This is exactly what makes its capital Moroni, on Grand Comore, so fascinating. At the same time remote, by contemporary standards, and yet deeply embedded in complex fluxes of exchange, Moroni, with its devoutly Muslim population, feels faraway but so close.
Since the eighth century, when the first settlements were documented, Comoros has been an interface between Africa, the Near East, Asia and, later, Europe. To this day, the islands continue to melt various cultures together.
The language, shikomori, actually a group of four insular dialects as opposed to one unified language, is more influenced by Arabic than standard Swahili, but shares with it a vocabulary derived from several continents. This mélange is reflected in the root of the islands’ name; some think Comoros derives from the Arabic ‘juzur al qamar’, the Islands of the Moon, some inhabitants claim descent from Shirazi merchants from Persia, others a popular Portuguese card game, and so on.
Jackie Chan speaks shikomori fluently. So does Chris Tucker. At least they do so in the dubbed version of their film ‘Rush Hour’, on sale at stalls around Volo Volo market in the ‘coulée de lave’ quarter of Moroni (so called after the lava stream it is built on).
At these stalls, people not only browse the latest video arrivals, but watch them too, on small TV screens next to the road. In this particular version of ‘Rush Hour’, the English voices of the two leading actors are faded out and the dialogue re-enacted by two Comorians. The audio track is recorded over the original video, copied and clumsily labelled ‘Jack Shan Comore’, before it does the rounds on Volo Volo’s stalls.
Besides some filmed theatre comedy performances, there is no such thing as a Comorian film production. Said, a local shopkeeper, was therefore understandably surprised when he first heard Jackie Chan speaking shikomori: ‘I couldn’t believe it at first, but then it was very funny. It was like watching a Comorian film.’
Often, several films – usually pirated in English or French – are sold on the same disc. Curiously, this is labelled a ‘Dubai Collection’; easy to spot thanks to the grainy image of Dubai’s skyline printed on the plastic cover.
For most Comorians, Dubai is for the most part a symbol of non-Western modernity. Comorians involved in trade travel with ease to Dubai and other destinations in the Near East and Asia to buy wholesale. Quite logically, another market down the road in Moroni that sells these imports is called ‘Dubai Market’.
The blending of cultural influences in Comoros can be seen in Moroni’s popular music stores too. Just like the market, the music stores stock mostly counterfeit copies, and can be found throughout the Caltex quarter – so-called after the petrol station that sits next to a busy roundabout, from which groups of men watch cars go by. Leading from the old airport and stadium to the port area, this busy tree-lined street is packed with small shops and street food stalls.
Moroni’s music stores attract young people, who hang out watching local and international music videos and are now inspiring a burgeoning local hip hop scene. There is a huge Comorian diaspora in France; the diaspora in Marseille is so large it is reputedly the biggest Comorian city.
One video that hogs the music store screens is ‘Massiwa’ by Marseille-based slam poet Ahamada Smis and Comorian rapper Cheikh MC, the images from which exemplify both Comoros’ contemporary and past cross-continental influences. The Comoria logo on the shirt of Cheikh MC’s shirt is shown in front of the Marseille skyline. The poet and rapper are filmed in Moroni’s old harbour next to the colonnaded Old Friday Mosque, which borders the city’s medina and dates back to 1427, before switching to a scene of the musicians sitting on lava rocks on the Comoros shore.
Another example of a distinctively Comorian melding is the popularity of coupé décalé, a type of dance that originated in Cote d’Ivoire and the Ivorian nightclubs of Paris. Picked up in Paris and brought back via the Comorian diaspora, coupé décalé has been given a Moroni makeover to suit the island’s more conservative atmosphere. Whereas in West Africa, scantily dressed women dance provocatively to the genre’s hard percussive beat, in Comoros you’ll find elegant male dancers instead.
There are different traces of coupé décalé in Moroni. A dress shop in the Magoudjou quarter has its own atalaku, which literally means ‘look at me over here’; a man who tries to attract clients by shouting catchy rhymes and blaring coupé décalé sounds.
Small posters around the city indicate a growing coupé décalé nightlife scene too, with the occasional hip hop party and concert. Several of them are called ‘la nuit des je viens’, referring to members of the diaspora who return (temporarily) back to the Comoros for such parties. Others refer to concerts by Nigerian superstars like P-Square, Tanzanian singer Ray C or French-based rappers Psy 4 de la Rime.
As in West African coupé décalé, the artists praise their own achievements. Local artist Djoban Djo, for example, boasts: ‘I am not the ambassador of Comorian music because of my money, but because of my talent.’ And he continues: ‘I am the best of the best. Who is going to doubt this? I am the ambassador of the new generation of Comorian music.’
He may seem a little cocksure, but his efforts to put Comoros back on the map are to be applauded.