May 16, 2017

Maloya band 1971

I have no statistics to back me up, but I’m reasonably certain that if you make music on a volcanic rock once called Bourbon Island that was originally settled by French Mutineers, the odds are that high that the final product will be magical. Bourbon has since been rebranded as Reunion Island, the music that was once called sega has been renamed Electric Maloya, but the ultimate effect is identical. Songs disguised as spells. That’s not occult language used for the purposes of bombast, that’s literal definition.

Traditional Maloya embodied the songs, music and dance of 16th Century slaves toiling on sugar plantations on the island just East of Madagascar. They were threnodies of pain and resistance where the undercurrent of joy couldn’t be snuffed out by vicious overseers. They were also imprecations cast at seances for ancestral spirits, tributes to the dead, gateways invoked to open the doors to the spirit world. Magic.

The land is mystical by nature, smothered in a type of lush jungle called cloud forest. Most of the original fauna was killed by the avarice and consumption of imperialists eager to clear out land and introduce foreign species. Hence, the flightless birds of the islands — once a hotbed for the dodo — are mostly extinct. The songs somehow survived, and by the 1930s earned a burnish of respectability as folklorist Georges Fourcade brought them to the greater population of the island (currently somewhere around 850,000). In the 50s, they made their way to 78rpm records. As France was aflame in the 60s, the turbulence spread to the Mascarenes, where on Reunion it become a form of social protest.

What we’re premiering today is music birthed from what came next, with roots in arcane ceremonies and ancient regimes. Electric Maloya emerged in modern form in the mid-70s, as Western instrumentation floated to the islands and fused with traditional Malagasy, African, French and Indian acoustic sounds. This anthem below comes from Herve Imare, one of the most legendary vocalists that the island produced. You can hear the strains of Afro-Beat, Congolese guitar, and something singular and remote, polyrhythms that can’t be placed, blues and soul from a sacred inalienable source. Creole at its purest form and some of the best sounds that you’ll hear this year or any other — dropping June 16 on Strut, impeccably curated by Réunionese DJ duo La Basse Tropicale.