With the opening strains of the first track of this album, “Ma Ninine,” I’m hearing something that reminds me of the Cajun and Creole music of Louisiana. Francis Prosper, one of two lead vocalists in Sakili, belts out a strident a capella line in something that sounds like a French dialect, and he’s answered by a couple of additional voices, one quite high and one quite low, along with a few notes on accordion. But then the rapid one-two of the deep frame drum beat kicks in and ratchets everything up a notch, and it’s clear that this is something else.
What it is, is Séga, a Creole music of the island of Rodrigues and the rest of the islands of Mauritius, which may be one of the last types of African music to make its way to the world stage. The musicians of Sakili are in the forefront of this movement. Drummer and singer Prosper, multi-instrumentalist and singer Vallen Pierre Louis and accordion player Ricardo Legentil all had solo careers in Mauritius, but a promoter put them together for a European tour a while back and they had such success (and I suspect so much fun) that they decided to continue this project as Sakili, in addition to their solo work.
The islands of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean east of Madagacar, were colonized by a succession of European powers in the 17th century onward – Portugal, The Netherlands, France and finally Great Britain. It was run as a plantation economy with enslaved people from Africa, but its residents come from all over. In fact it’s the only African nation (and it is considered part of Africa) whose majority religion is Hinduism. Independent since the 1960s, it currently has a strong democracy and a strong economy, and from the evidence a strong music scene, too.
The lyrics are sung in Creole and the music itself is a Creole-like melange of influences: waltzes, polkas, mazurkas and more. With that accordion it sometimes reminds me of Louisiana’s Cajun and Creole music, as I mentioned, and sometimes of South African Township (the drum-and-accordion driven “Sega Ideal”), sometimes of traditional Quebecois songs — in fact many of these songs start off with an a capella section of call-and-response vocals in multi-part harmonies, including “Dan mo la kwizin,” “Badiou Semez,” and “Flanbwayan.” But at base it’s unmistakably African, with such a strong polyrhythmic base. “La ri Latanie,” its call-and-response vocals backed entirely by polyrhythmic percussion including a deep goatskin drum, would fit right in at a Rio Carnival samba parade.
That mazurka crops up in the introduction to “Misié Benet” by Legentil on solo accordion – but when Pierre Louis starts leading the vocals and the strong reggae beat kicks in, well it’s no longer a mazurka! “Melda” has the same style of vocals, but they’re backed only by percussion, and what percussion it is! Drums, shakers and much more, creating multiple layers of rhythm. This track ends abruptly and the next, a swampy waltz called “Solitaire” starts just as abruptly with a guttural chant of “No no no no no!” This one definitely belongs in Louisiana, right down on the bayou, with what sounds like a couple of homemade electric guitars strumming and plucking out the rhythm and melody, the accordion vamping, and one of the singers growling out the Creole lyrics — until about halfway through it kicks into a higher gear, more of a 6/8 rhythm than a waltz. The alblum ends with a polka-based dance called “Misie semiz afler.” But don’t forget to stop by and listen to Vallon’s song about his great-grandfather, a local trickster figure named “Ti Pierre Louis.” There’s a funny video for a solo version of this by Vallon on YouTube.
This music is seriously fun, and makes me suspect that Rodrigues would be a seriously fun place to visit. Here’s a long concert video from their 2019 European tour, this one from a date in Belgium.
(ARC Music, 2021)