How the Seychelles Is preserving its cultural legacy through dance

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Recently recognized by UNESCO, the music and dances of moutya commemorate the Seychelles’ painful colonial past.

On the Seychellois island of Mahé, in the times before COVID, there was only one place to be on a Wednesday evening: the ever-popular Beau Vallon beach, famous for its clear waters, white sand, and the Bazar Labrin—that’s “sunset market” in Seychellois Creole. Long lines would form around food vendor stalls where visitors could purchase freshly grilled fish, wraps bursting with meat curry, cups of sweet and tangy kalou (a palm wine native to the area), and warm cassava chips, freshly pulled from gleaming hot oil. The real event of the evening, however, was watching performers sing and shake to the rhythms of moutya, a lively Seychellois dance, against the backdrop of a glowing sunset.

“The sound of a moutya drum draws a large crowd,” says Sophia Rosalie, the senior policy analyst at the Victoria-based Seychelles National Institute of Culture Heritage & the Arts, also known as the Culture Institute.

Enslaved Africans created moutya on the Seychelles more than two centuries ago, and it has become an important part of the country’s unique Creole culture. Sadly, the pandemic put an end to many of the public moutya performances in the islands, including the weekly festivities at Bazar Labrin. But in December 2021, UNESCO added the dance to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, bringing some much-needed cheer to the island nation, which relies heavily on tourist dollars. “After COVID and all the negative things going on in the world, everyone was so happy to end the year with such great news,” says Rosalie.

Moutya drummer Barnet Bertin, a member of the four-man band Group Vwazen (a Seychellois word that means “neighbor”), and the chef and owner of Island Fried Chicken in Beau Vallon, explains his joy for the dance’s UNESCO designation through a metaphor. “It’s like having a tree and waiting for it to fruit,” he says with a laugh. “After all this time, we can now enjoy the fruit.”

A dance born out of necessity

Prior to the 1770 arrival of 15 French settlers and their enslaved African and Indian workforce, the islands that now constitute the Seychelles were uninhabited. The mix of French colonial culture and the people they enslaved, a group that also included people from the Malay archipelago and China, gave birth to the Seychellois Creole culture—a unique blend of the customs and traditions of all the different peoples who came to call the Seychelles home.

Enslaved workers under French rule were subject to brutal, inhumane working and living conditions and toiled on the islands’ plantations, where common crops included cotton, maize, and rice. The night, though, was theirs—secretly. Once the sun dipped below the horizon, workers would steal away into the forest, far from the eyes of their enslavers. Gathered around a small fire, they would vent their grief, frustration, and anger through song and dance. “Moutya was the only way for the enslaved people to express themselves,” says Bertin.

In 1814, the French surrendered the islands to the British in the Treaty of Paris. Although the Slavery Abolishment Act (legislation that outlawed slavery in British colonies) was passed in 1833, de facto slavery continued unchecked in the Seychelles until 1838 under the guise of “apprenticeship.” During this time, many plantation owners switched to growing less labor-intensive crops like coconut, vanilla, and spices to make up for the loss of their unpaid workforce. The Drums Regulation of 1935, which was passed under British rule, made it even harder for people to practice moutya—the law prohibited the playing of percussion instruments on the islands of Mahé, Praslin, and La Digue near certain townships, churches, and the coastline after 9 p.m. The law remained in place even when the Seychelles gained independence from British rule after 1976 and was only repealed in 2018.

The sounds of the papa, manman, and piti

Moutya’s infectious beat is kept in time by the pounding of three circular goatskin drums. Sized at 22, 20, and 18 inches in diameter, they’re affectionately referred to as the papa (father), manman (mother), and piti (child), respectively. The largest drum provides the bass notes of songs, while the maman keeps the rhythm, and the piti takes the lead melody. Before performances, the drums are warmed over a fire fueled by coconut husks and driftwood, while drummers lightly tap their fingers on the leather as the skin grows taut with the flames’ heat. Songs begin slowly at first, and gradually pick up tempo until the dancers and drummers are sweating and moving in a frenzied symphony of dance and resonating rhythms.

Moutya music is highly interactive, and songs are usually structured with a call and response. Composed in Seychellois Creole, lyrics might focus on recounting the cruelty of enslavers, playfully sharing a salacious bit of gossip, or even waxing philosophical on the pains of unrequited love. Since lyrics often focus on the injustices the singers endured, songs were secretly sung in code. “While complaining, it was important to get the message across without [saying] the name of your master or landowner,” says Rosalie.

As the drummers pound away, men and women move their bare feet from side to side, sensuously swaying their hips to the rhythm. The performers begin dancing in circles around the campfire but eventually split off from the group in partners. And although men may dominate on the drums, the dance is invariably led by the women. “The man follows the woman,” Rosalie says with a laugh.

Songs that were popular during the colonial era are still favorites today and have been passed down through the generations. An important piece of cultural heritage, moutya songs also functioned as a way to keep an oral history during a time when official records were kept by the ruling class of plantation owners and colonial officials. “When we play the old songs that people know, they sing with us,” Bertin says.

The future of moutya

With UNESCO’s recent recognition of moutya’s historical significance, interest in the dance has increased across the islands. But moutya is facing a rather pressing challenge: A shortage of quality goatskins has forced Seychellois musicians to buy traditional and synthetic drums from the nearby island of Mauritius. Drums made from synthetic materials lack the rich sound quality of conventional drums. Another challenge has been the dwindling number of drum makers on the islands—what will happen to the art form if the instruments die out?

To preserve the craft, the Culture Institute has created a detailed plan of action to promote traditional drum making. To reduce the use of drums with synthetic skins, the Culture Institute is rolling out an exchange program in the near future. When musicians turn in a synthetic drum at the institute, they will be given a locally made goatskin drum in return.

Now that the dance has been internationally recognized, moutya is taking full advantage of its moment in the sun. Rosalie is more hopeful than ever that additional resources will be poured into preserving the art form for future generations. “Submitting the UNESCO nomination was a community effort,” she says. “It wasn’t just the researchers, cultural institutions, and the government. Everyone involved with moutya helped.”