None of the arts of the island is more closely
interwoven with its life than its music. The first authentic Mauritian sounds to have reverberated in the deep recesses of its woods and mountains were heard even before the days of the French settlement. These were
the sounds of the ‘ravanne’, whose nostalgic rhythms gave voice to the despair and yearning of the hapless slaves exiled forever in a hostile country far from their native Africa.
Our African forebears, coming as they did, from different parts of
Africa and Madagascar had no common language except music to communicate among themselves and to express the feelings of their heart. Music was to them not only a source of relief in their wretched condition, but
also an important means of social and cultural interaction. Research and fieldwork undertaken for years on the island confirm the existence not only of an important repertoire of traditional music, but also of
traditional musical instruments some of which are original and unique inventions.
Diversity and originality of musical instruments of African origin
In spite of the cruelty of their exile and the harshness of their
living conditions, the Africans of earlier days preserved long afterwards the nostalgia of their motherland. And what else could revive in them more poignantly the memories of the mother country if not the ancestral
melodies in which their childhood and youth had been steeped? And the magic of those lost days could be recaptured not only by snatches of half-remembered songs, but more importantly by the improvisation of songs,
dances and musical instruments in a different environment cut off from the living traditions of their ancient culture and isolated from the ‘dominant’ culture of the ‘colons’. Among the musical
instruments generally introduced by Africans in the island were percussion instruments which are still being used by Mauritian musicians. However it is difficult to trace their exact origin in view of the systematic
deculturisation policies in force then. Taking into consideration the unquestionable importance of the Malagasy group in Mauritius, one is naturally tempted to turn first towards Madagascar which is renowned for the
richness of its folk music and musical instruments.
Most of the drums used in Mauritius by the musicians of African
origin have known a unique evolution in their making as well as in their appellations. Generally speaking, there are very rare occasions where musical events are not accompanied by percussion instruments of some
kind. But, history tells us that it was not always so. The ealier colonisers used to prohibit general meetings of slaves Khartaal under pain of extremely severe punishments. Estate owners wanted, above
all, to prevent all forms of regroupment which could lead to rebellions. Such repressive practices were detrimental to the musical traditions of the slaves whose passion for music is well-known. But in spite
of the general ban, the slaves found ways and means to meet in secret and to keep alive some of their musical traditions. It is due to their perseverance that a great amount of percussion music of African origin has
survived to this day. The ‘bobre’ is often considered to be Malagasy in origin, although the word (from Portuguese etymology) is more readily associated with Africa. The best-known contemporary
description of this instrument comes from Bernardjn de Saint-Pierre who wrote:
“Ils (Les Malagaches) aimentpassionément la danse etLa musique. Leur instrument est le tamtam, c’est uneespèce d’arc oil est adaptée une calebasse. Ils en tirent une espèce d’harmonie
(Voyages a l’Ile de France, Paris 1773)
Used both in Madagacar and in the coastal regions of Africa, the ‘bobre,’ which is strangely called ‘tamtam’ by
Saint Pierre, was played in Mauritius with the help of a bamboo stick, while in Madagas-car the musician ‘pinches’ the string of his instrument instead of beating it. The arch is usually made of wood which is
supported by a resounding case made of dried gourd or pumpkin, a metal string and a ring to allow variations in the tension as well as tuning of the instrument. The musician usually holds the case of the instrument
firmly against his abdomen as he plays on it with his fingers and his stick creating rhythm for the songs and dances. Then came the ‘ravanne,’ the instrument par excellence which has become, over the
years, intricately interwoven with the Mauritian musical heritage. The ravanne remains the most important instrument to provide the basic rhythm for any Afro-Mauritian music especially the traditional sega. The
large and round wooden circle in which is fixed a goatskin (preferably that of a she-goat), is first heated over an open campfire and then beaten by the drummer producing throbbing beats which penetrate the
very heart of the song and dance. And when the ‘ravanne’ is accompanied by the ‘maravanne,’ another major percussion instrument which maintains an important place among the traditional “sega
tiers”, the air rebounds with the beats of the instruments. Made of wood or metal, the maravanne is an instrument in the form of a case half-filled with dried seeds. The player shakes the instrument
creating an intricate beat for the dancers of Sega. One can affirm, without fear of contradiction, that it is the ravanne and the maravanne which have, to this day, maintained the real presence of
Africa on this little island cut off from the old Black Continent.
Among the other older traditional instruments of African origin is the ‘tam-tam’ -
a big drum either carved directly from a big old tree trunk or made from a big wine drum. The ‘triangle’ fashioned out of a long iron bar is also a favourite among the traditional ‘segatiers’ and
the tinkling rhythm created by this peculiar instrument has its own moving eloquence. It is no wonder then that the traditional sega of Mauritius is unique to the island reflecting not only the sadness and nostalgia
of a forgotten past but affirming at the same time the native ‘joie de vivre’ of a race.
When the Indians landed in Mauritius under British rule, they brought
with them a more distinct category of musical heritage which was more reflective of the cultural complexity of the great sub-continent. The creative impulse of the Indian labourer found expression in a variety of
fascinating folk musical instruments which lent colour and charm to their wretched existence. The contemporary social set-up and the range of traditional rituals encouraged the Indians to maintain their musical
activities even to the extent of combining work with art. The important storehouse of folk dances, folk songs and folk musical instruments still existing on this island prove that the Indian indentured labourers
drew extensively on their cultural heritage to survive and eventually to overcome the adversities of their life in exile.