Maloya singer Christine Salem, from Reunion Island, who will tour India later this year, forges a connection across cultures with her unique style

It is not uncommon for Christine Salem to have people come up and tell her they have never heard of her island or her style of music before.

For the singer from Reunion Island, an overseas department of France, believes that music with a spiritual core will always find its way to a listener’s heart, like it did in Puducherry, when she performed to a small audience, some time ago. As she hopes it will, when she tours India for the first time, later this year.

In the realm of world music, Christine Salem’s voice, backed by raw energy, is unique. For Maloya, the genre of music of which she is an ambassador, is the music of African slaves who worked in the sugarcane plantations of the island, centuries ago.

Today, the melancholic lament, the rousing cry and the frenzied drumming that the music embodies spur the listener to cast away fetters of a different kind. Like Salem herself, who found her peace, in the music of protest against slavery. “I was pregnant when my husband left me,” she says matter-of-factly. “All my anger and pain found a voice in the music. I started singing just for pleasure, on the streets of the suburb. But, later, it became my way of life.”

It was not in school, but on the streets of her poor neighbourhood that Christine encountered Maloya. Inspired by famous performers, Christine followed their steps. Brought up in a neighbourhood of poverty, unemployment, alcoholism and violence around her, Salem turned a full-time social worker reaching out to young people, until she quit her job to perform full-time. She still engages young people through music.

In a trance

Much of Maloya singing is done in a trance-like state, which helps the singer connect to ancestral spirits. To much of the Western world, where she performs, this comes across as exotic, even doubtful. But even a sceptical audience cannot resist being caught up in it, as it is spiritual at the core. “The music is positive. It was originally used in traditional rituals performed by slaves to connect with the spirits of their ancestors. You can never tell she is in a trance, unless you know her well enough,” says her manager who translates Christine’s Creole. Though some performances are planned, the singing is impromptu and changes with the vibes of the place and the audience.

Performing concerts all over the world, Salem has become a face of this musical genre. “Maloya was recognised by the UNESCO in 2009, which is a good thing,” says Salem, as this status ensures it is transmitted in schools. But her quest is to get separate recognition for the music, which is generally grouped under world music. “Something of the unique spirit of the music is lost when it is categorised under a big umbrella like world music,” she feels.

While Salem loves playing the kayamb, a wooden instrument filled with seeds, the influences of Reunion Island’s motley population, including a significant Indian presence, reflects in the music — the singing is at times folksy, while the drumming borders on dappan kuthu.

Occasionally singing in Swahili, Creole and Arabic, for Christine Salem, ancestral music is her way of forging a connection beyond cultures.