Sega sound waves

The Indian Ocean connects Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia, and for centuries sailors plied the marine trade roots connecting the three. A clear example of cultural transmission via trade routes is the fact that Madagascar has a population that speaks a language that originated in the Indonesian archipelago.

Many of the Indian Ocean islands, such as Mauritius, Reunion and Maldives, have unique cultural roots, mainly as a result of slavery (Africans forcibly taken from East Africa and the Horn of Africa) and indentured labour (South Asian workers sent to these islands to work on sugar cane plantations). As a result, African, Arabic, Indian and Southeast Asian descendants — plus some Chinese and Arabic traders — have created unique musical cultures on their islands, particularly in the southwest corner of the Indian Ocean.

My first experience with local Indian Ocean styles was maloya, which I saw performed by Reunion’s Danyel Waro who told me that the music of the region was a mix of local rhythms like sega, blended with European, African, Indian and Arabic influences. He added that after slaves and farm labourers had finished their work, they would get out drums and home-made instruments and dance; similar to the story of blues in the US.

By the 19th century, a Creole population was established on many islands and Western instruments like the violin and accordion were adopted and added to drums (the main one is called the ravanne), bamboo percussion and even conch shells. The most popular local style that was developed was sega (originally called tchega), a rootsy Afro-Malagasy dance accompanied by drums.

Locals also adapted Western musical dance styles like the quadrille, polka, waltz and mazurka. Sega has a unique rhythm, based mainly on 6/8 time (taken from European dances) but also breaking out into 12/8 time; the combination of the two time signatures gives the music a fast and slow rhythmic quality that, at times, sounds like some calypso songs; some of the songs also sound similar to Garifuna music from Honduras and Belize (a blend of indigenous, European and African influences).

After World War II, many kinds of music — blues, jazz, rock’n’roll, Bollywood, French pop and chanson — arrived on the island and was taken up by local musicians. This, too, influenced a modern sega style. Musicians adopted bass and electric guitars and dropped accordions and violins. The process began in the 50s, and was dominated by the acknowledged master of sega Ti Frere.

By the 70s, sega was entering its “golden era”, with bands playing on all the major islands, although Mauritius seems to have been the epicentre of sega; new, small labels sprang up and a generation of producers cut their teeth on sega. A new compilation, Soul Sega Sa! Indian Ocean Segas From The 70’s (Bongo Joes/FolkWelt, Switzerland, 2016), puts the spotlight on one of the region’s lesser known musical styles. The album is available on CD and vinyl format but the latter has a production run of just 1,000 copies, so rush if you want a vinyl version (available at Zudrangma Records in Bangkok).

This album highlights the creative production of these new producers as they pushed the boundaries of the music: you can hear the distorted keyboards, fuzz and funk guitars and soul-inspired bouncy basslines, blended with the driving beat of the ravanne drum, as well as bongos, claves, triangles and maracas. My favourites on the album so far are the opening track, Sega Maniville by Jocelyn Perreau and the Stillwaters, which is so like Garifuna music, with its stripped down voice and lilting percussion groove, the zouk-like Claudio by Raphael Zougadeur (complete with “pinging” synth drums) and Maloya Ton Tisane by Michou, which features some terrific female harmonies.

This is an important album, covering a popular Indian Ocean style that should be better known outside the region. I’ll certainly be playing some sega at my next DJ night.

Visit www.folkwelt.com/www.bongojoe.ch.


This columnist can be contacted at clewley.john@gmail.com.