Music that unites

Music that unites

Magical : Creole King Danyel Waro on stage

The words that are belted out passionately in Creole language are incomprehensible. That is perhaps immaterial, because when Danyel Waro lets us soak in his Maloyan music, this bluesy music strikes a subtle chord within you; you first fall in rhythm with the drum beats — and then, your ear tunes into the subtle music that wafts from the rice reed instrument and the flutes.

Then of course, there is the incredible array of other traditional instruments. Like the jazzy-sounding percussion beats that clang into the air from a pair of strange looking single-string instruments, played by jamming metal sticks on to them, rather than strumming, as one would with stringed instruments like the guitar. In a techno-racing world, where ancient instruments are fast slipping into oblivion, Waro’s music is an elixir of life for ancient soundcraft. No wonder, this composer-poet-inventor-singer-activist from the Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean has been hailed as the Creole King of Maloyan music, and conferred with the prestigious WOMEX 2010 Award for artists. 

Maloya is African music at its most enigmatic form. A musical genre from the Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, it takes its origin from the island’s plantation workers, who sang out their emotional lyrics to the strains of their homespun music, closely tied to the sounds of nature; Maloyan music sounds refreshingly different. 

 Maloyan music had virtually disappeared, thanks to it being banned by the island’s erstwhile rulers. If this indigenous music has been revived in its native island now, enough to make a mark on world music, it is largely because of Danyel Waro, who now travels around the globe with his band, spreading the quaint sound of Maloyan music. In fact, famous musician René Lacaille had publicly stated, “It was while attending Danyel Waro’s concert at the French festival ‘Printemps de Bourges’ that I was brutally thrown back in touch with my roots.” 

But unlike the plantation workers’ songs, Waro’s music is not confined to joy and sorrow. It soaks in his island’s politics, racism, resistance to French cultural influence, racism, the beauty of the spectacular island, childhood, persecuted families on the island, tributes to Nelson Mandela, tributes to the women of Jaipur…! Besides this, there is a keen desire to preserve this island’s eclectic musical traditions. Take a look at the instruments Waro favours. Like the Kayanm, which is a flat instrument made from cane flower stems and filled with saffron seeds. Kayanm produces the sound of threshing grain.

Then there is the Bob, a musical bow attached to a calabash for resonance. Another interesting one is the Rouler (meaning rollers), a big drum made from barrels with a cow-skin head, and the drummer actually sits on the drum as he beats out the rhythms; and the Molam (the very same Tamil drum) that Waro slings around his shoulders. Waro’s music bears the impact of Negro spirituals, voodoo rhythms, trance music, and even temple drum rhythms from Tamil Nadu.

The staples in Waro’s band include sound engineer Philippe Conrath, Vincent Philieas on the Congas, Damien Mandrin playing the Tancamba and Sami Pageaux Waro (who incidentally happens to be Waro’s son) on the Rouler and the Bob.

To the western world, Maloyan music sounds very complex — being a compound rhythm. But to us in India, the rhythms sound strangely familiar. “Of course, it would. Because many of the plantation workers at the Reunion Island happen to have moved in from India. Of course, they brought to the island their own musical traditions,” informs Waro. This includes Tamils from the south, people of Portuguese descent from India’s west coast, and even Gujarati sea-farers, who were shipped into Reunion Island as slaves or indentured labourers.

This beautiful island has been a melting pot for people from France, Africa, and many other countries, and this does explain the name of this quaint country. The complex ethnicity is both a boon and a bane for the islanders though. “The sense of identity is difficult to get a grip on to, because for most of our people, the ancestral lineage includes a multitude of cultures. But we have been managing to live peacefully, though,” he sums up. 

“It is from the winds that I learnt music. My father was a farm labourer and we lived in a hut without running water or electricity,” shares Waro. He never imagined becoming a musician, though he did love to listen to the radio — one of the very few luxuries possible for a poor planter boy. From listening to the radio was born Waro’s passion for lyrics. His father was a communist activist, and he eventually came to see music as a political weapon against metropolitan power. He learnt music on his own, and even got down to making his own instruments, beginning with drums. His first concert that came about in 1975 was with a set of Maloya young agricultural workers!

Not your regular musician, Waro happens to be a political activist and has even served a prison term — for refusing military service. In fact, his first lyrics in Creole was composed in a prison. Danyel Waro recorded his first album in 1987, even as he continued making instruments, ran Maloya ‘training’ programmes, and organised Maloya music workshops at local schools. Waro’s second album, Batarsité, was a direct call to his island people to be proud of their island’s ‘bastard’ society made up of Africans, Madagascans, Indians and Europeans.

“I am a practicing Catholic, but I am happy and proud when I take part in Murugan temple processions; I sing for freedom, for love, and to say that my identity is not French, not Indian, not Black, not Portuguese; and to give youngsters the courage to hold on to their cultures and not to be closed by modernity; I receive all the colours and all the cultures run in my blood,” says Waro. From plantations in a forgotten island to the top of world music, Waro has come a long way.

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