Reunion Island, French territory just off the coast of Madagascar, is one of those glaring remnants of European colonialism. Occupied by the French in the 1600’s, the island’s colonizers profited from the labour of African and Malagasy slaves for centuries. Slavery was eventually abolished on the island in 1848, but the indentured labour of workers brought in from Southeast Asia, India and East Africa allowed for exploitation and slave-like conditions to continue for years. Being black on Reunion Island, like in many other places with histories of colonialism and racism, means being at the bottom of the social hierarchy.
In an interview for the Guardian, Reunion Island musician Christine Salem describes what it was like to be a black girl growing up in a rough St. Denis neighbourhood, attending schools that taught her about the history of the Gauls (while neglecting the story of her own ancestors) and forbade the use of the Creole tongue.
Salem performs the maloya genre of music, a tradition found in various parts of Africa and the African diaspora. It involves lots of percussion, call and response vocals, and is traditionally associated with rituals involving trance and communication with ancestors and gods. Maloya was performed by Reunion Island’s former slave population, and was forbidden by the French authorities and the Catholic church at various points until 1981. It is both a political statement and a spiritual ritual.
I didn’t know any of this when I attended Salem’s concert at Femart. Accompanied by percussionists and vocalists David Abrousse and Harry Perigone, Salem launched into a hypnotizing set list of chants, melodies and protest songs – most of which are written by Salem, in a reimagining of traditional maloya songs. “Djin” most closely reflects the rhythms of a maloya ritual, with its series of chants, calls and cries.
Unfortunately, no video can do justice to how powerful Salem’s music is when performed live. Prishtina’s audiences are usually pretty sedate when attending “serious” cultural events. At the Oda Theater, the public quickly abandoned their seats in order to stand and dance along with the music.
It’s difficult to catch Salem’s politically aware lyrics without an understanding of Creole, Malagasi, Comorian or Swahili, but everyone can sense the message of songs titled “Mandela,” “Mama Don’t Give Up” and “Oh Africa.” About two hours into the performance, Salem had a French speaker in the audience come up on stage and explain that we had been dancing and singing along to once-forbidden slave music. Kosovar Albanians have never experienced slavery, but we do know something about second class treatment – and how song can serve as a declaration of independence.