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The Roots of Seychellois Music
The music of the Seychelles reveals a cross-section of the nation’s history. It is a blend of African slave music with the dance styles of the European enslavers freely mixed with pop, blues and even country influences. It is a festive, hopeful, optimistic, angry music that has often been frowned upon and suppressed by the more respectable elements of society, but it has always triumphed and continues to reach an ever-wider audience of enthusiastic fans. Since the 1970s, it has been the basis for pop-oriented styles that have spread to the hip dance clubs of Europe, and artists from the Seychelles who were once only known locally have now become figures of international fame.
This musical melting pot arose out of an earlier one. Because of their strategic position between the Mediterranean and the Middle East, the nations of Northern Africa were the focal point of a thriving trade that allowed ideas and culture as well as goods to flow from nation to nation and from continent to continent. By the time the European slave traders arrived, this part of the world was already the home of a richly varied blend of arts and culture with influences from as far away as South Asia. These influences came into the trading centers of North Africa, flowed down into the nations of lower Africa and blended with tribal music that had existed for centuries. The result was a hybrid music played with simple instruments made from everyday items such as sticks, gourds and animal skins.
When Europeans came to the Seychelles and neighboring island groups in the 18th century, they brought African slaves with them. Seeking something familiar in this new land, the slaves made instruments as they always had and played their traditional music. Now, however, there was a new element involved. The Europeans played the dances of Northern Europe and the British Isles: polkas, mazurkas and English contredans music. The contredans was a festive folk dance in which men and women formed two lines facing each other, and its lively music made an impression on the slaves. They began blending these styles with their own, resulting in music with prominent drums and reeling melodies. At the same time, Polynesian and Indian influences were also added. When this rich ethnic mix occurred, the music of these islands was born.
This music was predictably unpopular with the white establishment. Church leaders loudly condemned it because of its association with loose sexuality and drinking. As would happen later with the blues and rock and roll, the music of the Seychelles was suppressed at first but eventually achieved acceptance. Eventually several styles emerged:
One of the most influential of the musical styles to emerge was sega. Sega originated among the slave population of Mauritius and Reunion before spreading to the Seychelles and the other islands of the Indian Ocean. In its most authentic form, sega is performed exclusively with simple instruments such as rattles, hand drums, gourds and musical bows. It is used as accompaniment for a form of traditional dance in which the feet stay firmly rooted to the floor while the rest of the body moves. Sega usually had lyrics about the oppression and longing for freedom felt by the slaves who composed it.
Well into the 20th century, sega was considered inferior music because of its origin among slaves. A key event in its acceptance and subsequent popularity was the concert given on October 30, 1964 by Mauritian artist Ti Frere (Jean Alphonse Ravaton) for an event called Night of the Sega at Mount Le Morne. Today, Ti Frere is a revered pioneer of the genre, and his 1949 recording of “Anita” is recognized as one of its landmark songs. Sega music and its offshoots are still popular today.
Another style of music still enjoying considerable popularity is moutya or montea. It is musically similar to sega, but the dance it accompanies has more suggestive movements and the dancers freely move about the floor. Traditionally, the dance takes place around a campfire and starts slowly to the beat of a single drum, then gets faster and more suggestive as the tempo increases. The drum is made of goatskin and is tuned by heating it by the campfire, a process that must be repeated periodically. Female moutya dancers often wear brightly colored dresses with festive, flowered patterns to enhance the visual aspect of the performance.
The pioneer of this genre in its modern form is Patrick Victor who has mixed elements of Kenyan benga music with traditional island folk influences to form a popular hybrid sound. His hit “Zwe Sa Lanmisik” was one of the groundbreaking tunes of the genre and is still fondly remembered by islanders. Another musician who has helped to introduce sega to a modern generation is Jean-Marc Volcy. His hits “Sexy Man,” “Bake Yaya” and others have kept the music alive and transported it into the new century.
Another popular moutya artist is Brian Matombe whose music incorporates some new instruments as well as traditional percussion. His songs often use violin, drum kit, guitar and other instruments not native to the islands.
A related style is called maloya. This is a slower, more reflective style of music than sega, though their instrumentation is similar. The lyrics are often sung in a shout-and-response style and have historically had a rebellious, political tone. This connotation has continued to the present, and Maloya was banned until the 1960s because of its connection to Creole separatism. Performances by certain maloya artists with strong political leanings continued to be banned until the 1980s.
One of the most popular maloya groups is Lindigo. Their music has become strongly identified with the movement to keep Creole culture alive and give it the acceptance it deserves. Their instrumentation is entirely traditional and includes African instruments such as the djembe, the doumdoum, the balafon and the bobre. Olivier Arasta, the group’s lead vocalist, is an outspoken advocate of maloya and a champion for his culture.
The World Discovers Seychellois Music: Zouk and More
In the 1970s, American and European audiences became fascinated with musical styles from Africa, Asia and other cultures. This was the beginning of “world music,” and both the music and its audience were changed by the experience. The audience was changed by being opened up to sounds they had never heard before resulting in the popularity of reggae and other formerly regional styles. The music was changed by being mixed with rock, jazz and other influences to produce new styles that seemed to mutate like viruses. Some musicians have resisted the addition of modern instruments and styles, but others have eagerly embraced new sounds and formed hybrid forms geared to audiences outside the islands. Reggae has blended with sega and moutya to form seggae and mouggae, and traditional sounds have blended with modern instruments and arrangements to form a genre called zouk.
Zouk was started by a band called Kassav, a name taken from a traditional dish made from cassava root. This group was formed in 1979 by islanders living in Paris. Their early success happened there with much-acclaimed appearances at Paris’ Club Zenith, and their style freely took influences from other musical genres. However, one point on which they have never compromised is their choice of language. All their lyrics are in French Antillean Creole, a local dialect not widely known outside the islands.
Kassav has enjoyed enormous success with 20 albums and a string of international hits. Perhaps their best-remembered moment was in 1985 when the song “Zouk la Se Sel Medikaman Nou Ni” (“Zouk is the only medicine we have”) became a hit. Individual band members have issued 12 solo albums to great acclaim, especially Jocelyne Beroard who has become a star in her own right. Her 1987 duet with Philippe Lavil, “Kole Sere,” reached number four in France. Kassav is still very active in 2013.
Something New: Seggae Music
The obvious similarity between Seychellois music and reggae has been used by some artists to create hybrid sounds with huge appeal outside the islands. One of the leading exponents of this sound is Mersener, a group of young musicians who freely blend reggae, pop and sega into a vibrant stew with legions of fans the world over. Lead singer Lyrical Sniper brings a modern feel to sega by using electric instruments and giving his lyrics a punchy, rap-like cadence. Appearances in London in 2012 reaffirmed the band’s position as one of the leading exponents of a new hybrid island-based sound.
The music of the Seychelles has achieved success in Europe and other locales, but it remains more obscure in the U.S. This may be because of the almost total absence of English lyrics, but since this has not impeded acceptance of the music in other places, it seems more likely that the lack of knowledge of island music among American listeners is simply due to lack of exposure. If audiences in the U.S. get a chance to hear Seychellois music, it will probably achieve the same popularity as reggae did in the 1970s and ‘80s.