Mauritius music: How sega got its groove back

Mauritius Le Morne sega
Mauritius Le Morne sega

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(CNN)The signs are easy to miss. A hand-painted marker with an arrow indicates a dirt road leading simply to "the mountain." A short drive up the road, a plaque set low to the ground marks a banyan tree with little explanation.

But these two modest markers near the village of Le Morne are the beginnings of a new effort in Mauritius to remember dark chapters of the island's past and to honor the music that grew out of it.
"When I say Mauritius, the first thing people think of is 'beach', and the whole postcard part," says singer Linzy Bacbotte, a leading advocate of the music known as sega.
And the postcard pictures are beautiful, so beautiful that she worries they will eclipse a history that until recently was overlooked in favor of the island's European past.
    Sega advocate Linzy Bacbotte says the non-European history of the island is often overlooked.
    When Europeans first found Mauritius 500 years ago, the island was uninhabited. Slavery was part of the island's identity from the moment the Dutch decided to settle, and continued under successive French and British rule.
    Escapes also began with the very first group of slaves brought from Madagascar in the 1600s.
    During the 1700s, Le Morne Mountain grew into a refuge for escaped slaves, known as maroons. With cliffs on three sides, and caves dotting the slopes, maroons could easily defend their mountain community.
    At the foot of the mountain, along the only ascent, grew a banyan tree that became a meeting point and a place of celebration. The humble plaque there now marks the tree as the birthplace of sega music.
    "This is the place where our ancestors, the slaves, started everything. It was a place to express themselves after a long, painful day. It was freedom," Bacbotte says.
    Sega is a part of the nation's identity.
    Now sega is deeply wrapped into the island's identity. At national holidays, in the posh beach resorts and in TV commercials, singers perform with dancers who wear white petticoats and colorful skirts that pay homage to 18th-century fashions.
    But until recently, sega was considered too lowbrow for any official recognition.
    "Sega was shown to be for those who drink, who wanted to say something sexual. It was looked down on," Bacbotte says.
    That changed as foreign researchers began to explore Le Morne's history, using physical remains of maroon communities and oral histories to piece together the mountain's significance.
    In the 1700s, maroons constituted a significant part of the island's culture and population. Historians estimate that by the time slavery ended in 1835, up to 13% of slaves in Mauritius had escaped -- many of them to Le Morne.
    The hidden mountain village of Le Morne was once a refuge for escaped slaves.
    Maroon leaders raided nearby plantations, seeking provisions and helping other slaves escape. They were known to the island's authorities by rogue-ish names like Barbe Blanche and Sans Souci. After emancipation, more freed slaves joined the village at Le Morne.
    Most of that history was ignored on Mauritius until the body of research grew so compelling that UNESCO declared the area a World Heritage Site in 2008. But until July 2016, the mountain wasn't open to the public.
    On Saturday nights maroons would hold a ball rann zareko -- or white bean party.
    Land along the road was privately owned, cutting off access to the mountain's trail. On the other side of the mountain, between the cliffs and the white-sand beaches, luxury resorts opened and created new tensions between preservation and the vital tourism trade.
    Now, however, Le Morne Heritage Trust Fund operates tours for visitors -- who so far have been mostly locals looking to see a previously hidden part of their history. (info@lemorneheritage.org; +230 4515759/99)
    Triangles and  maravanne (a maracas-like rattle box) are regularly used by sega musicians.
    On Saturday nights under the banyan tree, maroons would organize a ball rann zareko, which means roughly a white bean party, says guide Stephano Duc.
    Musicians played the triangles, a maracas-like rattle box called a maravanne, and a goat-skin drum called a ravanne.
    The skin on the ravanne wasn't stretched like modern drums. Instead, the skin was heated over a bonfire during the party, and the heat stretched the skin until the sound rang true.
    "If at the end of the night you found yourself with the beans in your pocket, it was up to you to organize the next night," Duc explains.
    It's a concept that echoes in zydeco music in Louisiana, which is no coincidence.
    Even though Mauritius lies in the Indian Ocean, the island was part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Slaves from modern-day Senegal went to the Americas but also came east to plantations here. Sega music echoes styles from Senegal, and in Seychelles musicians use the same word for their styles.
    When the music plays today at a party or on the beach, dancers get wrapped up in the love ballads and the celebratory notes. But Bacbotte wants listeners to enjoy the music while also understanding its past.
    The plaque that marks the birth of sega music.
    "It's not about just the music," she says. "Slaves with chains and bullets in their feet, they still danced the sega.
    "They were forced to obey their masters, to forget who they are, to forget their language. They were tortured. They were beaten, until they forgot where they came from. Even though they took a painful path, they still had strength to fight for their rights."
    That's a more complicated story than the snapshots in the tourist brochures, and it can be hard to find. Punching "Le Morne" into Google Maps pulls up directions to a spot near a Billabong shop and a string of high-priced resorts. The village of Le Morne doesn't show up.
    In the dictionary, "morne" translates as "dreary." Duc, says le morne literally means a compact mountain, but he adds that "in Mauritius it means happiness and sadness, we can say."