Dancing barefoot to Maloya Music at Reunion Island’s Festival Liberté Métisse.

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The approach to Saint Denis Airport offers a view of the island as it pushes up from the endless ocean blues.

It looks small, yet determined. The landing strip runs along the coastline and the pilot delivers a smooth landing to a planeload of excited people. Many holidaymakers, some here for business, me arriving with a very specific purpose – to experience the annual Festival Liberté Métisse, the Festival of Freedom.

Falling over the weekend of the 20th December, the celebration Is hosted at the Etang-Salé-les-Bains beach on the West coast, which was soon to be overtaken by colour, song and abandoned revelry. The major cultural and unifying event marks the abolition of slavery in Reunion Island, whilst honouring the roots, history and eclectic mix of the island people.

Arriving on the Thursday evening I was there just in time to catch the sunset.

Held over three days, festival exhibitors ranged from street artists to artisan coffee growers and roasters, geranium oil producers and hand-craft jewellers, all setting up shop to share their products. All the while musical acts took to the stage to entertain festival-goers with their irresistible Maloya beats.

A historic date in the collective subconscious of the people of Reunion Island, the 20th December 1848 marks the abolition of slavery on the island. Every year on this date, the Reunionese gather to celebrate freedom and dance to the Maloya rhythm, a genre which is registered on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

After four centuries, Reunion has a particular identity formed by the arrival of its people from around the world – European, Malagasy, African, Indian, Chinese and Comoros. This is the very mix that makes the island a unique destination. An island that surprises with its natural beauty and diversity of landscapes and attractions. Yet where the harmonious coexistence of its Creole peoples, their customs and way of life, is what leaves the greatest mark.

The crowds come and go, some settling in with blankets and picnics, others passing through, stopping to have a dance, usually with a stranger. But then again, on an island with a population of only 850 000, one with a proud sense of history and belonging, there is no such thing.

The Etang Salé les Bains beach has a character of its own. Palm trees line the coast and the water laps gently in the area offered for protected swimming. The sand underfoot is volcanic black, and burns as you walk down to the shore. This thanks to the active volcano which occasionally erupts to add to the bulk of the land. The weather is hot and very humid. Especially after the gentle rain which seems to come at night in the rainy season. A welcome thing, that enhances the vibrancy of the colours and the flavours.

For me, the highlight of my trip is spending an evening with legendary Creole musician, poet and activist Danyèl Waro as he celebrated with a Kabaro at his home between the sugarcane fields above Saint-Denis.

One of the most famous of the island’s Creole, it was largely his determination that brought Maloya music to the world. It’s trance-like, rhythmic sounds infectious, it’s messaging profound.

Danyèl Waro personifies warmth, welcoming me with open arms, kisses to the cheeks and a heartfelt invitation to join the vibrant dancing. The soft rain ran down his face and the humidity fogged up his glasses, but nothing could dampen the energy or spirit of the man who’s fondly known as the Creole King of Maloya.

What a privilege to speak afterwards of how the focus of his music has moved from a once political voice of slaves to a message of peace, activism, the environment and preservation of the ocean. His songs are poetic. He speaks of love, death and hope, using the voice of the Creole people, keeping their tradition alive.

Waro makes sure through expressive beauty and words, that the language is not forgotten. ‘I defend freedom of expression, the seeking out of truth, our culture and proud heritage’ – and the Réunionese listen. As did I.

In the rain, mud underfoot, more accurately mud everywhere, the mood was light, animated, playful and passion-filled. With a complete sense of abandon that the uniting freedom the festival so aptly celebrates.

The word Creole has a special reference in Reunion. The island was not inhabited at all until the late 17th century and had no base language. With people from France and Madagascar, as well as East African slaves arriving, the spoken word evolved. After slavery was officially abolished, labourers were brought from India and China to work on the farms, adding their terms of phrase.

The result is a linguistic melting-pot, with French dominating and Malagasy, Tamil, Portuguese and Hindi all shaping the development of the Réunion Creole. The name Creole actually comes from criollo in Spanish and crioulo in Portuguese, words used in the 16th and 17th centuries to describe those born and raised locally, as opposed to those who immigrated as adults.

Maloya, in turn, is the rhythmic music on which plantation workers have been singing their joys and woes since the early days of Isle de Bourbon. ’We are Creole’ I’m told by Danyel Waro. ‘Not Irish or African or Chinese. We are the Creole of Reunion Island. Proud, and free.’

As the festival and my visit came to an end I felt sad to be leaving Reunion Island and the community I’d been so generously welcomed into. Whether it was the harmonious blend of culture and religion, the Reunionese skies, black beach or laid back island living, I’d instantly slipped into all that this French island off the coast of Africa has to offer, as I suspect anyone would. I now also long for more barefoot dancing in the mud …

The Essential Details

  • Reunion Island is part of France, the currency is the Euro and everyone speaks French or Creole – a mixture of languages from Africa, Asia and Europe.
  • South Africans don’t need a visa to visit Reunion Island.
  • It’s only a four hour flight from Johannesburg to Saint-Denis, Reunion Island on Air Austral.
  • Allow yourself plenty of time as once you’re done dancing, you’ll want to hike, eat and explore.
  • Pack for all seasons, it’s hot and humid on the coastline, but cooler when you go inland, especially in the mountains.
  • When you start organising your trip, do let me know if there’s anything that I can help with.
  • For more information on the ultimate island, please visit #LaReunion #GoToReunion #theultimateisland

Photos of the night are included below.

Musical and dance acts entertain festival-goers with their irresistible Maloya beats.

Watch Danyèl Waro singing about Mandela https://youtu.be/cJh4DZtNy4s in his infectious melodic way.

Read my Reunion Island. Geographical Grandeur, Botanical Wonders, Distilled Magic and An Adventurer’s Guide to Reunion Island. 

A fuzzy pic of my guide Phillipe and I loving the celebration.

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