Traditional Dances/Games of the republic of Seychelles
Jean-Claude-Pascal (“Zan-Klod-Paskal”) MAHOUNE
In Africa and the African diasporas, it is generally accepted that traditional music and dance cannot be dissociated. The two usually accompanied the many rituals and ceremonies, rites of passage….
As the vast majority of Seychellois are originally from Africa, and in view of the proximity of the continent, one could expect to see the same phenomenon in Seychelles.. However, one cannot abscond the fact that Europe, in particular, and Asia had a major impact or role too in the constitution of the multiracial Seychelles’ kreol society. .
A deeper analysis of the origin and survival of the various dances could also throw more light on the reasons why some dances were better preserved than others.
Dances/Games of African origin
1 . Zwe Kafoul 2. Granmanman Bebe 3 .Konser (intermingled with folk stories, folksongs….).
Dances/Games of European origin( “Kanmtole”)
1 .Ronn (Ou est la Marguerite…...) 2 .Malere boufon 3 Lapilapon. 4 .La Boulanzer ….
DANCES OF AFRICAN ORIGIN
Dances of African origin in Seychelles are usually associated with instruments of percussion such as the moutia and ‘sega otantik’ drums falling in the membranophone family...
It appears that the term ‘moutya’ or ‘moutia’ is derived from the Bantu word ’mutcira’ which is a dance in the Nampula province (Bollee 1993:333).
Traditionally, in Seychelles, a séance of Moutia dance consisted of a gathering at night, usually on a Saturday after work, around a bonfire made out of coconut leaves. As the drums were warmed, the male members of the crowd would call out various ‘themes’ to which the female dancers responded with very high-pitched voices. These were usually social commentaries, which could feature the day’s events, scandals between spouses and… many lamentations. Moutia dancing, accompanied by the improvised songs, were creations of the most downtrodden members of the community.
These dances performed in the open were often described as a ‘ladans dan later ‘ (or ‘lapousyer’) meaning that they were danced outside, in the open air.
(This was in contrast of the dances of European origin the “kanmtole”, which were usually performed ‘inside’ (‘ladans salon’).
Moutia songs which accompanied the dancers could easily fit the category of ‘social protest’ songs The lyrics expressed the exploitation and the suffering endured by the ordinary folks who often performed the most menial and backbreaking jobs on the plantations on Mahē, the main island, including other inner islands, and the outlying islands. In unison, they repeated the refrain, with variations on the main theme of course, for example, in the following lyrics:
“Madanm Zan-Franswa I araze, Madanm Zan-Franswa I ankoler”(=Mrs Jean-Francois is angry, she is enraged)
They were probably getting even with or hitting back at the master’s wife
or, ‘Gran Zan Imsye mon bourzwa, Gran Imsye rann mwan mon lavi’
(=Great or Big Jean, my master, give me back my life)…complaining about the master himself.
A stage was reached when everybody, as if of a tacit accord or mutual consent, sang the same melody. The moutia séance had by then reached its climax. Spurred by the very deep rhythm from three drums and…. not forgetting the effect of the fermented local brew –“baka”, “lapire” or “kalou”…the dancers vented their deep routed anger and frustrations against their masters and the colonial system they represented.
At this point, the dancers would appear to have reached their ‘nirvana’-- lost in a sort of trance. The men would be dancing around their women-partners (‘bar zot’) as they shuffled their feet on the dusty ground, lifting their skirts to reveal their ‘ba zipon’(petticoats) and moving with slow but very rhythmic movements of their hips and shoulders, lowering and lifting their heads as they projected their laments .Lyrics directly challenging the authorities were not at all uncommon, such as,
:’Dir mwan si lesafo I ankor la pangar mon al sot lareg/ lalwa’ (Ton Pa)
(=Tell me if the scaffold is still there so that I might not break the regulations,,,, the laws!)
‘si ou tann Mazor Vel (a colonial police officer?) I rod mwan, dir li mwan son nennenn ki koz koum sa… dir li mwan vilenn ki koz koum sa… dir O.B.R (or Obiyar?)(Officer of the British Regiment (?) mon’n arrive (Jacob Marie aliasTon Pa)
(= if you hear that Major Vel is looking for me tell him that it is I his nanny…. it is I the ugly one… who is speaking such... tell the Officer of the British Regiment (?) that I am here”… .
The moutia dance would usually go on for a whole night until the wee hours of the morning. The Church authorities condemned the dance describing it as occasions for ‘sexual orgies’ or ‘fornication’….
Looking back, today, we could assume that it would have been impossible for the dancers to assist mass held very early on Sunday morning. The throbbing of the drums and the plaints would have also permeated the still tropical nights and ‘disturbed’ the masters resting in their luxurious villas or ‘grann kaz’.
One could easily observe , however, that there was closer physical contact between partners in a ’waltz’ or other dances of European origin than in the moutia as the moutia partners never touched one another in spite of all the suggestive movements...
Over the years, the colonial authorities did promulgate laws to curb the moutia..These took the form of measures which set limits as to when and where the moutia could be performed, restricting it outside the town area altogether .The laws stated very clearly that the beating of drums were not allowed after certain specified times….and no fires could be lit…. . “Traditional” moutia was to suffer an agonizing death under the guise of ‘disturbance of peace’ but in fact what was being destroyed was the only outlet of expression of the Seychellois masses...
Cross-cultural studies may help us to trace not only the real origin of the moutia but of the other dances which are very closely related. It seems apparent that the traditional moutia, the traditional maloya of Réunion and the traditional sega ravanne of Mauritius have the same origin. By starting to examine the instruments accompanying them and the rhythm, we can assume that as years went by there must have been, in isolation, adaptations and an independent evolution… The modern sega nowadays seems to have taken the slow but deep rhythm of the moutia although the instruments have been modernized to include synthesizers… The comparison can be pushed further when the traditional Seychelles sega is examined.
The traditional sega or “sega otantik” or “sega tranble” in Seychelles is without any doubt of African or Malagasy origin. Most of the songs which accompanied it in the past were sung in languages other than kreol, unlike the moutia. It should not be confused however with the modern sega. The instruments accompanying it were essentially hollowed-out coconut trunks with a goat’s skin tied over one end. The womenfolk could add to the tempo by hitting across a piece of bamboo. The traditional sega rhythm, as compared to the moutia rhythm, is very rapid. The dancers followed the drumbeating with very rapid feet, shoulders and hip movements. Contrary to the moutia, there was no building up of the tempo leading to a climax or trance-like atmosphere. Some of the traditional lyrics of the sega which would be incomprehensible to the dancers themselves could go as follows:
“si makibiye makowkow(2)
Cultural groups from the island of La Digue seem to have preserved the traditional sega with lyrics sung in kreol. They express the same daily concerns or preoccupations about daily struggles, for example, the search for meals during bad weather,
“Manman ki nou pou kwi tanto nou napa bouyon?…” (=Mother, what are we to cook tonight we do not have any broth), or they sang on the environment and human relations,
“Toutou, pike lare, Toutou” (3) (=Toutou spears the rayfish) and the response or second voice,
“Anba mangliye” (=under the mangroves)
One may note that the words ‘lapwent galonen, eta….’ which they often use in another of their repertoire (madilo) reminds one of the sega tanbour of Rodrigues which is the equivalent certainly of the sega tranble of Seychelles.
Some Diguois would affirm that their forebears learnt many of these dances and games from their Malagasy relatives.
However, in places like Rivière Noire in Mauritius it seems that the term ‘moutia’ is not unknown among the black or kreol population though it carries with it a connotation. The ‘moutya’ of Seychelles could be the equivalent of the traditional sega ravane of Mauritius.
The term sega appears to have been used for the first time in the early nineteenth century by authors of the period. Freycinet noted that ‘chega’ or ‘tchega’was a dance from East Africa.
In the Bantu language it could mean ‘ play’, ‘ dance’, ‘laugh’….and it resembled the ‘chica’ performed by the slaves in Brazil, Haiti, Martinique…(Lee 1990:24).
’When’ and ‘why’ the “traditional sega” or even ‘sega ravann” of Mauritius became the ‘moutia’ of Seychelles? These are questions which can be equally matched to others such as why the ‘sega otantik’ of Seychelles and the ‘sega tanbour’ of Rodrigues and the Chagos were better preserved than what could have been the authentic sega of Mauritius and equivalent to the traditional maloya of Réunion.
One author, at least, sees the explanation in the ‘ethno-cultural factor’. Benoit (1985:36) writes that in Rodrigues the sega did not suffer the musical influence of other ethnic groups. The same however could be said of the ‘quadrilles’ of European origin which still exist as the “sega lakordeon” of Rodrigues or the “kanmtole” (which includes the kontredans) of Seychelles.
The “authentic sega” of Seychelles seems to have disappeared more rapidly from the repertoire of traditional artists though it could have been introduced in Seychelles too, much later than the moutia judging on the lyrics which were not in kreol.
Some ethnomusicologists have found it hard to categorize two traditional artistic expressions which existed in Seychelles— “sokwe” or “tinge”,. Were they really dances in the first place?
The sokwe, as described by Koechlin(1976), performed years back was more like a play or a comedia del arte. A king’s subjects would gather round him “taking care” of his illness. Even a stethoscope or ‘kouta kouta’ was carried by them as would a ‘viza viza’ or rifle. The whole ceremony ended up in a dance. What is peculiar about the dance, which is the only part of the ceremony which has survived to this day, is that it is the only masked dance which seems to have survived in Seychelles until recent times. Other dances such as the ‘elephant dance’ described by a distinguished visitor, Gordon in the late 19th century (Benedict, 1974) has all disappeared. The imitation of the hunting of an elephant which ended in a dance could have been imported by the so-called “liberated slaves” who had just been landed in Seychelles from the 1860’s by British ships after they had raided the Arab dhows carrying them.
The sokwe dancers or performers would usually adorned themselves with dried banana leaves or creepers like ‘lalyann san fen’ and cover their faces with a rudimentary mask. Their dance, or rather movements, followed the calls of a ‘leader’ who alternated his voice uttering short phrases which were answered as they danced along. Many informants today would say that their parents taught them that they were imitating baboons (which surely existed where they came from) coming in from the forest. The sokwe dance repertoire could include either slow or rapid movements such as the one sung by the artist Ton Pa in an African language most probably with intermittent utterances of cries of ‘wa, wa, wa, wa, wa’ ….).He used the mouloumba to amplify his voice and even added to the humour of things by the screeching of his teeth (his peculiarity!) but any instruments could have added to the amusement.
The exact origin of the dance is as ‘mysterious’ as the dance itself. Some attribute it to West Africa (Senegal or Benin) while others to East Africa. At least one authority attributes the term “tshokwe” to Angola and another writes about the masked dancers imitating birds! (Bollee 1993:451).
“Demi zouka Simadawa(2)
Zoli anmka Simadawe(2)
Seki doka Simadawe(2)
The above lyrics from Ton Pa, which he described himself as ‘langaz makwa’ or ‘langaz mazanbik’ (Makua or Mozambique languages), seem, like those of the traditional sega, to have had a more recent introduction to Seychelles. It was not unusual for the workers on the outlying inlands to meet other peoples from either Madagascar or the East Africa region. Lyrics such as those of another tinge (according to Ton Pa) mention Zanzibar,
“Mon toutou mon sove mon ale
Mon sove mon al Zannova….
Manman, Zanzibar ki annan bouyon(zoli)”
The song describing the plight of “Sidoni Angeleza” or “Sidoni in gany anmare”, according to the artist himself, emanates from Madagascar.
In fact, the tinge which is defined by some as a kind of “folkloric game for men accompanied by clapping of hands in Seychelles” is defined as a Bantu word
meaning a kind of dance(Swahili). In makua, ‘tthinke’ is described as a dance in which two teams compete, with one copying the movements of the other, accompanied by singing and handclapping(Bollee 1993:493). If among the Tuaregs of North Africa some similar performances are called ‘tinday’, (and there are all-male and all-female performances),in Seychelles the ‘tinge’ was usually performed by men as they socialized at the local working class bars or ‘baka houses’(lakanbiz).The women and children usually did not take part but would accompany them with the clapping of hands and singing.
One rank of men facing the other would try to ’kill’ the other first, that is , placing his foot forward before the opponent pulls his out. This was the simple ‘vis a vis’ while the ‘troke’ demanded more dexterity or coordination.
The tinge in Seychelles has probably the same African roots as the ‘moringue’ of Réunion or the capoeira of Brazil. It could have been adaptations of a series of complex martial arts or ‘keep fit’ exercises for the warriors in their leisure or before a battle!
©Zan klod (Jean-Claude-Pascal MAHOUNE)