Tourists who travel to Mauritius for the first time will often opt for the convenience of the resort experience to get a feel for this Indian Ocean island, its people, and what they have to offer. A visit would not be complete without a display of the traditional sega, a form of music and dance devised by slaves to help them forget about life on the plantations. By Debbie Hathway.
Historian Tristan Breville explains that the slaves suffered a lot, and the sega was a prayer for them to be in ‘another good state of mind’. It’s been almost 200 years since slavery was abolished on the island, but their legacy lives on through what is now recognised by UNESCO as the intangible cultural heritage of Mauritius.
The first time I experienced the traditional Mauritian sega was at the One & Only Le Saint Géran resort on the east coast of the island. It was 2013. I saw the same show on so many subsequent visits I could practically recite the script, yet I never tired of it.
A series of serendipitous meetings led me to sega legend Serge Lebrasse, who celebrated his 87th birthday in 2017. It turned out that One & Only Le Saint Géran sound engineer Lorenzo Lebrasse, son of Toto Lebrasse, the musician, producer and entertainment manager at the nearby Shangri-La Le Touessrok, were working together to make the original music of Toto’s father, Serge, available on Apple Music and iTunes. Serge was unwell on the day of our scheduled interview so Toto stepped in to relate his story…
“It’s very important to understand the origin of sega, which is a melting pot of Mauritian, African and Creole influences,” says Toto. “A lot of our slaves brought in to develop the sugar cane industry on the island came from Madagascar, and I believe our rhythm came from them, from the native step dance called Salegue. In the evening when the slaves had finished work, they would talk and sing about their feelings, what they had been doing in the day, their miseries, their fun and, of course, their masters. The music would be played and words invented on the spot. It could have been a rap or a slam accompanied by the traditional instruments, the ravanne, the maravanne and the triangle,” says Toto.
The main drum called the ravanne, made up of goat’s skin stretched onto a wooden circle, is similar to various flat traditional drums still found in North Africa and India. The maravanne is a slim box containing dried seeds that when moved mimic the sound of waves against the sand. The metal triangle, which follows the high peaks of the sega rhythm, would have been used to call the slaves from the fields when it was gathering time, explains Toto.
“The girls would move their hips to that rhythm giving the sega its erotic sense, while those at the get-together drank rum and de-stressed. There was born the sega dance,” says Toto.
In his book ‘Mauritius – Culture Smart! The Essential Guide to Customs and Culture’ Tom Cleary quotes a Mauritian saying that references the intoxicating sound and climax of the music: “Sega is rum that is drunk with the eyes and the ears.”
“There was a time when the sega was not acceptable at parties or weddings. It was considered a practice of the lower classes, especially from the coastal villages, a bit taboo for high society. Serge Lebrasse was one of the first to bridge the gap by singing the sega at functions, accompanied by the Mauritius Police Force Police Band, in the late 50s.”
Serge was born on 25 June 1930 in the village of Rose Hill. The eldest of four children, he was a sickly child who was often unable to attend school. He joined the workforce at the age of 14, first at a textile factory then as a forest ranger during which time he met Alphonse Ravaton, nicknamed Ti Frère, an iconic figure in Mauritian sega. At age 18, Serge joined the army and fought with the British in Egypt. Three years later he returned to Mauritius, completed a teacher training course and worked as a teacher until 1969.
In the meantime, he married Gisele in 1954, built a family with four children, and began to study music under Philippe Oh San, bandmaster of the Mauritius Police Band. Inspired by Ti Frère, Serge started to write, sing and compose songs and through his learning with Philippe soon qualified for a music and drama post.
Serge’s first composition was called ‘Mama Mo Envie Marye’ but it was his hit song ‘Madame Eugene’ that “made him famous” in 1959.
His musical career was not without its challenges. Because the sega was not highly esteemed, he was criticised by the local teachers’ association for downgrading the status of teachers. The lightness of his skin, which made him appear white, was another issue. And his weekly performances at the races with the Police Band, where he was invited to sing the sega for the entertainment of a cross-section of island communities, was like “stirring the pot”, explains Toto.
Serge later formed his own band, Les Kanasuc, and built a recording studio at home. “At first he found it difficult to make a living at it, but by the 1960s, sales of his records rivalled those of imported pop. He has toured widely around the Indian Ocean and Europe,” writes Steve Huey on allmusic.com.
“Serge still sings a bit… to my mother…” smiles Toto, but this year he was invited to perform at LUX* Belle Mare much to the delight of staff and guests to mark the island’s annual Festival International Kreol. There’s another musical link with this luxury resort, which is also on the east coast of Mauritius.
Entertainment manager Maista Lomelette, musician and leader of the band Maista and the Travellers, worked with Toto when he was 16 years old. “They used to call him my son,” says Toto. “He was my double. When I couldn’t perform he would replace me.”
About the Author: Debbie Hathway is a Cape Town-based senior journalist and editor. Her areas of speciality include luxury lifestyle and travel, health and wellbeing, business and the arts. She can be contacted via www.debbiehathway.co.za; email [email protected] or follow her on Instagram: hathway.debbie or Twitter: @debbiehath
Read more on the topic of Mauritius: