Various Artists, Strut Records, 2016, LP or CD
The geography of African diaspora music is most often thought of in trans-Atlantic terms: blues and jazz, soca and reggae, rumba and lundu. With a nod to North African styles on the Eurasian shores of the Mediterranean and Red Sea, the limits of cultural influence are sealed. But we often forget that the traffic in humans also went east, with slave communities on Mauritius, Réunion, Rodrigues, Agaléga, and beyond. These Indian Ocean islands are distant from the current of world events, and even far from seafaring routes. Nevertheless, historical African, European, Chinese, Arab, and Hindu communities have formed and, over the centuries, culturally synthesized
Séga music is the traditional music of these islands, originating among transported slaves from Africa and Madagascar between the 17th and 19th centuries, to labor in French, and later British, sugar cane plantaitons. It began as an improvised night-music of exile and dépaysé, but also functioned ritually during funerals and exorcisms. Although the exact origins of the practice and the term séga—are uncertain, the instrumentation and structure of this early, largely percussive and vocal incarnation appear to have been purely African.
Predictably, the Catholic Church and colonial administration outlawed séga, and, like many African diaspora musics, it gradually began to lose its ritual character and become a popular genre, filled with word-play, double entendre and onomatopoeia, one of two elements crucial to all nearly forms of séga; the other being use of the ravanne, a tambourine-like instrument made from goat-skin. In the 20th century, séga came to mean many things to many communities: an obsessive drum-call for dancers in the black settlments; séga salon, a ‘civilized’ form incorporating accordion, banjo, and violin for plantation parties; séga bhojpuri (also known as séga Bollywood), a form incorporating dholok and tabla, adopted by the Hindu community; Santé engagé, a protest song genre; and later, séga pop, séga zouk, séga kordéon, maloya, and so on. Indian Ocean vernacular music was not released to the local market until after the Second World War. Reportedly, the first vinyl record was ‘Tamassa’ (1948) by Alphonse Ravaton, better known as Ti Frère, who became a national hero and symbol of Creole identity on Mauritius.
It was during the last half of the 20th century that séga found an international audience and transformative elements of European and American music were brought home. Musicians’ careers and record labels were launched on Mauritius and Réunion, as well as in Madagascar for Malagasy-language séga, and in the Seychelles. By 1970, there was a séga for everyone and everyone was for séga. This geographically isolated, but culturally rich scene, during the 1970s, is the subject of a compilation released this year by the UK’s Strut Records, a label otherwise known for its reissues of Afrobeat classics. Soul Sok Séga collects rare 45 sides from Jean-Claude Gaspard, Cyril Labonne, John Kenneth Nelson, Ramone, Yoyo, Catherine Velienne, et al. Sung in both French and Creole, and heavily inflected with funk, psychedelia, and chanson, modern séga sounds unlike anything else in the world. Though always produced with the dancefloor in mind, many 70s séga tracks possess a light-hearted quality, such as the electric guitar-based track, ‘Mademoiselle’, in which Jean Claude proposes to a woman. One of the highlights of this set, Yoyo’s ballad ‘Coco Mamzelle’, a song describing the offering coconut to one’s missus, so that she may make satini coco (Mauritian coconut chutney). Claudio Veeraragoo’s tracks erupt with the sweetness and playfulness you would expect from Hindustani film songs. On the other hand, others are more searching, elusive, and preserving of the mournful, percussive gospel-blues of the original séga tradition. Les Stardust’s ‘Séga Lenoir’ is a song of shimmering radiance played on an electric organ. ‘Afro Mauricien’ reaffirms Mauritian Creoles’ African roots, and tracks like ‘Maniel Bitor’ and ‘Zenfant Misère’ recount lives hard spent.
Soul Sok Séga was compiled by La Basse Tropicale, a DJ duo from Réunion. According to them, the compilation grew out of a combined 20 years of record collecting and DJing at clubs and parties. With this remarkable set they share evidence of séga’s transformation from an African transportee night-music to a national genre inclusive of European, American, and South Asian elements. Given the creative distance these genres went in 100 years of recorded music we should also wonder the distance séga will go in the next generation.