Various Artists: Oté Maloya – The Birth of Electric Maloya on Reunion Island 1975-1986

Strut Records delivers the best of vintage African music yet again, this time straight from Réunion Island.
Various Artists
Oté Maloya: The Birth of Electric Maloya on Réunion Island 1975-1986

If you liked last year’s Strut Records release, Soul Sok Séga, a compilation of vintage music from Mauritius — and you should because it was amazing — then Oté Maloya is right up your alley. It’s one island over from Mauritius but has very similar musical style. Like séga, it comes from the slaves and indentured servants who labored under French colonists; unlike séga, it relies heavily on percussion and not a whole lot else, giving it a rhythmic drive and a simpler structure. Briefly banned in France because of its association with revolution-oriented groups on Réunion, the form has been preserved with astounding quality on Oté Maloya.

Pulled from the 1970s and 1980s, the tracks on Oté Maloya have a broad range of sounds within the maloya style. Some are nearly acoustic, with traditional call-and-response choruses typical of classic maloya, while others are truly electric, lit up by funky synths and guitars. Consistent across the selections are many of the instruments, such as the roulér, a deep hand drum, the sati, a flat, metal instrument, and the kayamb, whose distinctive rattle is found all across the Indian Ocean.

Those are the bones, but the real draw here is the soul that holds it all together. Luckily, it’s here in large, heaping portions. Caméléon starts us off with the low-key island funk of “La Rosée Si Feuilles Songes”. It’s all warm keys floating on gentle, open waters; once that welcome tapers off, the midtempo action gets started with Michou’s “Maloya Ton Tisane”, where percussion starts to drive everything forward. It only gets better afterward. There’s a timeless feel to the simple instrumentation of most songs, but modern touches are spread around the album. For instance, heavy bass adds stability to “P’tit Femme Mon Gaté”, and hot, jazzy horns flourish on “séga Le Sport”, an otherwise minimal track.

Modern and classic songs alike have genuine appeal. Each artist gives a distinct depth to their track — meloya is typically political, and the tone on most tracks is fittingly serious. On top of that, the choruses stick thanks to memorable walking-pace stanzas with a steady tread. The grooves may make you want to get up, but even on lively dance tracks like Gaby Et Les Soul Men’s sweltering “C’est La Même Cadence”, a sober quality means there is more to each song than meets the ear at first listen.

Maloya is music borne of the need for freedom, and both toil and expression shine through on the varied tracks of Oté Maloya. The blues spirit, the séga beats, and the revved-up electronics that come together here are a double blast from the past, drawing on the slightly retro that owes so much to the unique and often brutal history of the Réunionese. It’s there in the rough metallic clangs of Pierrot Vidot’s “Commandeur”, the slickly produced dance pop of “Sé Pi Bodié”, and the melancholy calls of the bass-heavy closing track, “Oté Maloya” (a perfect emotional powerhouse for finishing this collection). Time and time again, Strut Records brings the best of vintage African music, and Oté Maloya is yet another refreshing sampler that delivers from start to finish.

RATING 7 / 10