new diaspora sounds from around the indian ocean

July 16, 2019
511 Picks

The island of La Reunion is a multi-faceted, vibrant place of French inclinations, falling under the shadow of a giant volcano in the Indian Ocean just east of Madagascar. Year-round the place is idyllic, the people are warm and proud, with filao trees scattered across the shorelines of igneous rock where, once upon a time, a fiery reign of slavery, bloodshed and repression threatened to leave the island’s inhabitants buried in the dust and ash of colonial greed. This June, I travelled to the island to unearth what I hoped would be the crystallized remnants of a history worth remembering,  during a time of year where music industry professionals come from all over the world to explore the music market and festival showcases held on the streets and beaches of St Pierre, one of the La Reunion’s large towns.

The music I came for is the centerpiece of IOMMA (Indian Ocean Music Market), a business conference that began in 2011 and which features numerous artist showcases from the coastal nations of Asia and Africa, including Mozambique and Madagascar; and of Sakifo, the weekend-long music festival that follows the conference, and pays homage to La Reunion’s musical history and cultures among them. The artists who perform here are often boxed in under the label of “World Music” by outsiders, which does a serious disservice to musicians who fought so hard to reclaim their identities. Especially the musicians of La Reunion, whose inhabitants used Maloya, a local music that was once stifled by colonial law, to establish a more integrated society that citizens of every shade wanted to celebrate. I spent the week talking to anyone who had time to explain what life on the island meant today, and they all said the same thing: the survival of La Reunion’s new identity depends on its music. Maloya was once a thing of secrecy, of sharing and togetherness amongst the enslaved, and about calling down the ancestors for some semblance of respite. 

Today, Maloya is about intergenerational self-love as well as mental and physical emancipation, and as I walked the festival grounds and sat with the creators of this powerful genre’s past — and as-yet-to-be-determined futures, I certainly feel it in their words and sounds. The following stories come from those conversations, particularly with the new generation of artists who  are making sure that they are living the lives that those who have gone before them never dreamt would be possible.


Aurus (aka Bastien Picot) performing at Sakifo 2019 (Photo: Meelis Kuuskler)

Having shared stages with many burgeoning musicians over the years, Bastien Picot has evolved beyond the point of waiting in the wings. Enter his new persona, AURUS, a visually and sonically compelling act steeped in the combination of Creole/English lyrics and Maloya sounds, using traditional instruments such as the kayamb and rouler, while drawing inspiration from the symbols around the different forms of the Egyptian god Horus that have been recorded in history.  With his next album set for release in 2020, aptly titled Chimera, Picot re-introduced himself on the Filaos stage at Sakifo this year, and will do so again this August on the island, when along with a few Maloya artists (and with special guests, AFROPUNK faves Ibeyi) he introduces a showcase of his own making, dubbed AURUS Run.

“I grew up listening to a lot of soul and pop music, then I fell in love with jazz, the cathartic freedom of improvisation, and Maloya’s always been within and around me. On Chimera, I wanted to use the traditional instruments of Maloya (kayamb, roulèr, pikèr, tambour malbar) outside of the world music experience, creating another percussive context. They coexist with the electro sounds, the organic samples, within an orchestral-pop shell. This is my musical kind of Chimera: tradition meets modernity… English meets Creole (which is another uncommon thing to do in Reunion). I also love to play with my voice as an instrument, taking it outside its regular use in pop music.

“Maloya songs refer to slavery, social conditions, but they were also politically oriented. This is why it was banned by the French government in the ’60s! Poverty, inequity, racism, etc. are themes often found in today’s music as well. Hip-Hop, for instance, has been and still is a current that is strongly addressing social issues and injustice. To me, in every genre, there are more and more artists that really tackle the problem of modern slavery, in their own way and from their own perspective. And whether it is from a social point of view, a psychological point of view, or through a philosophical prism, they all are dots in the same ever-growing web.  In the end, I think we’re all saying something similar: We are enslaved by a system/government/drug/lobby/you name it. We are manipulated, and if we don’t pay attention and open our eyes, we will end up enslaving ourselves too.” 


Maya Kamaty (photo c/o artist)

Maya Kamaty cannot be counted as a newcomer to the Maloya scene, as she was steeped in its culture from birth. Having spent years on Sakifo stages, she took a break this year to share her knowledge at an IOMMA workshop called, “Storytelling: An Artist’s Point of View”, which is where I found myself caught up in conversation about the island’s history. Originally Maya Pounia, daughter of legendary Maloya activist Gilbert Pounia, Maya makes a point of using her own voice, style and writing to speak her own present-day truths regardless of the notoriety of her parents, who years ago were at the center of a cultural movement called Ziskakan (meaning “until when”) which preserved Creole language and lifestyle. On her latest offering, Pandiye (loosely translating to  “suspended”), Maya emphasizes her Creole roots with an entrancing Tamil twist. 

“In the beginning I didn’t want to do music at all. Life was impossible. We’d go to a restaurant to have dinner and people would come and talk to my parents for hours and hours — they’re really well known here. The level was too high for me to meet, musically. I didn’t want to try music or talk about Creole. I was looking beyond the sea. And then I went to study in the south of France, and people kept asking about my father. I realised the value of my parents work. At the end of the 70s, Creole and Maloya was not well perceived… In their time, there was a lot of repression, but now I have my own fight. We’re not living the same moment, so today, I’m writing a lot about what I’m living… What I’m seeing around me. About society and the values that I have; the education that I had and what my parents taught me about helping people. What I’m trying to do is play with the words in Creole a bit, because the words are so poetic, with so many images. I found a way to return to what was always mine.” 


Saya performing at IOMMA 2019 (photo: Guillaume Belaud)

Saya sees his journey through Maloya as more than an experiment, but rather a testament to the cultural history of La Reunion, particularly on his recent project, Domin. Coming to IOMMA this year to perform with a new trio, Simon himself had seen his identity evolve through taking up the old ways and combining them with the new. As a tradition, Maloya music is usually only performed during certain ceremonies called “kabar” which take place a few times a year; it is not meant to be played solo, with one person playing the percussion instruments, piker and sati, while accompanists play various other drums. For Saya, the first step to realizing the outfit he knew would do the island’s ancestors justice, was connecting with other musicians.

“For me it’s really important to have the traditional instruments on stage and also on the records. So that’s why it’s not only electronics — this is Maloya-Electro. I started to work with percussionists as well because I needed to have contact with people. For Maloya we’ve got another word… the place where we play Maloya usually is a ‘kabar’ and ‘kabar’ means “togetherness.” So when you play Maloya actually you’re not meant to be performing solo. If you see someone who is playing Maloya, you’re going to be expected to dance with him and sing with him…It’s about communication. And so when I was only on the computers I was geeking out on the computers alone — I missed that connection. I called Ben and Stefan, two good musicians that I know from a long time and we started to work on the project. Stefan is on the rouler and Ben is on the piker-sati. Doing it this way…it feels right.” 


Continuadores performing at IOMMA 2019 (photo: Guillaume Belaud)

Continuadores is a duo consisting of Tiago Correia-Paulo, who under the name A Million Things is a sought-after producer in South Africa, and Ailton Matavela, who also makes and produces music as Trkz. Continuadores is a new audio-visual outfit committed to conveying Mozambique’s early post-colonial social ideals. Performing on the opening night of IOMMA and again on the closing night of Sakifo, this fluid and cinematic group integrates some pretty deep themes, the mysteries and evolutions of life and light, the convergence of these in the open sea, and their arrival on the coast. Uncanny how colonization works in the same way — mysterious beings coming from the ocean who then go on to change the narrative of life itself inland. In this way, Continuadores’ sonic exploration of the sea’s role in our histories makes for a very introspective experience — deep, dark, nostalgic, but also very, very present. And with the live addition of a third multi-instrumentalist, Pedro Pinto Da Silva who joins in the fluid role exchange on-stage, it seems Tiago and Ailton have found a perfectly stable idea to help set memory and imagination to music. 

“We are inspired by the spirit of the revolution, the idea of ​​emancipation through culture. Through our music and visuals, we try to make people optimistic, to give them emotions, to bring a little light. To explore in music the philosophy of our first president, Samora Machel, a key figure in the liberation and unity of the country, is not only important, but above all useful in our view. He was a man of culture and arts, for whom it was important to create platforms to promote them.” says Tiago. “Even if our sound does not sound Mozambican and we do not use traditional instruments, it is important for us that there is a connection with this part of our history, not to make music that just sounds good to the rest of the world on the radio. Because what happened in the years after independence, from the mid-70s and during the 80s, contributed not only to the construction of the city of Maputo, but also to the beginning of construction of an identity. “