Dancing to a Kreole beat in Mauritius

FEEL THE BEAT: A woman dances the sega in Pointe-aux-Piments, Mauritius.
FEEL THE BEAT: A woman dances the sega in Pointe-aux-Piments, Mauritius.

Men in white, raggedy cut-off pants, their skin glistening with sweat, sing and play the traditional instrument, the ravane - a wooden hoop covered in stretched goat skin - next to a flaming fire.

They are preparing for their part in the Sega Dance Festival, part of the International Kreol Festival, at Le Morne beach in the south of Mauritius.

Up on stage women in the outfits their slave forebears wore - headscarves, hooped earrings, blouses and flouncy skirts - dance passionately to the strong and vibrant music that has kept the Kreoles of this small island in the Indian Ocean going for hundreds of years.

It's hard not to dance along with them as the rhythm takes control, but it's easy to see why Sega was banned by the church, and is known as the blues of Mauritius.

As Marcel Lindsay Noe, consultant in cultural tourism with the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority, explains: "It was real hard core. They had rum to drink. And they warmed themselves up by the fire. It was very erotic. You dance but you never touch until you disappear in the bushes. The movement is in the bum and the calves."

Pronounced saygah, the Sega originated from the ritual music of Madagascar and the mainland of Africa, originally sung by the slaves brought here after 1598 by the Dutch.

While the Arabs had previously used the uninhabited island as a trading base, the Dutch stayed longer, protecting their precious ebony trade, as well as making Mauritius a stopover on the Dutch East India Company's trade route to the East Indies.

Then came the French, who developed cotton, coffee and sugar cane.

The slaves were finally freed in 1835 by the British, who then brought one million indentured labourers from Bihar and Utah Pradesh in India.

Ian C.A Douglas, the Minister of Tourism and Legal Affairs of the Commonwealth of Dominica in the West Indies, told a conference which was part of the festival that the Negritude and Indian Diaspora movements share similarities, as half the one million Indians that were brought to Mauritius also faced slavery - a staggering number that seems to have been forgotten by history.

Although the Indians have held festivals here for years, it's only recently that the country has formally recognised the culture and music of the Kreoles, who themselves are a mixture of races and represent about 30 per cent of the island's almost 1.3 million people.

"Before, the Kreoles in Mauritius used to be mainly set back... they were not proud to say they were Kreole," Noe says. "They tried to be white."

So the Kreol Festival was created to bring people from all over the world, in the tradition of similar festivals held in the Seychelles. Its main event was an all-night concert, headlined by Zout Machine from Guadalupe.

"In these times of globalisation it's very easy to lose your base and boundaries," says Noe, who is of French Mauritian background and has lived in Australia. "We want to keep the Kreole culture going because if not you just blend into American culture.

"There's about 20 million Kreoles in the world - in the Caribbean, Jamaica and other countries. Reggae is also Kreole culture."

The Kreole language is a form of Pidgin French we learn during a language lesson at our hotel, Zilwa Attitude at Kalodyne, close to the fishermen's village of Grand Gaube on the north coast.

It only recently has had its own dictionary and grammar recorded.

"This is a really crucial point for us because this is the first year we got accepted for the Kreole to be taught in schools," Noe says. "The problem we had, the kids from underprivileged areas they went to school but when the teachers were talking French and English they couldn't understand.

"It (the Kreole language) is also now accepted at university. It's very exciting at this stage because this year we're saying this is Mauritius in the Kreole world."

Mauritian singer Bruno Raya is one of the comperes at the all-night concert where the crowd, estimated at 80,000, has been going wild since sunset, listening to bands from all over the Kreole world accompanied by colourfully-dressed dance troupes.

"This festival values the culture of Mauritius," he tells me when we meet backstage. "It unites all Mauritians, what we eat and what we wear, that's Kreole and that Kreole unites everybody else."

STAYING THERE: Zilwa Attitude has used local artists and designers for rooms based on the old beach holiday houses and "boutiks", the Kreole name for grocery shops with thatch tin or shingle roofs. For details, zilwa-hotel-mauritius.com.

PLAYING THERE: Maurtourco offers all sorts of different tours: mautourco.com. For more information on the International Kreol Festival, which will be held in December 2014, visit tourism-mauritius.mu.

The writer travelled as a guest of the Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority.