Danyel Waro's bluesy rhythms were a blend of Reunion island's history and culture

Danyel Waro is a poet in love with Nature. Why else would he have chosen percussive jungle rhythms and the breeziness of wind instruments to herald his arrival at the Atrium, Alliance Française? Outside his cling-to–the coastline town of St. Paul on the western tip of Reunion island, facing the thunderous trade winds that blow through the Indian Ocean, Waro learnt to read the winds and write their song — of them rustling through the sugarcane plantations where indentured labourers sang wistfully of love, longing and deliverance, of how they bore his forefathers from the Continent to this far-flung outpost of France, of women from India, of families torn asunder, of politics and of unity.

Waro sings the Maloya, a compound rhythm of blues' music descended from plantation workers in measured, melancholic Creole, keenly perceptive of Reunion's colonial history when the Portuguese and French chased each other to the Indies, its beauty, diversity and mystery and its many peoples — Tamil, Gujarati, Malagasy and European. He also plays the kayanm, a flat box made from cane flower stems and filled with saffron seeds that sounds similar to the maracas. The others in the band are Vincent Philieas (congas), Philippe Conrath (sound engineer), Damien Mandrin (tancamba) and Sami Pageaux Waro (on the rouler — a big drum made from barrels stretched with hide, and the bob — a musical bow attached to a calabash for resonance).

Rhythm divine

The band began with ‘Po Mwo Bondye' (My God), sung in parts and resonant with the influence of Negro Spirituals. ‘L'avion' (Airplane) came next, the chorus sung with no accompaniment and following an intense voodoo rhythm on the congas that created an explosive echo that could have sounded right only in the open spaces of the Atrium. Waro then sang of ‘Trwamar', the village where he was born, a slow, laid-back rhythm with the kayanm producing the sound of threshing grain. The next song was dedicated to Waro's last daughter, the six-year-old Kenya, and was reminiscent of palm-fringed turquoise lagoons, and childhood on an island that is a mélange of sun, sea and sand. With the bob leading the melody, ‘Mandela' was in praise of the South African leader. ‘Veli' dedicated to the women of Jaipur had Mandrin play the flute and was intensely Indian peasant in tone and tenor. Sami Waro banged the rouler with his boot while clanging away on a triangle in the tribute to ‘Alin', a poet of from the island.

With an ear cocked audience-ward for the answers of dance to the queries of pulsating rhythms, Waro broke into ‘Kilimann' a song with a touch of trance. It drew expats, language learners and school students to the floor and for the rest of the evening their ‘kuthu' dance moves competed with the Maloya. Haunting, high-pitched singing in ‘Degaz' and Sami Waro's insistent plucking of his xylophone-like instrument created a louder, dance music. ‘Adekalom', named after an Indian family who was persecuted on the island had a brazen rock ‘n' roll energy that brought out spirited dancing. ‘Tizorz', a slow rhythm, was dedicated to Waro's father and echoed a high-pitched bob propelled by an edgy rhythm section of oud and conga. ‘Kadok' sang of childhood while ‘Batarsite' addressed the issue of seeing man beyond race and colour.

The band used diction and tease, falsetto and funk and warmth and woe to sing music that has been handed down generations, a quilt of traditions from East and West. Maloya, the Waro way, was a kaleidoscope of people and their histories changing with every shake of his kayanm.

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