Zembrocal Musical

Encounter with Maloya from Réunion Island
Groove Lélé & Ernst Reijseger

2010 Trophée des Arts Afro Caribéen for Best Album

“…an enchanting performance”

“Reijseger holds back, contributes beautiful counterpoints and soulful solo intros, and otherwise becomes part of the overall sound. Every piece is bursting with joie de vivre and yearning, but pain and melancholy also have their place.”

The meeting between Groove Lélé en Ernst Reijseger was set in motion by the Brazilian percussionist Naná Vasconcelos. August 2008, Reijseger was at Réunion Island for a rather sad reason. He and his wife were recovering from the loss of a stillborn child. For some weeks, Réunion Island was their refuge. They stayed with a befriended French journalist who lives on Réunion Island and makes films of humpback whales.

Reijseger was on the beach when the Naná Vasconcelos called him about a concert in Austria. Naná said ‘But why are you at Réunion Island, aren’t you supposed to be at home with the new-born?’ When Ernst explained the tragedy, Naná said: “Then you must meet the family Philéas. Find WiIly Philéas and tell him I send you.”

Reijseger found the number through the Conservatory. That same night,  Reijseger and his wife drove up to Saint-Benoît at the east side of Réunion Island, for the rehearsal. Willy gave Ernst directions on the phone: “Meet me at the parking lot of Mac Do”. Ernst said: “Mac Do?” Willy: “McDonalds! How do I recognise you?” Ernst: “I’m white and I have a violoncello with me”. Willy said: “I’m black. I’m Rasta”. When Reijseger arrived at the parking lot, he put his cello on the roof of his car, as a landmark calling out for a new adventure.

The rehearsal was in the outskirts of Saint Benoit, in the ‘cabaret’ of the family Philéas. It was night-time. There was a fire burning outside, and the space was lit with candles. The family Philéas rehearsed their repertoire. It was voice and drums. Their children took part by listening from the side-line and showing their dance moves. The youngest child of three years old was placed on top of the ‘rouler’ (the big drum) and played it for five minutes, accompanied by the whole band, that empathically slowed down in rhythm when his little muscles tired. Later that night, Reijseger took out his cello and played for them.

After the rehearsal, Willy showed a small temple in beloved memory of both their father Granmoun and their mother. He talked about their legacy, and about nights of dancing and reaching a state of trance. At the end of the evening, the brothers Philéas invited Reijseger to come and join their performance that was planned for the next day.

On the way home, the Reijsegers felt changed. The power of maloya is huge. Maloya and humpback whales were magical forces of nature that formed the best imaginable recipe to recover and recharge.

One year after their encounter, Groove Lélé and Reijseger came to Bordeaux, France for live concerts and the recording of Zembrocal Musical. Organiser Musique de Nuit produced the concerts and created community gatherings alongside rehearsals, in the form of school concerts, house concerts and cooking workshops in the outskirts in Bordeaux, for women of all different origins, led by Fred Barbe, the biggest man and cook of Groove Lélé.

In 2014 Groove Lélé and Reijseger were guests at the Amsterdam Cello Biennale. Fred Barbe cooked again. He brought two buckets of fresh shells from the river in Reunion Island.

Zembrocal is a popular dish on Réunion Island. It’s a mixed dish, prepared like a stew, in which the ingredients such as meat, grain, rice, beans and spices keep their distinctive taste.

Zembrocal Musical received international recognition: Trophée des Arts Afro Caribéen Best Album 2010.

In 2009, just after the recording of this album, maloya became inscribed on the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Maloya is a form of music, song and dance native to Reunion Island.

Of mixed ethnic origins since its outset, maloya was created by Malagasy and African slaves on the sugar plantations and later on influenced by South-Indian immigrants.

It was restricted to private use and the family sphere. From 1946 until 1962 maloya was officially prohibited by the French government out of fear of an independence movement by the Creole population. It was kept alive by only a few musicians. Maloya was brought back to public consciousness by a vinyl recording in 1972 by Firmin Viry. Granmoun Lélé released a recording of four pieces with his officially registered group Groove Lélé in 1977.

Initially conceived as a dialogue between a soloist and a choir accompanied by percussion instruments, maloya exists today in an increasing variety of forms, both in terms of texts and instruments. 

Groove Lélé uses singing and authentic percussion instruments without electronics. Le roulèr (bass drum that rotates between band members because of the power you need to give), kayamb (a flat rattle made from sugar cane tubes and seeds), pikér (a bamboo idiophone played with sticks) and sati (a flat metal idiophone played with sticks) and the jembé (originally West African).

Although originally dedicated to ancestral worship as part of a ritual, maloya gradually became a song of lament against slavery, and also a means to express daily life and personal experiences.

For the past thirty years maloya has represented the island’s identity.

Every cultural, political and social event on the island is accompanied by maloya, which thus became a vehicle for asserting political rights. Today, it is kept alive by 300 documented groups, including a number of world-famous artists, and by specialised music teaching at the Conservatoire de la Réunion. An element of national identity, an example of cultural mixing, a moral touchstone and a model for integration, maloya is nevertheless threatened by social changes and by the disappearance of its main exponents and the practice of venerating ancestors.

Julién ‘Granmoun’ Philéas was one of the key figures in the preservation of maloya. He worked in a sugar cane factory and in the evenings he sang in ‘kabars’, places where men and women come together to dance and listen to maloya music. Granmoun was introduced to Tamil and Malagassy rites by his parents. His maloya is characterised by a spiritual dimension.

Granmoun composed over 200 songs and performed and toured with his children. Since Granmoun’s death in November 2004 the entire Philéas family has gone on living its passion for maloya in his spirit. In their concerts they play well-known songs by Granmoun as well as new songs, composed for the most part by Willy and Urbain Philéas, two of his sons.