fri 12/07/2024

theartsdesk in La Réunion: Safiko Festival | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in La Réunion: Safiko Festival

theartsdesk in La Réunion: Safiko Festival

The prolific, percussive music-making of a remote former French colony in the Indian Ocean deserves to be better known

Percussion rules La Réunion@ Pascal Quiquempoix

Some people go on holiday to relax on a beach. Others to trek through a glorious landscape. Or to explore magnificent architecture/extravagant nightclubs. Myself, well, I’m a musical tourist. Which often means I’m in rather blighted states. I’ve spent more time in Mississippi than New York, regularly returned to Romania yet barely know France. So when the offer came to attend a musical festival in La Réunion I didn’t have to think twice.

La Réunion, an island in the Indian Ocean, rarely attracts UK attention – beyond when Piton de la Fournaise, Réunion’s very active volcano (pictured below), blows its top (last exploding in 2007). It is viewed here (and elsewhere) as an exotic French colony (true). Yet anyone who caught Danyel Waro’s debut UK performance at last year’s WOMAD festival would be well aware that longstanding rumours of La Réunion's magnificent indigenous music scene might not be exaggerated.

Waro possesses a shadowy legend – he’s been noted for his talent since the late 1970s but, for a long time, refused to record and rarely ventures beyond La Réunion. A veteran activist – refusing to undertake military service, he spent two years in a French jail - with ties to the local communist party, he distrusts the music industry and has no desire to become a professional “entertainer”. Waro plays “maloya”, a music sung in Creole (“kreol” to locals) patois and reliant almost entirely on home-made percussion instruments and voice. Maloya’s pulsing rhythms and call-and-response vocals recall Brazilian samba, Haitian coupe and New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indians, all intensely African-flavoured music forms created by the descendants of slaves.

Maloya’s African pulse and patois were viewed as dangerously subversive by both the local authorities and the Catholic church and it was banned from local radio and TV in La Réunion until the election in 1981 of President Mitterand, who enacted a series of measures that gave French colonies like La Réunion far greater freedom. Since then maloya has been embraced across the island as a local treasure and, via the Diaspora, found an audience in France. But it remains a music largely unheard outside of Réunion and, what with Cuba and Mali having been musically strip-mined while the likes Jamaica and the Balkans have failed to offer fascinating new sounds in recent years, La Réunion sounds like the right place for this musical tourist.

Not that it’s exactly easy to get there. I fly to Paris then wait five hours for a connecting flight on Air Austral, the local carrier. The flight is packed – whether full of festival-goers or simply Parisians heading off on holiday I’m unsure – and takes almost 11 hours. Upon arrival I find the airport rain-swept and windy. I left London for this?

The following morning I head out to explore “le sud sauvauge” (the Wild South). The towns (villes) are small and the land incredibly lush (pictured above left) while the coast is black rock and black sand. Then the landscape becomes a vast lunar park: the lava from explosions in recent years has poured out from Piton de la Fournaise and flowed down to the sea, leaving a vast black scar across the land. With rain and mist hanging in the atmosphere and the sea crashing several metres below this stretch of La Réunion feels eerie, at once both prehistoric and futuristic.

That evening Christine Salem (pictured right Jean-Noel Enilorac) performs. Salem is maloya’s rising star and as soon as the slim, very intense-looking singer takes the stage, backed by three men playing percussive instruments, I realise I’m witnessing a major talent. The percussionists’ beat and rattle instruments until they create a great pulse of sound, then Salem starts chant-singing, her voice building and building. The rhythms possess an elemental funk while Salem’s voice has an Esther Phillips-type intensity: she chews on vowels, gets involved in the elemental call-and-response vocal that is the basis of gospel and soul and roars with something akin to ecstasy or fury.

The following day I drive into St Pierre, park and find a relaxed Creole town with a huge mosque and Catholic church, Chinese and Tamil temples. I interview Jérôme Galabert, director of the Sakifo festival, and he praises La Réunion’s prodigious music-makers: this small island of 800,000 releases over 300 new albums by local artists every year! I ask Galabert if La Réunion is the new Cuba (musically, not politically) and he replies, “Inshallah!”

At St Pierre’s lagoon – this part of the West Coast finds the sea too fierce for swimming so the lagoon has been created to ensure a dip is possible – I jump into the Indian Ocean. Water’s lovely. I’ve been informed that this year Réunion has suffered a record number of shark attacks. The thought of becoming a fish supper ensures I stay close to shore.

That evening St Pierre celebrates the beginning of Sakifo festival by hosting four different stages along the sea front where a multitude of local and international bands play. Kicking things off are a Dutch DJ and Chinese vocalist. They’ve obviously spent many hours studying the collected work of Morcheeba. The crowd that initially gathered vanishes. Even the sharks I noted earlier circling the lagoon swim off towards Madagascar. Things don’t improve. A young Australian strangles his guitar. A Madagascan band play a pleasant acoustic folk-pop. The last stage hosts a Kenyan woman who sings R&B and keeps dictating to the audience in American-accented English. Nathalie Natiembe, a maloya singer whose album I had enjoyed, turns out to be fronting one of those French rock-electro bands that bash hell out of everything.

Sakifo is nine years old and surely the most beautifully sited festival on earth

Actually, the only music of interest I hear all evening is a young maloya band who set up in an outside bar and let rip. The singer rattles his kayamb (a shaker made from sugarcane stalks and filled with seeds) and roars while six musicians bash percussive instruments that look as if they were built from scrap metal. Imagine a junkyard James Brown. A tightly sprung groove quickly takes shape and the black Réunionnais crowd start dancing furiously. Maloya rocks, no doubt about it.

On Friday I climb Piton de la Fournaise – yes, right up to the smoking crater. This five-hour trek ensures I do not attend the opening night of Sakifo festival. Saturday finds Finley Quaye having cancelled (a problem finding his passport is the excuse). Arriving at Sakifo at 7pm I find the festival built right onto the beach – from the main stage to the sea is less than five minutes' walk. Sakifo is nine years old and surely the most beautifully sited festival on earth. Why isn’t it more famous? Obviously, the Réunionnais’ and French attendees have kept it a secret because they want to keep it all for themselves. Four stages and a DJ area are scattered along the beach front. The first band I catch is Moriarty, a French outfit who largely sing in English and do a Mumford & Sons-style take on American roots music. Then Moriarty are joined by Christine Salem. She possesses a fierce presence and her kreol chants lend songs a guttural intensity.

Finley Quaye’s replaced by Lindago, a maloya band led by a huge black man. They have a great energy and the multi-percussion instruments build and build. Lindago make party music and everyone is having a good time but it’s heavy too, a density of percussion pushing things into African trance territory.

Sharon Jones is Saturday’s headliner. While I admire her energy, enthusiasm and Dap-Kings backing band Jones appears overwrought compared to Salem. A French chanson singer on a smaller stage gets great applause while a Canadian electro band go through the electronic motions.

I rise early on Sunday because Danyel Waro (pictured left @ Pascal Quiquempoix), the godfather of maloya, a man equal parts Woody Guthrie, Joe Strummer and Youssou N’Dour, is performing a free concert at 9am. Backed by four percussionists, Waro has a remarkably expressive voice, sandpapery and soulful. When he sings a capella - or simply accompanied by a kora - his voice is bluesy, full of raw melody and quite beautiful. Yet most of the time he keeps things up tempo, pushing the rhythm until it feels like his music could crack the humid air. The local Creoles whoop with joy, dancing slow steps in the heat, beer flowing and marijuana’s sweet, sticky scent adding languor to the festival.

That evening Sakifo has smaller crowds and a quieter vibe. France provides the evening’s best music with dub duo Tom Fire and Chinese Man’s likeably kooky dancehall both working beautifully. Nicest touch: the workers in a Creole food kitchen that I’d eaten at earlier put down their utensils, picked up a kayamd and some homemade percussion instruments and rocked maloya amongst the pots. Then the Sakifo Festival is over. Next year is its 10th anniversary. Music tourists: note it on your calendars.

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