Discovering the debaa

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Rosine and Bacar of the madrassati (debaa group) Toyaria, pose in their salouvas. 

One thing leads to another… Way back last March, I wrote a post about Mayotte for Clara Wiggins, author of The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, who was running a series on her blog called people who live in small places. That was seen by Phoebe at Lou Messugo, who was doing a series on far-flung France, devoted to the overseas territories France still has around the world. So she asked me to write about Mayotte as well, which I did. And that was seen by Rima Alsammarae of Brownbook magazine, who wanted me to write about the debaa for their 2015 fashion directory, Dances of the Middle East and Africa. Well, as you can imagine, that was more of a challenge – sharing my impressions of life on an island was one thing; the debaa is a traditional dance about which I knew nothing. Furthermore, I wasn’t in Mayotte at the time and the deadline was before I got back, which meant it would have to be done from a distance.

By dint of much Internet searching, several email exchanges and a few telephone interviews, I managed to write a piece which Rima published in the directory. I can’t reproduce it here because it’s copyright (and a bit long anyway), but a little extract to give you an idea:

Rosine Ousseni and Bacar Sadanti, two young performers from the Madrassati Toyaria, confirm the strong family influence when it comes to joining a debaa group. ‘We started very young, our sisters and cousins all do it, and now it’s our passion, we can’t get by without it.’ Toyaria is one of the best known groups, having performed at several international festivals, but for the girls, who recently turned eighteen, this year was their first tour abroad. ‘We learned to work as a team,’ says Rosine, whose mother is currently heading the madrassati. ‘The debaa is a social experience, it’s all about being part of the group.’ And while they are both now starting their studies in mainland France, they firmly intend to keep up with the group back in Mayotte. ‘We try out new ideas and then send them to the others to be incorporated. It’s a way of staying in touch.’ Sometimes too they will put on their salouvas and in their minds be transported 5000 miles to their home village of Mtsangadoua, swaying to the chant of the chorus. ‘It’s the traditional costume,’ says Bacar. ‘I feel different when I wear it. For me the salouva symbolises Mayotte.’

Many different events can provide a reason to perform. It could be Eid al-Fitre at the end of Ramadan, or the return of pilgrims from Mecca. But although the chants are mostly in Arabic, and refer to the life of the Prophet, the event itself doesn’t have to be religious – it could just as easily be to celebrate a child’s success in the baccalaureate. And now increasingly, competitions are organised between the different groups, taking place in the richly decorated village square called the bandra bandra. Following the lead of an ‘imam’, soloist and chorus reply to each other, accompanied by a group of percussionists. To the Sufi chants, the debaa adds a contained but complex choreography, involving only the upper part of the body, in which the women sway and undulate with elaborate gestures in a graceful, haunting evocation of ocean waves.

And when I did get back to Mayotte, I was of course delighted to see a group of debaa dancers for real.

If you want to hear the music, here’s a short video (4 mins) of a group of debaa dancers at the Festival of Sacred Music in Fez, 2009.

I missed the All About France linkup last month, so I’m especially pleased to join it here, since if it hadn’t been for Phoebe’s blog, I’d never have discovered the debaa.

Lou Messugo