Maya’s Maloya – An Interview with Maya Kamaty

Maya Kamaty, 28, is the daughter of Gilbert Pounia, the lead singer of Ziskakan, one of the most famous maloya bands to emerge from Reunion, a French island located in the Indian Ocean. Folk music in the island—once banned by the French government because of its political leanings and its strong association with the local Creole culture—has seen a resurgence with artists like Christine Salem touring extensively in the US and Africa. Kamaty is working on her first album which will be released in 2014. She has released an EP, Ansanm, this year. Her music blends traditional maloya instruments with modern influences, and is a mix of African rhythms, modern harmonies and a touch of the blues. She sings primarily in Creole. On the evening of her arrival at Jodhpur, we are seated in a room at the Mehrangarh Fort, next to a laptop on which she is playing music.


Maloya has traditionally been a music of protest, since you see your music as fitting into this tradition, would you call your music political?

Not really. I’m born in maloya music and the history of my family has been made around it. My father and a lot of musicians, poets, writers of the island came together to describe the island in another way. To create their own identity— which was separate from France and separate from sega also, which was a different music. Sega at that time was talking about mountains, blue sky and the good side of the island. But these associations of musicians and poets were talking about Apartheid in the Creole language. Maloya was forbidden in Reunion Island till 1981. I was born in 1985, right after that, but I’ve started music very late. I studied in Montpellier— that’s where I rediscovered my own culture, because I was far from Reunion. So I missed this culture. I was in a band at that time as a percussionist and chorist but I wanted to have my own creation, my own composition. And I can’t say that it is political music. I kept maloya in my music as music— as rhythm and instruments. I used kayamb and rouler, traditional instruments, in my music. But I’ve got some human values, I mean: solidarity, justice, equality. So I talk about those in my songs as much as I sing about nature or love. This is exactly who I am. I don’t want to lie. I just want to talk about things that touch me.


Would you call the maloya that other musicians create today political?

The older ones like Danyèl Waro, Firmin Viry, they still keep political lyrics in their songs. But now we’re more out of that. In my opinion, maybe too much out of it. I think this is a question of risks and a question of… the young people in Reunion Island are not really concerned with politics. On the other hand there is a lot of unemployment and we have some social issues we could talk about in our songs. But it’s not enough in my opinion, we have to talk more about that. For example in one of my songs called ‘Dernier Viraz’ (Last Turn), I’m talking about alcoholism. This is a big problem in Reunion Island. But because there’s no real debate in Reunion Island among the young, we can’t talk with each other anymore. It’s very difficult. And I don’t understand why, but it’s like this. It’s not an issue they talk about.

So if they’re not happy with their situation they just go to the city and break stuff or set fire to stuff. This is not a solution. You have to discuss things first. I don’t have a clear solution to that. Also, all of this is very difficult to put it in a song today. In Reunion Island, we get a lot of subvention and funds from the politicians. So if you say something wrong you just ‘go out of the system’. So you have to be smart and put it in a way that it can be understood nicely and quietly.


What other themes or influences have affected maloya recently, especially among the younger crop of musicians?

My father’s band, at first it was political, but now with time and being old, my dad talks about travel. For example the last album they released talks about travel and love. There’s one song that talks about incest. It was written by a Mauritian poet. My father just wrote one song, called ‘Daddy’ because his dad passed away a few years ago. So, with time and the musicians getting older, it’s just calmed down. But the thing my father has always told me is that in 30 years, the system has not changed— so it is not worth it to scream and yell. But when I hear a band like Lindigo, for example—it’s a young band of traditional maloya, I didn’t hear all their songs but I saw them on stage—they’re very energetic, dynamic. And I spoke to the lead singer and he told me that he’s not quite into the lyrics, he’s into the music. I was shocked when I heard that the first time. But I understand this when I see them on stage. In fact they’ve been touring the US a lot, which is good for the music (because it gets more exposure).

And also, in the end, people don’t understand the lyrics. But that’s not a good reason for not working on it. Lyrics are very important for me. If I don’t work on my lyrics, my dad will kill me. In Reunion Island there is a lot of dancehall music at this time, and that only talks about dancing, smoking etc. And the young people in Reunion Island only listen to this kind of music. Sometimes I just say to myself, ‘There is no alternative. What is my thought worth here? What can I do here?’ Because they will say this is not ‘boom-boom music’, it’s not working…


Some artists, such as Christine Salem, have been trying to modernize maloya and her music is based on religious chanting. But some, like Firmin Viry, feel it should be more traditional and secular and not involve religious aspects. What is your opinion?

Firmin is an old man. He’s nice, but his way of thinking is old fashioned. Now we’ve got the internet, we’ve got all this stuff. We have to mix music if we want to move forward and be a part of society. We have to keep the roots. The funniest thing is, when you listen to Christine Salem’s music, it’s not so far from Firmin. Because, firstly, it’s traditional music, and secondly she talks about the roots and she calls out to the ancestors. So for me, while it’s not quite the same thing, there are similarities. But Firmin is more conservative. And, once again, now we have to move forward and at least if someone like Christine Salem is touring a lot in U.S.A, it’s good for us. It’s good for the music, it’s good for maloya…


Where do you place your own music in the context of these two opposing perspectives?

I’m taking influences from both sides— from Danyèl Waro, Firmin Viry, Christine Salem, from Ziskakan. But my music is not traditional maloya. I’ve got so many influences that I didn’t want to be traditional maloya. I just want to use it as an exceptional tool, so we can move the music in another way. Each one of us has got his own point of view and way of doing it. In my set list, I’ve put one song of Firmin Viry which I sung with him at Sakifo (a music festival in Reunion). The lyrics are: “Mum and Dad what is my destiny? What can I do next? You thought that I was dead, but I’m not. I’m still there, I’m still up and I will go forward.” I love this song.

I take influences from the traditional maloya— as percussion, voice and melody. There’s no melodic instrument in maloya, it’s only percussion and voices, sometimes question and answer. The chorists are very important. But while my chorists are very important, they also have other skills like being able to play the guitar, percussion instruments and the keyboard. And we bring all our influences. For example, the percussionist listens to dub-step music, the other one listens to soul. So we put it all together and work together. This is more ‘let’s do it together’ music. For me this is my version of maloya.


Maloya was traditionally sung my men. But you and Christine Salem are both very popular female artists. Do you feel that being a woman singer in maloya changes it? Either in terms of the style or the themes you choose to sing about?

Yes the topics obviously, because who better than a woman to talk about women? More and more women are doing maloya, since maybe 10 years ago. I think it’s a really nice thing that women have taken their place in this music. Because this music was such a male thing.


Was that because it was so political, so aggressive and so risky— that you had more men doing it?

I really don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know why women didn’t take a place in maloya. But now we are in 2013 and we have to be part of it. And we are a part of it.


In what ways are you looking to expand maloyan music? Through themes, instruments?

The first thing is the instruments, yeah. The musicians I’m playing with, my friends, they all have different influences and they listen to different kinds of music. Tomorrow, on stage, we’re trying to put some electronic music into this. We will still use the kayambs, rouler or carole. But we’re trying to mix it up. And sometimes a song works with very quiet, simple instruments. The ukulele, voice, triangle and kayamb and rouler. It doesn’t need anything else. So if it works like that, it suits me because I love acoustic music also. I love drums and bass but I still haven’t found the place for these kind of instruments in my music. But I’m telling you that today. Maybe tomorrow we’ll have a drummer. I’ve been to South Africa last October, without my musicians. And I did a collaboration with a band, ‘Mix n Blend’. There was drums and bass, electro-music… They just sent me the tracks and I just put melody and lyrics on that and it turned out quite different.


You have roots in India. Your father has roots from Rajasthan— I think?

I think my father’s ancestors are from Rajasthan. We’re not sure, we’re still searching for the original town. I’m the 5th generation of Indian people in Reunion Island. He just got his PIO (Person of Indian Origin) card, that’s a good thing. We’re still searching for where the great-great-grandparents were from. When Indian people came to Reunion Island it was many years after the slavery abolition. They were there for working. And my name, Pounia, my real last name, was cut. So I think my real name is longer than that. So we need to still search for it.


Have your roots in India influenced your music in anyway? Or do you think that it’s very much tied to Reunion Island? Could they influence you later?

They influence me a lot but I feel like I want to do more. I want to explore more classical music from India. But it seems to be so complex and so difficult. In fact, I want to try but, I don’t want to scratch it… it’s kind of a complex feeling. But I love Indian music.


Is there any instrument or any particular genre of Indian music that you find interesting?

Every morning I wake up with a Ravi Shankar CD or something. I really love all of it, like the sitar, the tabla, the tambura, the veena, the dholak. All the percussion, all the chords… this is wonderful and this is not logical. I mean logical in a European way. Our musical writing is different, a completely different system. It was decided that European music was the universal norm but when you come here, you see that it’s not. It doesn’t work and I love that.


(Image: Maya Kamaty performing at Riff. By Kavi Bhansali)