REUNION ISLAND, 5 musicians

On the eve of Sakifo (festival), in a state theatre near Saint-Pierre, we heard Zanmari Baré and his band. They play maloya, the creole folk music of Réunion, and Baré has a voice that summons wooden ships, the ghosts of extinct birds, a tugging ecstasy of loneliness. The lyrics are in Réunion Creole, an offspring of French and African, Malagasy and Indian tongues. Let’s just say you’re not going to understand it, ever.
An extra jolt of mystique is added by centuries-old instru- ments: a musical bow (a distant cousin of the Xhosa uhadi) called a bob; a flat rattle made from sugar- cane stems and seeds called a kayamb; the sati and piker, steel and bamboo idiophones played with sticks; and the rouler, a low- tuned drum.
Across a bay of poly-rhythmic percussion tacks the singular voice of Baré. Each line prompts harmon- ic echoes from his bandmates. They all wield that perfectly contained melodic accuracy common to the greatest creole musics, from Brazil to Cuba to Cape Verde. The sweet fruit of bitter empires.
When I asked Baré, a former child psychologist, whether his mu- sic voiced the collective memory of the island, he was gently dismis- sive. “For me it’s not primarily about nostalgia, even though you may think it is. When I write a song it’s always connected with some- one: for my daughter, my wife, my grandmother. It’s quite concrete.
“The music comes from Africa [via slaves who were brought here], but it’s also from India and Eu- rope,” says Baré. “Maloya comes from this encounter of peoples. The lyrics are contemporary, and the themes are rebellions and demands as well as the pains and joys of con- temporary life.”
During the ’60s and ’70s, maloya singers took a radical turn, sound- tracking the island’s movement for autonomy, and Paris was not amused. “When the communist party presented maloya perfor- mances, some events were banned and thus maloya was banned as part of them. Maloya played in fam- ilies has existed forever. But it was not widely known.”