top of page

Extract of a lithograph from Antoine Roussin "Le séga dans des noirs, le dimanche,, au bord de la mer, à Saint Denis, 1860"


Instruments of the maloya

The sacred maloya, a tradition imported by slaves

Maloya came to the island with the firsts slaves coming from Madagascar and Africa. Traditional and ritual maloya is the expression of a sacred and confidential rite : the servis kabaré, imported from Madagascar also know as kabar or servis malgas. It is initially an animist ritual related to the cult of the ancestors

allowing the livings to talk with their passed away relatives to pay tribute and ask for protection. This tradition is transmitted orally and may vary from one family to another, allowing slaves and indentured labourers descendants to keep their traditions alive. Maloya, through music and dance, holds a central place in this ceremony dedicated to the cult of the ancestors and hidden from the public sphere. By extension, the word kabar can nowadays refers to a concert.

The creolization process

Until the beginning of the 20th century, the word « tchéga » which might comes from a « swahili » word meaning « pull up one's socks », is used to name Maloya as we know it. The origin of the word Maloya being unclear, it is said that it could come from Madagascar or Mozambique.

After the abolition of slavery in 1848, indian and malagasy indentured labourers added melodies, chants and rituals which are specific to them in their ceremonies. During this era, a real intercultural process is expressed in the Indian Ocean through the practice of Maloya. From the european side, certain lyrics sung in the traditional maloya are inspired from french romances from the 18th and the 19th centuries.

The political dimension of maloya

The forbidden maloya

Performed in the context of the family and the neighbourhood, maloya is associated with slavery and indentured labour and is forbidden in public space until 1981. In the 60s, it becomes a space of expression  for the reunionese opposition partie (PCR) and the symbol of a class-based conflict. Although it is a culture rejected by a large part of the population because of its being judged subversive, maloya is played in festive evenings (bals maloya) where critical songs and social comments about claims can be heard.

From the local identity to the intangible cultural heritage

Originally being a spiritual and ritual music, maloya is nowadays the major expression of reunionese identity in the social and cultural landscape. Many artists work for its preservation and expansion by performing on international stages. Locally, maloya is promotted by associations and various cultural events and has a special place regarding its transmission since it is taught since 1987 at the C.R.R.Since 2009, it belongs to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Instruments of the maloya

The african and malagasy legacy

Maloya as it is known today reliesy on instruments like bobre, kayamb, roulèr and pikér, introduceds by african slaves. Other instruments from Madagascar and Mozambique like valiha or timba, imported by slaves, disappeared from reunionese music. The ancive, a shell used as a horn by fishermen, was also dropped.

The “roulér” (pronounced “rooler”)

is a membranophone, it is the base instrument of maloya because it gives the beat. Built by slaves during the 18th century by using barrels transported by ships. The musician plays it sat on the instrument as if it is a horse to modify the timbre with one of his feet. In the past, it was necessary to heat it before playing to obtain a nice sound.

The pikér (pronounced “Peeker”)

is a hit or “bitten”  idiophone used with two sticks. It is made of bamboo. It can lay on the ground. To play it standing up, it is hooked to a metallic tube. Two sticks made of hardtough guava tree wood are used to hit it.

The bobre (pronounced “bobr”) (or bob)

is a cordophone, from East Africa and Madagascar. This musical bow is mainly used in the maloya for rhythmic purpose and is frequently used by storytellers and puppeteers but as an accompaniment for moringue (a traditional martial art). The musician holds the bow above the calabash and presses it against him. According to the beat he strikes the string of the bow with a small stick calledHe strikes according to the beat the string of the bow with a small stick called batavék (pronounced “baataavayk”).

Playing the bobre allows to create several effects simultaneously:  The rattling of the seeds inside the kavir like maracas, the vibrations of the string controlled by the musician by closing more or less the aperture of the calabash which is pressed againts him.

The kayamb (pronounced as written)

is an idiophone from Africa. It can be found in Madagascar too where kayemba means ‘which resonates’ and in Mozambique under the name kaembe (pronounced “kahembay”). In Réunion, it is made of flower stems of sugar cane mounted on a rectangular wooden frame. Before setting up the last stems, seeds are introduced. Conflore seeds and flowers.

The sati (pronounced “satee”)

Idiophone made of tin can, metal sheets rolled or folded in the shape of a caserolled metal sheet or folded in the shape of a case, it is hit with sticks. The musician can use a stand.

The triangle

Idiophone made from a circular-cross-section-made metal bar bent twice to create the shape of a more or less regular triangle. The musician holds it with one hand and strikes it with a metallic stick with the other, producing a crystalline and high-pitched sound.

During the 70s, with the advent of the fusion music style, electric and acoustic instruments (guitar, bass, drums, keyboard), brass (trumpet, saxophone), along with traditional malagasy (vali), indian (‘malbar’ drum), african (djemb, takamba) and other european (harpe, piano, violon) or south-american (congas) instruments are added to the typical instruments.

Musical features and styles


As it is traditionally known, the singing of the maloya is performed alternately between the soloist and the choir. Texts are usually in creole or some kind of creolized malagasy. Musical and danced expressions of the cult of the ancestors, maloya is a fusion of african and malagasy styles with indian contributions, promoted by artists like Lo Rwa Kaf, Gramoun Baba, Gramoun Bébé, Gramoun Lélé, Gramoun Sello, Firmin Viry, Simon Lagarrigue, Françoise Guimbert.

During “servis”, the rhythm of maloya varies from a binary form similar to a 2/4 time signature and a rather ternary form similar to 6/8 (far more common outside of the context of ritual performancefar more common the ritual performance context put apart).

Durant les servis, le rythme du maloya varie entre une forme binaire proche
du 2/4 et une forme plutôt ternaire proche du 6/8 (beaucoup plus courante en dehors
du contexte d'exécution rituel).


During the 70s, maloya and fusion styles are mixed thanks to trends initiated by groups like Caméléon, Caroussel and artists Loy Ehrlich and Alain Peters who add world music and start the careers of René Lacaille, Bernard Brancard, Joël Gonthier, Kiki Mariapin. It the combination of modern music styles as rock, jazz, funk, reggae or world music with the style of ancestors.


During the 90s, maloya’s fusion did original experiences like the Renésens group who created « celtic maloya » by using traditional breton instruments. Meanwhile, many artists and groups created new styles inpired byreappropriate their African roots: Davy Sicard, Christine Salem or mix it with electro and urban musics like Jako Maron, Atepelaz, Alex Sorres, Kaf Malbar.


Among the current trends, the neo-traditional style is adopted by groups of maloya, following the path shown by Granmoun Lélé, like Lindigo, Kiltir, Kozman Ti Dalon… These groups make ancient repertoires coexist with recent adaptations and creations which are the theater of linguistic and instrumental innovations.

Iconic artists

  • Françoise Guimbert

  • Lo Rwa Kaf

  • Firmin Viry

  • Simon Lagarrigue

  • Danyel Waro


Précourt, Fanie. « Maloya et séga des Mascareignes, ethnomusicologie d'un genre pluriel », Africultures, vol. 98, no. 2, 2014, pp. 108-115.

Guillaume Samson, Benjamin Lagarde et Jean-Claude Carpanin Marimoutou, L'univers du maloya. Histoire, ethnographie, littérature, DREOI/Océan Éditions, St-Denis de La Réunion, 2008.

Jean-Pierre La Selve, Musiques traditionnelles de La Réunion, Saint-Denis de La Réunion, Azalée Éditions, p. 68. de Littérature comparée

Sandrine Barège. Petites histoires des musiques réunionnaises, édition 4 épices, 2012 

Dossier de presse, « Maloya patrimoine mondial de l’humanité », 1er octobre 2009, Maison des Civilisations et de l’Unité réunionnaise.

Université de La Réunion, faculté des lettres et des sciences humaines « Diversité et spécificités des musiques traditionnelles de l’Océan Indien » Editions l’Harmattan 2004 (p. 207 à 256) 

texte de Sandrine Barège

bottom of page