showcases a truly talented singer and songwriter.

When the  Cormoran Group released as Oté as a single on Piros label, tucked away on the B-Side was a hidden gem, P’Tit Femme Mon Gâté. It deals with subjects like loneliness, homesickness and being separated from loved ones. This is something that many Reunion Island exiles could relate to. They could also relate to the moderne sound, with its proto-boogie synths. This showed just much music in the Reunion Island had changed since 1975.

Françoise Guimbert means different things to different people in the Reunion Island. To some, she’s a theatre actress, while others remember her as a singer and songwriter. In 1978, Françoise Guimbert released her single Tantine Zaza on the Disques Royal label. It’s a slow, nostalgic maloya that is tinged with melancholia that is built around a keyboard chart. The song meanders along until backing vocalists enthusiastically interject, and call out to dancers: “Sa mèm! Allez! Oté!.” Meanwhile, Françoise Guimbert reaches new heights on this quite beautiful, emotive song.

Vivi is one of two artists who feature twice on the compilation. Both of the songs are B-Sides, which were released between 1977 and 1978. Mi Bord’ A Toé was the B-Side of single Jamais, which was released by Disques Issa in 1977.  It’s a song that paints a bleak and miserable picture of life for women in postcolonial Créole society. That is no surprise  as it was a very judgemental society, with women subjected to uncompromising moral standards, which were very different to those men were subjected to. Despite this, Mi Bord’ A Toé epitomises everything that is good about the new electric maloya style, as Western instrumentation and traditional instruments are fused to create one of the highlights of the compilation. 

Hervé Imare also feature twice on the compilation. Their first contribution is Mele-Mele Pas Toué P’Tit Pierre, which was the B-Side to their 1977 single on Diffusion Royale.  Mele-Mele Pas Toué P’Tit Pierre tells the story of little Pierre who gets involved in things that don’t concern him. This he does against a backdrop of a blistering electric guitar that weaves its way across the arrangement to this electric maloya hidden gem.

Groupe Dago released Réveil Créole as a single on Disques Royal  in 1978. The song was penned by Dera Rakotomavo, and is brought to life by Groupe Dago. They create a genre-melting opus that is a mixture of maloya, fusion, psychedelia and pop. With its lysergic, hook-laden lyrics, this edgy, mesmeric and cinematic epic gradually unfolds and reveals its secrets.

Ti Fock was one of the pioneers of the maloya-fusion scene. He was also a musician who wasn’t afraid to take risks and was willing to push musical boundaries to their limits, and sometimes, way beyond. This included fusing African tribal rhythms with a variety of electric instruments. The music was ambitious and innovative, including Sé Pi Bodié a track from his 1986 album Aniel which was released on the Celluloïd label. It features Ti Fock at his most ambitious and inventive.

The other contribution from Vivi is Toé Même Maloya which featured on the B-Side of her 1978 single for Disques Issa, Vraiment L’amour Existe. It’s a beautiful wistful ballad where Vivi makes good use of her expressive vocal. Meanwhile, she’s accompanied by sinuous, sensuous rhythms that come courtesy of Les Soul Men. Together they prove to be a potent and irresistible combination.

When Maxime Lahope recorded Célia as a single for Disques Jackman, she was accompanied by one of the Reunion Island’s finest orchestras, the Claude Vinh San Et Son Orchestre. They also joined Maxime Lahope on the B-Side, Sous Pied D’Camélias. Although it’s a much slower, traditional sounding maloya, this beautiful, heartfelt ballad still swings and incorporates elements of  both the calypso  and the new electric maloya sound.

In 1978, Hervé Imare released Mi Donne A Toué Grand Coeur as a single on the Diffusion Royale label. Against a pulsating backdrop, Hervé Imare delivers a tender vocal as he sings of generosity, solidarity and sharing on this beautiful ballad.

Closing Oté Maloya-The Birth Of Electric Malaya On Réunion  Islands 1975-1985 is Oté Maloya, a song from Carrousel’s 1982 album La Vie Est Un Mystère. The compilers have kept one of the best until last. It’s a Jean-Claude Viadère composition and became a maloya-fusion anthem. This song also epitomises everything that was good about the maloya-fusion genre, which had come of age by 1982.

Just over a year after releasing Soul Sok Séga-Sega Sounds From Mauritius 1973-1979 on Strut, DJ duo La Basse Tropicale return with Oté Maloya-The Birth Of Electric Malaya On Réunion Island 1975-1985. It’s a nineteen track compilation which celebrates the Réunion Island’s maloya-fusion scene between 1975 and 1985. This scene transformed the Réunion Island music scene, and was part of a cultural revolution. 

Much of the music recorded and released during this cultural revolution features lyrics full social comment. They document what  life had been like in the Reunion Island, and how it still was.  Sometimes, it’s a bleak picture is painted. Other times, the talk of generosity, solidarity and sharing seems idealistic, and even somewhat native. However, those songs were written during what was a period of change, and people were looking towards the future and a new beginning.

Part of this new beginning was electric maloya or maloya-fusion. It was a radical departure from the Reunion Island’s musical past, and was the start of a brave new world. This lasted until 1992.

The electric maloya era was over by 1992, when a new sound started to dominate the Reunion Island’s musical landscape… malogué, or maloggae. It had been inspired by Mauritian seggae, and this marked the start of a new chapter in the Reunion Island’s musical history.

Nowadays, the Reunion Island’s music scene has changed once again.  It seems that the Reunion Island’s music scene is revisiting its past. The maloya scene has moved more towards the traditional maloya sound. Meanwhile, séga remains the most popular festive style on the Reunion Island. Especially within the areas populated by the working class. In these areas, séga is much more popular than hip hop and ragga dancehall music. The people of the Reunion Island remain proud of their musical heritage, and this includes the electric maloya that features on Oté Maloya-The Birth Of Electric Malaya On Réunion Island 1975-1985, which provided the soundtrack to a cultural revolution.

Oté Maloya-The Birth Of Electric Maloya On Reunion Islands 1975-1985.


1 Comment

  1. Very informative!

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