In the United States, we rarely engage with the music and culture of the Mascarene Islands of the Indian Ocean. Island after island is made lively by a rich tradition of music that was begun in the 17th century in Réunion by transplanted enslaved Africans, a style called Maloya. Ann O’Aro’s eponymous 2019 recording is a rare contemporary Maloya album from Réunion that has been introduced to American audiences. It is an album of creole chansons wherein words and vocal melodies and harmonies expand Maloya, the music heard as the album’s rhythms. Self-empowerment and empowering others underline O’Aro’s art, manifesting the horror, beauty, and the resistance in being a woman from Réunion.
The first enslaved people were introduced to Réunion in 1680 from Madagascar, mainland Africa, and India. Originally named Bourbon by the French, Réunion was a rest stop for ships until plantations were established. Eclipsed by the profitability of Caribbean colonies, Réunion was a marginal colony until ruin and loss of fortune during the Haitian Revolution led to a renewed French interest in the island. By the 1850s, fueled by indentured servants from India along with the descendants of enslaved Africans freed in 1848, Réunion became very profitable.
A geography was born out of this new prosperity. Sugar cane plantations dotted the plains as did servants and enslaved people living in communal thatched-roof housing. In the mountains a different geography focused on the culture of tobacco, geraniums, and coffee developed, as did maroon villages. The plains were much more colonized by the French, and even the names of enslaved people and servants were influenced by this.
Maloya came to be on the island’s sugar plantations, first as religious music. It was first called “Danse des Noirs,” or Dance of the Blacks, then “Danse des Cafres,” before becoming Séga, and finally Maloya, a Malagasy word meaning “pain.” Maloya has less European influence than Séga, which uses instruments such as guitars and accordions. Service Kaf and servis Kabaré are what remain of the religious practices of the enslaved people who began the tradition of Maloya. It is understood to have been first a way for enslaved people to honor and communicate with ancestors. Feet-stomping, swaying of the hips, and partners not touching each other are characteristic of Maloya dancing.
Ann O’Aro’s Maloya is much different than early Maloya. With texts written as creole poems, though it shares traditional instrumentation with early Maloya, the philosophies and orchestration diverge. In the album, the instruments—trumpet, sati, rouleur, euphonium, piccolo, kayanm, flutes, and piccolo—are a medley of traditional and non-traditional. Without chords, the instrumentation separates itself from most musical modernism. The rouleur, the sati, and the kayanm are the traditional Maloya instruments.
“Roule le maloya” is what one says to mean play the Maloya, because Maloya’s main instrument is the rouleur. The rouleur is in the shape of a barrel and covered on one side with ox skin. It rests horizontally on a santye, a base. It is played with bare hands. The sati is a second traditional Maloya instrument and is a flat metal sheet played with sticks. The kayanm is made of sugarcane reeds filled in with canna seeds. It is played with a swaying movement.
Ann O’Aro is in the style of Maloya after 1981. In the 1960s and 1970s, Réunion became a hotbed of radicality, which changed Maloya from being a traditional acoustic music to an electronic one. Maloya records were aflame with social protest. The PCR, the communist party of Réunion, promoted it.
Maloya was banned in the 1970s because of this and because of the content of its lyrics. Maloya reemerged in 1981, when the Left came to power, as a music of creole identity. Bands like Ziskanan played songs with lyrics often written by poets such as Axel Gauvin (Bato Fou), in the long tradition of French chanson. Ti Fock, Christine Salem, Danyèl Waro, and recently Jako Maron are all well-known in this resurgence.
Ann O’Aro means to empower with her music. The album begins with “Lo Lor Kapé,” a sad sounding song full of melodic complexity, with moments of spoken word. “Dann Fon Laba” is also a song full of melodic complexity, and raw spoken word. Her vocals impress throughout the album. “Oktob” and “Kamayang” are gems of vocalization, melody, and imaginative instrumentalization.
In “Kap Kap,” she confronts her father, who sexually abused her at a young age. She ran away from Réunion, living in France and Canada, until she felt ready to head back home. Her vocalizations are certainly informed by her experience, but it would be wrong to ascribe them to sexual abuse. Masterful at arranging poetry and at singing, the song, like the others, captivates because of her vocals.
This album is a masterpiece of urbane melodies that resemble many French chansons. “Valval Rouz” hints at a love for classical music, as if she’s playing the violin with her voice. Ann O’Aro’s songs are not danceable. Are these songs Maloya? Maloya is meant to be danced; just listen to any songs by Danyèl Waro. Maybe this is for a new dance, the kind of dance that is less heavy in rhythm and more about bodily movement in silence, like in ballet.
Ann O’Aro’s mix of traditional and nontraditional Maloya instruments is in the vein of this métissage. Raw, afflicted, and yet beautiful, Ann O’Aro is the sound of Réunion itself.