La Réunion is a 2,512 square kilometre tropical island situated in the Indian Ocean, between Madagascar and Mauritius. It was a French colony, called Bourbon, built on slave trade and indentured labor until the abolition of slavery in 1848. However, life remained very difficult until 1946, when the island gained the status of a French overseas département. Since being discovered and settled in the second part of the 17th Century, this deserted island has been the subject of diverse cultural influences from several continents experiencing a blend of cultures, or a pseudo cross-fertilisation of cultural, social, economic and ethnic specificities, including the colonial past that still lingers with the relationship to France.
La Réunion is a multicultural society comprised of people who were originally from Europe, Madagascar, Mozambique, India, China, and the Comoros. The accommodation and blending of these cultures over time has resulted in a new language and culture simply called ‘Créole’. Although French is the official language and the residents of the island are administratively French (and European) citizens, for many Réunionese people Créole remains the language of everyday life. Today, the word Créole is often used to describe people with a mixed ethnic background. The Créole language possesses a different grammar compared to French and draws vocabulary mainly from French language, but also from other languages such as Malagasy and Tamil.
Maloya: Grounding In Freedom
Maloya, an obscure form of expression sometimes involving trance-like state, emerged in a context of captivity, forced displacement, isolation and hard labour. It came to exist as a necessity to cope with everyday life for the enslaved population. Before the abolition of slavery in 1848, slaves were not allowed to read or write. Customs, beliefs and rituals were transferred down the generations orally and it was difficult to conserve this heritage in La Réunion. Maloya, performed secretly, actively reclaimed and reflected the difficulties of everyday life as a slave, working in the cotton, tobacco, sugarcane and vanilla fields, through lyrics, rhythm and movement.
For centuries Maloya was banned by the French authorities for what was seen as anti-catholic, devil’s dance and music with rebellious historical and political connotations. In the late 1970s, the need for a symbol of unity to fight against the difficulties of life on an isolated island was recognised by the Communist movement. This movement chose to unify the population by emphasising its shared colonial past through the popular but banned Réunionese art form: Maloya. Combining music, dance and song, Maloya represents much more than simple entertainment. Maloya acted unofficially as a type of unification of the descendants of the slaves. The dance and music art form were officially reinstated by France in 1981. On October 1st 2009, 167 years after the abolition of slavery in La Réunion, Maloya was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity UNESCO.
“Today as always, men fall into two groups: slaves and free men. Whoever does not have two-thirds of his day for himself, is a slave, whatever he may be: a statesman, a businessman, an official, or a scholar.”