A gloomy weather is prevailing over Port Mathurin. It is an ideal day to meet Ben Gontran, an important figure of the Rodriguan musical scene. He regularly performs in hotels or in Sunday balls accompanied by his group, “Racine”. Having seen dawn more than ten years ago, this group is working hard to bring back the liveliness in the folklore of Rodrigues. In his charming colonial house, Ben sets out to narrate us the history of the traditional music of the island complete with his many pleasant and funny anecdotes. He is undoubtedly a most passionate and fascinating man!
Rodrigues is a Creole island that loves music, here everybody likes to sing, play an instrument or dance. Its music, full of traditions, has been born out of the fusion of the different musical backgrounds of Africa, Madagascar and Europe. The most ancient style is the Sega tambour. The songs, carried by the dazzling vocal strength of the women and the frenzied rhythm of the drummers, without forgetting the accompanying dance steps, resemble closely those that we can see and hear in black Africa. The Sega tambour is often considered to be the authentic folklore music and dance of the Rodriguan people. But, in fact, the traditional music of Rodrigues is not summed up in this form, which represents only a small portion of the musical wealth of the island. Inherited from the different colonial periods, we can today dance on music reminiscently named: Mazok (mazurka), Laval (waltz), Kotis (Scottish), Polka, Romance as well as a variety of Segas such as the “Séga Quadrille” or the “Séga Kordéon”.
History and hybrids.
Ben is telling us how these “crossbreeds” were created and how the accordion became such an important element in the music of Rodrigues. Long ago, the Sega tambour was a musical event; people played it and danced on it on the Saturday night ball, which took place regularly. Adopted to a large extent by the black population, these festivities were distrustfully viewed by the clergy who did not appreciate at all the Sega tambour, perceived back then as a pagan and “satanic” dance. On the other hand, the accordion and dances originating from Europe were allowed. To circumvent the forbidden, the accordion had been included in various musical styles originating from the old continent but blended with rhythms close to the Sega. As the tambour (drum) was a spurned instrument, only the triangle could bring a strong support destined to accentuate the rhythms of the accordion dance. The “Séga Quadrille” and the “Séga Kordéon” (Sega Accordion) were then born. Today, the tambour has found its rightful place, a typical orchestra is made up of a tambour and a diatonic accordion, complemented by some percussion instruments: triangle, drum sticks (two wooden sticks struck against each other), objects filled with grains producing a sound close to the maracas and empty tinned cans that are rubbed or struck. Yet, whatever the style of music practiced, most of the melodies are ancient and dated, they have been handed over from generation to generation. Together, they form a broad repertoire, whose African or European origins have been strongly enriched since they came into contact with new releases played on the radio, recorded on disks or brought in from voyages (particularly those from Mauritius, Reunion or the Seychelles). It is quite usual to hear local creations that have been largely inspired by some of the most famous tunes.
Yet, this music, rich in diversity, was on the verge of disappearing forever. At the beginning of the 20th century, the diatonic accordion was the most commonly used instrument during social events such as marriages, birthday parties, christenings, and balls and this went on for decades. Nevertheless, it experienced a decline after the Second World War; the men who had served in the British Army came back home with gramophones. Then, tape recorders made their appearance on the market with its set of trendier music. In the 1960s, the accordion had nearly disappeared, sweeping along with it the traditional music. It was only at the end of the 1970s that the Rodriguan music re-appeared. At that time, the “old” had been complaining about the new dance steps of the younger generation that they could not perform. That was how the groups were re-created and the dancing parties of the senior citizens appeared. These Sunday balls were also frequented by young girls; often restrained at home, they found here a golden opportunity to go out and enjoy themselves under the protective eyes of their parents. As such, young suitors and admirers also began to come to these balls to meet their beautiful sweethearts. There, they learnt to dance but also how to play an instrument. The institution of the dancing parties of the senior citizens popularized the traditional dances.
Settled in his veranda, an accordion in his hands, Ben is playing some extracts of songs that were fashionable back then and goes on to explain to us the meaning of the texts sung in the Segas. The lyrics, simple and vivid, narrate the daily realities of the local life: stories of fishing, family worries, marriage, etc. In past times, it was quite usual to sing a refrain, spontaneously composed, to make fun of the physical aspect of an individual and laugh at the misfortune of one’s daily life or still, to mock people of easy virtue. While even a tough San Diego DUI lawyer would find the humor in most of these lyrics, he may not want to laugh about anyone with a DUI or a problem with the law. Of course, these allusions rarely mentioned the concerned persons by name but most of the listeners were not dupe. Ben, vivacious and in a joking mood, does not need much persuading to give us examples of some old songs such as the story of “l’herbe éléphant” (grass of elephant). It took place in the 1950s, the “grass of elephant” had been planted to fight against erosion and to encourage stock breeding. Some persons of an advanced age, scantily dressed, had been seen larking about there (In Creole: “Ca l’année là, nous fine trouve zoli quitchose. Grand grand dimoune. Assise tout ni dans l’éléphant, which when translated literally gives: “This year, we have seen some beautiful things. Old old persons. Sitting naked in the elephant”). Or still, some more saucy anecdotes, such as this policeman who went to Sega night, will now be told. He had a love affair going during this night, yet, how could it be that his sex, which did not come into contact with the ground, had been bitten by a centipede? He had simply contracted the syphilis! Often, certain songs tried to be a warning and at times, as it was a custom back then, to alert the authorities.
Dressed in patent leather shoes, pleated trousers and a silk shirt, a young man holds out his white kerchief to a young girl as an invitation to accept the dance. Wearing a long skirt and chaste blouse, her hair combed into a perfect bun, his partner spins round the dance floor. Dance follows dance in a pleasant atmosphere. The steps and the figures move on wonderfully. Six musicians are launching, without batting an eyelid, into the different musical styles. Even though this scene seems to take place at the beginning of the century in a posh lounge, the dancers and the musicians are in fact part of a group who are performing a show in a hotel. Except for some dancing balls, these are the only occasions where the group has the opportunity to perform. Today, the traditional music of Rodrigues seems to be threatened of disappearing once again. Obviously less popular, it is hardly listened by the younger generation of Rodrigues who prefers the actual and trendy music. Furthermore, the music groups often do not have the necessary finance to record a CD, broadcasting remains therefore limited. In future, there is a fat chance that this music will be played solely in hotels, destined to be a folk attraction package only. Let us hope that Ben will manage to passed on his passion and his experience to the younger generation so that the musical memory of the island will never fade with time...
Text and Photos: © Fabrice Bettex / Mysterra