Two Traditions of Rodrigues
Lured by photos of pristine beaches, coral reefs and unspoilt coastal hikes, I didn’t anticipate encountering a UNESCO listed dance. In my first post I’ve written a little more about the country of Rodrigues – and about some of the top things to do on the island. But, I’d thought very little about Rodrigues traditions and heritage. But, one evening, back in my room at Cotton Bay hotel, after dinner, I opened the doors of the balcony to sit out and look at the sea only to hear a lively dance start up in the distance. On previous evenings the hotel entertainment had been gentler – a singer with a guitar player or sax. This evening, what I heard was compelling – there was no possibility of sitting still and not going to find out more.
I was delighted to learn more about this Rodrigues tradition and to have the chance to see it at first hand. Sega Tambour is a dance with origins in slave communities. Energetic and vibrant, couples dance at arm’s length, with what appear to be courtly and country dance movements blending with twerking that would make Beyonce proud. The music depends firstly on the Tambour, with various other percussion instruments including triyang (triangle), bwat (box) and mayo (sticks). There are vocalists too – strong, rhythmic singers chanting in Creole.
Perhaps because of the percussive nature of the music, Sega tambour, which I believe is a style of dance with tambour, percussion and vocals but no other instrumentation, is particularly dynamic, though there are other Rodrigues songs and dances, with the music often supplemented by an accordion player. I tried my best to understand what the women were singing, but Creole is a strange language for those who speak English with a smattering of French. It transpires that most of the songs tell stories of everyday life – a little googling, for example, came up with this beauty.
L’Herbe éléphant (elephant grass) was planted on the island in the 1950s to fight soil erosion and help feed livestock.
“Ca l’année là, nous fine trouve zoli quitchose. Grand grand dimoune. Assise tout ni dans l’éléphant”
“This year, we have seen some beautiful things. Old, old persons. Sitting naked in the elephant”.
The song goes on to tell the story of what goes on in the elephant grass, which I think I’ll leave to your imagination!
Even if the singers are in the somewhat sterile environment of a three-star hotel, there’s a passion in what they chant which is unmistakable. Sega Tambour and the dance/music culture of Rodrigues stems from slavery on the island. The French brought African slaves to the island during the 18th century. But, in 1809, when the British defeated the French and took possession on the island, slavery was abolished. Apart from the tambour and percussion only Sega Tambour, various other dances like the Mazok Sega have clear European origins. I’m guessing that the video below is Mazok Sega, mostly because the rhythmic patterns are so close to that of the Mazurka…
Despite enjoying the performance, I did retire early, just as the spectators were drawn into the dance. The next morning I had to be up before dawn for a trip out to sea to watch the celebrations for the start of the net fishing season.
Fete du Poisson is a major celebration and a Rodrigues tradition.
The island is set in a 240 km lagoon; fishing is the main source of revenue for many Rodriguan families and the total fish caught annually is around twice that of its nearest and rather larger neighbour, Mauritius, at around 1755 tonnes. There are around 1970 registered fishing boats, for an island with a population of around 40,000. Apart from fish, islanders also catch around 500 metric tonnes of octopus, often seen drying on lines around the island.
But, it is important that fishing is sustainable – hence, the seine net fishing closed period which lasts from the start of October to the end of February.
Seine net fishing is a tradition that has been practised in Rodrigues since 1822. The fishermen in long, shallow boats called pirogues, use a semi-circular net and ‘herd’ fish into the net by advancing toward the net, beating the water or the side of the boat with poles. By fishing this way, less damage is done to the coral – the net isn’t dragged through the lagoon but carefully set out using poles to hold it in place.
I was a guest of Tourism Rodrigues on this trip.
I flew to Rodrigues Island via Mauritius with Air Mauritius. There are direct flights from London to Mauritius with Air Mauritius four times a week and further daily flights from London via Paris or Amsterdam. Connecting flights from Mauritius to Rodrigues depart three times a day.