The slave roots of the popular traditional Sega dance of Mauritius

Mildred Europa Taylor June 30, 2021
Sega dance. Image via YouTube/Chris Vyamungu

Mauritius is one of the few countries in the world that was actually populated from scratch by “foreigners”, so the blend of cultures and traditions makes the island unique. The demographics of Mauritius have stayed true to this historical incident. Indian-Mauritians are in the majority, followed by African-Mauritians and then Europeans. This composition has created a unique culture, from language to religion.

Apart from the island country’s clear blue waters, long mountain ranges, lush planes, and stunning waterfalls that have made it an exclusive tourist destination for many, one cannot possibly leave Mauritius without learning to dance a few Sega steps.

Sega, a popular dance of the people of Mauritius, originated centuries ago among the island’s African slave populations and it quickly spread throughout the Indian Ocean – to Reunion, Rodrigues, Seychelles, Comoros and Mayotte. Although there is some debate around the exact details of its origin, Sega is believed to have appeared on the island around the seventeenth century, through the enslaved men and women who were forced to work in the sugarcane plantations. They brought with them Africa’s tam-tam and drums which history says they mixed with other hand-made instruments built with wood, small stones or goat skins, to perform the dance.

According to one account, Sega was first created in the Rivière Noire (Black River) area of Mauritius where some slaves who had escaped were hiding. All in all, the Sega dance, which was accompanied by songs made in Creole, was created by these enslaved men and women not only as a means of entertainment but to express their pain.

Today, Sega, born out of suffering, has been metamorphosed into a dance of celebration. The dance appears at almost every special occasion as it is now a fundamental part of Mauritian life and culture. The good news is the folkloric dance has been registered by UNESCO on its Intangible Cultural Heritage list. There is no denying the fact that Sega has evolved from its traditional roots to a modern-day version usually fused with other genres like jazz and reggae.

And although simple instruments used are also slowly being replaced by modern versions, locals will tell you that Sega is best performed when traditional instruments are used. These include the ravanne, maravanne, triangle and traditional guitar. The maravane is a “flat wooden rattle filled with small pebbles or dried nuts” while the ravanne is a “circular wooden drum frame covered with a taut piece of goat hide.” The triangle, which is a metal instrument made in the shape of a triangle, is noted for its tinkling sound when played with a metal rod.

These amazing traditional instruments together produce the distinctive African rhythm of the Sega which will keep one having their hips undulating to the beat. The songs that accompany the sounds are normally sung in Creole, which evolved from the French language in the 18th century and is widely spoken throughout the island. Dancers do keep their feet on the ground while performing Sega since it is usually the hips and arms which move to the rhythm of the instruments. Female dancers typically wear huge colorful skirts and petticoats while the men perform in shirts, trousers and straw hats.

Sega starts as a group dance before it breaks off into pairs, with dancers usually seen circling each other. Over the years, parents and grandparents have been teaching young ones the moves, which have become a part of their heritage. The addition of guitars, drums, trumpets and other instruments around the middle of the last century to the dance has given it new strength and energy many can’t do without. In fact, instead of the dance being narrowed to private gatherings usually around a campfire as it was in the past, it is now performed openly in public places including hotels and beaches.

That notwithstanding, the typical and traditional Sega has survived thanks to talented local artists such as Ti Frere, who is considered as the ‘King of Sega’, Menwar, a percussionist and singer as well as Kaya, a reggae musician.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: June 30, 2021


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