La Réunion is an island in the Indian Ocean, between Madagascar and Mauritius, and it’s a département of France. This means it’s as much an integral part of the French nation as Brittany, Alsace or Corsica. (Not incidental examples!) Unsurprisingly, though, Réunionese creole culture doesn’t have a huge amount in common with that of L’Hexagone (mainland France) – including the music. Possibly the most interesting local music is maloya. Maloya consists of lots of percussion and call-and-response vocal chants. It’s often compared to the blues, although I don’t really know why; I’m not a big blues expert but I think blues tends to feature a lot more melodic instruments and a lot fewer rhythmic ones. Maloya was once banned on Réunion since it was used by the local communist party to agitate for the island’s independence. When François Mitterand became president of France in 1981, however, the Parti Communiste Réunionnais decided to give up that fight, and playing maloya became less of a political act. The music became less underground and more popular, and seems to have only grown in popularity. The last ten years or so, in particular, have seen a wealth of new talent coming up, including the likes of Christine Salem and current hot property Maya Kamaty, while slighter older figures like Danyèl Waro have started to receive more attention outside of the island.
Maya Kematy playing a slightly more relaxed version of maloya than Granmoun Lélé’s
The album I’m discussing here, however, is by one of the great old guard – the people who kept maloya alive during the underground years. Julien Philéas, aka Granmoun Lélé – ‘Granmoun’ meaning ‘grandfather’ and ‘lélé’ being a corruption of ‘le lait’, apparently because young Julien always used to beg for milk from his mother – sung maloya for most of his life, but only made his first recordings in his late 60s (the music being illegal may have had something to do with it). Having worked most of his life in a sugar factory – presumably under slightly better conditions than the sugar plantation slaves who created maloya on Réunion – Lélé became the grandfather figure to the whole genre. He was not only a musician, but also a magician and priest. Like superficially similar percussion-based music in Cuba or Haiti, maloya is linked to creole religious cults, and often its lyrics are encoded with secret references – again a link to the days of slavery, when things needed to be kept secret from the overseer. The Granmoun was an intensely religious man, praying to his personal god every day, and he was renowned for the dramatic performances at his chapel. Piety doesn’t have to stand in the way of a good time, of course; this is loud, danceable, trance-inducing music, and apparently plenty of rhum was involved in Lélé’s ceremonies too. (If you’ve never tried rhum agricole – ‘French-style’ rum, as produced in the Indian Ocean and Martinique and Guadeloupe – I thoroughly recommend it.)
Lélé made four albums, all of which are great. ‘Zelvoula’ is the last, recorded in 2004 – the year the great man died – and possibly the best. Although Lélé was getting on in years by the time he recorded ‘Zelvoula’, and had suffered ill health from many years, you’d never know it from listening to his voice. He sings exactly like you would expect someone who is used to commanding ceremonies over loud percussion to sing. He chants lyrics in Réunion Creole and Malagasy – Lélé’s mother was from Madagascar – and is backed up by a chorus and drum group largely composed of his children. One of the main instruments is a shaker called a kayamb (or caïamba), along with a large bass drum called a rouleur. Another important instrument is the twanging musical bow called a bob or bobre, which is similar to the Brazilian berimbau. The musicians here also use the West African djembe, along with several other percussion instruments I haven’t heard in any other context. Although the music is largely percussive, there’s a few tracks here featuring saxophone and bass clarinet played by someone calling himself Professor Jah Pimpin, best heard on the instrumental ‘Groovelélé’. Lélé’s group are credited with introducing new instruments to maloya which have gone on to become part of the standard instrumentation now. Despite his knowledge of the tradition, Lélé and his group never played maloya in its ‘purest’ form, but innovated within the tradition while remaining true to it – as all the truly great musicians do.
The relentless rustling of the kayamb gives the music its main pulse, and the various patterns of the other drums make this much more danceable than blues. The production on this album has to be mentioned, as every instrument comes through loud and clear. The main focus in Lélé himself though, of course, and his strident voice. He is joined on three tracks by the great Malagasy salegy singer Jaojoby, showing Lélé reaching out to his roots across the Indian Ocean. Jaojoby also helps Lélé return to his roots in another way, by singing on a new version of ‘Namouniman’, the title-track of Lélé’s first album and a massive hit on Réunion when it was first released. Although the lyrics to these songs will remain a mystery to anyone who doesn’t speak Creole or Malagasy, the songs – which include originals songs as well as traditional tunes – cover topics such as folk stories dealing with morality and magic, Lélé’s real-life health problems in ‘L’Année 2000’, and even two songs adapted from Tamil wedding dances (Réunion’s creole population includes a large South Indian element). Whatever the exact topics of the lyrics, the endless drive of the drums is bewitching, and Lélé’s own charisma and energy can be heard in every note he sings.
The original version of ‘Namouniman’ without Jaojoby
Whether or not it’s similar to the blues in being derived from the days of slavery, ‘blues’ is so called because it sounds miserable. Granmoun Lélé’s maloya definitely doesn’t. Listen here.