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From the archives

The Path of Poetic Resistance

To disarm Canada and its canon

Are Interests Really Value-Free?

A salvo from the “realist” school of Canadian foreign relations

Going It Alone

The marvellous, single-minded, doggedly strange passion of citizen scientists

Sega Genesis

The sound of Mauritius

Jean Marc Ah-Sen

In 2020, I decided to stop writing about my family’s homeland of Mauritius. After publishing two books on the African nation, located 1,100 kilometres east of Madagascar, I arrived at the opinion that I’d exhausted the subject with some descriptive competence. The idea that I might be forever associated with parochial island niceties held zero appeal, not least because I was also convinced that outside of a very small readership, no one genuinely cared about the material. (I remain uncertain whether, as time has gone by and Mauritian writers like Kama La Mackerel and Rhiannon Ng Cheng Hin have come into prominence, I have been proven wrong on this score.)

But recently I overcame these reservations when my friend and fellow Mauritian Canadian author Naben Ruthnum gifted me an album, Moris Zekler: Fuzz & Soul Sega from 70’s Mauritius. After listening to the collection of sonic rarities from the Star and Key of the Indian Ocean, I felt a renewed interest in my heritage. I dusted off African records that I had acquired previously with a feeling of perfunctory obligation, including such compilations as Alefa Madagascar! and Bobo Yéyé: Belle Époque in Upper Volta. Upon reconsideration, I could see why critics and general audiences often regard them as among the best high-definition representations of the continent’s musical output, including a genre that originated in Mauritius: sega.

The lingua franca spoken by Mauritians, kreol morisien, is a spirited sloshing together of Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English — the languages of colonial powers that set foot on the island between 1507 and 1968, when Mauritius secured its independence. Sega also has a hybrid origin story. Likely emerging sometime in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, it has roots in the rhythmic songs of slave sugar cane labourers from East Africa, in European mazurkas and waltzes, and in Indian forms such as qawwali and raga. This fusion produced a unique sound predominantly set to 6/8 time signatures. The lyrics often address political subjugation or romantic hardship and are overlaid with ribald puns and the folklore of street life: “You have big, big chayotes, Madame.”

Authorities initially prohibited this music for fear that it would incite illegal gatherings of slaves, who sometimes used sega as a funerary rite to commune with the dead. (It was not until 1964 that the first public performance occurred with government sanction.) Similarly, the Catholic Church long considered the accompanying sega dance — bodies sloping close to each other without making contact, feet never lifting from the ground — a particularly debauched form of expression.

Admittedly, I was as unfamiliar with this history as I was with the backlists featured on Moris Zekler and my other records. (The one exception was the singer Ti Frère, also known as the King of Sega, who remains popular among Mauritians to the point of ubiquity.) Such ignorance is perhaps the onerous cross to bear of every child born to Mauritian émigrés, though we eventually seem to find ourselves on the path of musical discovery. Indeed, almost all of us come to possess at least a peripheral grasp of the genre. Maybe that’s because it’s common to attend social events where a visiting relative from the island brandishes the latest classic in the making on a smartphone or — yes, even still — a cassette or a burned CD with the promise that the song will numb you to the bone.

Cultural proselytizing, however, doesn’t necessarily say much about that Mauritian’s taste in music. Often, it says more about that Mauritian’s skepticism of those of us who’ve grown up elsewhere. Among islanders, the fear of our heritage being lost due to emigration runs long and deep. Carrying the latest foot-stomper to another country, Canada or elsewhere, can affirm that this Mauritian has not lost their way — that this Mauritian still lives.

The fear of losing cultural roots can be especially intense with those who grew up on the island but chose to settle abroad. It informs a host of anxious behaviours. Should you make some favourable remark about a cousin’s homestyle cooking, for example, you will soon be overpowered by four variations of the same dish made by any expat within earshot of the unfairly bestowed accolade. A similar fate awaits anyone who claims to know the fastest route to the peak called Le Morne in weekend midday traffic or where the best croque-monsieur can be procured in the town of Vacoas-Phoenix. (In my father’s house, any answer other than the Gymkhana Club was unacceptable.)

Of course, there are other lifelines that Mauritians can call upon in their search for validation while visiting or living abroad. But for many, none are as evocative of island life as sega. I hasten to add, though, that one needn’t hail from the motherland to appreciate the music, from the polyrhythms of the ravanne (a goatskin tambourine) and the melodies of the bobre (a long wooden bow played with a stick) to the sibilant vocalizations of a call‑up (an introduction to the theme of a song and an invitation for dancers to enter a performing circle). Sega may be just as enjoyable to those — like me — who weren’t raised on the island as to homegrown Mauritians, for whom the music serves as a reminder of their indissoluble connection to their native soil.

Jean Marc Ah-Sen wrote the novels Grand Menteur and In the Beggarly Style of Imitation.