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Seychelles: Something to Sing and Dance About

  • Pascal Esparon
  • 7 July 2011

To understand a culture’s music, you must first understand its history.

Seychelles is a young country. In the year 2020 we will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the first settlement – a group of 15 French white people, five Malabar Indians and eight African people – established on these beautiful islands. While in the grand scheme of things this is a relatively short period of time, it does mean that Seychelles has over 200 years of music history.

A musician plays a traditional Brazilian berimbau

A musician plays a traditional Brazilian berimbau, which is the same kind of intstrument as the Seychellois 'bomb' (sometimes spelled 'bonm'). Photo courtesy of Flickr/garryknight

Where does this history begin? The music of Seychelles is, and has always been, largely influenced by the instruments and the dance of the people who chose to make their homes here. So where did the Seychellois originally come from? Everywhere! This is why we call our country “the melting pot of cultures.”

From the arrival of our early ancestors, regardless of their origins, Seychellois were convivial people – friendly and always looking for a good time. Like our people, then, the mix of musical (and dance) styles adopted and created by Seychellois people reflects the diversity of cultures that exist harmoniously, influencing one other and often overlapping.

Instruments in Seychelles

The African settlers brought with them the bomb (also spelled “bonm”) and zez. Both are instruments with a single string. They also brought drums made of animal skin.

The bomb and zez are solo instruments. Traditionally they were most often played on outer islands, where musical entertainment had not previously existed. Songs and lyrics that accompanied these instruments were slow and soft in nature and usually described island life in that era.

The drums gave slaves and some other settlers a different outlet for self-expression. Messages and emotions in drum-based songs during the settlement period depicted the oppressive conditions in which they lived.

The introduction of the drum also inspired Sega music, which included a bare-footed dance around a bonfire.

Years after the integration of these uncomplicated instruments came the violin, banjo and guitar.

Seychelles Island Dance

After the abolition of slavery and the shift in colonial power from the French to the British in 1814, musical instruments were more common and new forms of dance appeared in Seychelles. In particular, the Seychellois saw the birth of kanmtole dancing – a dance much like a traditional Scottish reel – and the contre dance (also known as a contredans or contra dance). This latter style came from the resident French who had adopted English country dances and integrated their own steps more typical of the French court.

There are 10 distinct types of contre dance, each displaying different exemplars of elegance. History has it that if a man were to ask a girl to dance, he would have to perform all 10 dances without pausing between them, moving directly from one to the other. This surely sorted out the gifted gentlemen from the talentless womanisers!

A contredance in the Seychelles

A group of Seychellois people take part in a traditional contre dance. Photo courtesy of Pascal Esparon

Kanmtole and contre dance music is often performed by a band consisting of two guitars, a drum and a triangle. Other instruments customarily added to the band include the violin, fiddle and banjo. The maestro (known traditionally as the komander) usually plays the triangle and leads the entire room, giving dance commands to the dancers rather than musical direction to the rest of the band.

Both types of dance are still always performed by men and women in pairs (the cavalier and the dame), from two couples on up to long lines of dancing partners. Gatherings with many dancers often involve the couple at the head of the parallel lines dancing through the group to the other end so that each couple has a turn leading the movements.

Traditional dance costumes in the Seychelles

Wearing traditional dance costumes, a couple of young contre dancers pairs up in anticipation of an afternoon of dance. Photo courtesy of Pascal Esparon

Dance still has a strong cultural presence in Seychelles. There are competitions for all ages held at the end of every October during the country’s annual six-day Festival Creole.

Other Musical Influences

Outside of the evolution of music motivated by dance, the most drastic changes in music in Seychelles came with the introduction of Western phenomena. Some of the most notable influences have been rock & roll, the “Twist” dance craze of the 1960s, the sensational world-famous music of bands such as The Beatles and the rise in popularity of the electric guitar during the early 1980s.

That being said, whilst unmistakably influenced by these Western musical experiences, the Seychelles’ musical culture has also maintained its individuality. It continues to adopt techniques and instruments that suit the culture and dance (synthesisers, for example, are quite popular in sega dance music), but our style differs greatly from Western genres like rap and hip-hop.

It is thanks to the Seychellois that traditional music and dance have been maintained, and thanks to the National Arts Council of Seychelles that our musical culture has been kept alive through competitions and other types of activities. Today, Seychelles’ music continues to evolve without losing the strong connection it has with the history of this country.

Why not come and experience the music and dance of Seychelles for yourself? Be sure to check in with the experts at Holidays Seychelles, your whl.travel local connection.

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