This set shines like on Séga, the traditional music of the island of Mauritius, and leaves you feeling like you've got no choice but to dig in and learn more about this tradition.
On the small island of Mauritius, which sits off the coast of Madagascar, Séga is the traditional music. It's a music with a long history, developed between the 17th and 19th centuries by African slaves working on colonial properties and in fields. As the slaves came from various places such as Mozambique, Zanzibar, and Madagascar, their various influences came together to make this new sound, one that would become the "blues" of the Indian Ocean.
Strut Records sets up all this background well in the notes for their new collection, Soul Sok Séga, which captures music from Mauritius made between 1973 and 1979. By this time, Séga was no longer outsider music made by slaves in search of hope, community, and relief. Now, Séga was a dominant and respected force on the dance floors of Mauritius. The music had transformed from a fringe sound to a uniting force. The music here represents another solid and well assembled compilation for Strut Records, introducing a lesser known tradition to a larger audience without watering it down. Soul Sok Séga tells the unique story of Séga music, but also adds another chapter to a long running story of how culture moves, how influences follow goods and services along trade routes and stay long after the goods have been consumed, how a sound that started as a means of survival for the oppressed became part of a way of life for a culture.
Like other strains of music from Africa, southern Asia, and elsewhere in the '60s and '70s, Séga had taken on the influence of funk and R&B music. These songs also show the impact electric instruments had on the sound of Séga. "Soul Sock Séga" -- the fitting opener from Ti L'Afrique -- lays those influences out clearly. The song glides on bright, trembling guitar chords and a shuffling groove, while the vocals do their best James Brown howls and psychedelic guitar fills sound more like saxophone vamps than anything. Jean Claude's "Mademoiselle" uses similar narcotic guitar lines, but lets the rhythm build on hand drums that echo out into space, creating a more isolated, bluesy sound. Georgie Joe's "Eliza", on the other hand, charges forward on the snap of snare and the bleat of thickly layered keyboards. It drifts closer to rock traditions than the first two songs, coming at the rhythm in a more straightforward fashion, but with the same vital rumble.
These three opening tracks set up the compilation well, highlighting the elements that link these songs while also showing the breadth of textures inherent in the Séga tradition. The set moves from the bluesy organ runs of Les Stardust's "Séga Lenoir" to island feel of Claudio's "Bhai Aboo" to the hard-charging stomp of Yoyo's "Coco Mamzelle". The songs are all sung in Creole, but if you don't speak the language you'll hardly ever miss the emotion in these songs. They can range from the joyous to the heartbroken, the blissful to the volatile. They can shout or they can croon at you, but the overall effect of Soul Sok Séga is one of cohesion.
That cohesiveness makes the set all the more rewarding, even when some songs are better at fleshing out the expanse of the genre than they are at standing on their own. Soul Sok Séga is an often fascinating way into this significant genre of music, and it plays not as a representative compilation -- some best-of comprising the essential Séga -- but rather as a starting point, as a place to begin a journey through Séga and all these exciting artists. This set makes the introduction to Séga, and leaves you feeling like you've got no choice but to dive deeper in and get to know this tradition better.