Comoros,

Swaying Salouvas

The Comorian women of Mayotte take charge as they dance to Sufi chants

Writer

Curtis Bausse

Photographer

Bertrand Fanonnel

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Whether you’ve just emerged from the Dzaoudzi–Pamandzi International Airport or you’re at a family celebration in the centre of the city, witnessing the debaa is not uncommon – for dance is an integral part of Mayotte’s identity.

It comes in many forms, from the biyaya to m’biwi, chigôma to shakasha. However, the dance that symbolises Mayotte above all others is the debaa. Steeped in the ancient tradition of Sufism, but imbued with a modern significance, the debaa is, to quote Elena Bertuzzi, a music ethnologist at the Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, commonly seen by the dancers themselves as ‘a good Muslim way to enjoy yourself.’

I feel different when I wear it. For me the salouva symbolises Mayotte

Whether you’ve just emerged from the Dzaoudzi–Pamandzi International Airport or you’re at a family celebration in the centre of the city, witnessing the debaa is not uncommon – for dance is an integral part of Mayotte’s identity.

It comes in many forms, from the biyaya to m’biwi, chigôma to shakasha. However, the dance that symbolises Mayotte above all others is the debaa. Steeped in the ancient tradition of Sufism, but imbued with a modern significance, the debaa is, to quote Elena Bertuzzi, a music ethnologist at the Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, commonly seen by the dancers themselves as ‘a good Muslim way to enjoy yourself.’

Understanding the debaa comes with understanding Mayotte. A tiny island in the Mozambique Channel, it’s one of four in the Comoros archipelago and a department of France, like Normandy or Alsace. Predominantly Muslim, the island contains a blend of Arab and African cultures. The choice to remain French, while the other three Comoros islands voted for independence, was due in part to the ‘ticklers’ – a group of women who in the 1970s literally tickled politicians into listening to their demands. And Mayotte today remains a largely matriarchal society, with the debaa performed exclusively by women providing an opportunity to get together and celebrate.

The origins of the debaa can be traced to the Islamic division of Sufism and the mystical poetry of Abdurahman al-Dayba, a Yemeni writer from the 15th century. Its current form, though, consists of a choreographed female chant accompanied by drums, bells and tambourines. Abdoul-Karim Ben Said, cultural attaché in Mayotte’s Regional Council, points out that it was originally masculine, ‘but women took hold of it in the first half of the 20th century, turning it into an expression of grace and beauty.’ Today it is well-entrenched, he says, with at least one group, or madrassati, in almost every village on the island.

The debaa is performed at different holidays and events, from Eid al-Fitr to the return of pilgrims from Mecca. And although the chants are mostly in Arabic, referring to the life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the debaa isn’t necessarily associated with religious gatherings – a celebration of a person’s success in the baccalaureate could just as easily warrant a performance.

Increasingly, competitions are organised between different debaa groups, taking place in the island’s richly decorated village squares called the bandra bandra. Following an imam’s lead, a soloist and chorus respond to each other, accompanied by a group of percussionists. To the Sufi chants, the debaa adds a contained but complex choreography. Using only the upper part of the body, the women sway and undulate with elaborate gestures in a graceful, haunting evocation of ocean waves.

An essential part of the debaa is the lambawani, an outfit often worn on a daily basis in Mayotte, but an object of special attention for the dance. It consists of two parts: the salouva, or main element, is a simple, vibrant sarong tied in a knot across the torso. Another cloth, the kishali, is layered on top and is either placed on the shoulder like a scarf or wrapped around the head.

The salouva goes over the shimizi, a lightweight cotton sleeveless dress or long skirt. Jewellery adorns the arms and neck, henna decorates the hands and the ‘msindzano’, a beauty mask made from grated sandalwood mixed with water, covers the face. The hair is elaborately braided, often adorned with jasmine or ylang-ylang.

Today, the younger women of Mayotte often discard the salouva in favour of jeans and a t-shirt. Partly as a response to this, last February Mayotte television aired the second edition of ‘Le Salouva Vous Va Si Bien’ (The Salouva Suits You), which drew over 200 participants parading their most resplendent colours. Similarly, the Miss Salouva contest, now in its sixth year, helps to raise awareness of the salouva’s contribution to the island’s culture.

As for the debaa, it too is changing. Keen to preserve Mayotte’s cultural heritage, in 2008 the Regional Council organised
a competition selecting five groups to promote the debaa abroad. ‘We were funded, trained and taught how to speak Arabic correctly,’ recalls Bibi-Fatima Boina, from the Madrassati Madania on the western tip of the island.

For the requirements of an international tour, the size of the group was also cut from 50 to 15, but for Boina, the essence of the dance, passed down through generations, remains intact. She says, ‘My mother and grandmother were part of this group, and today it’s my daughters’ turn. The only thing that’s changed is that now we have an official status and we travel.’

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. Ousseni and Sadanti started when they were young – with sisters and cousins also a part of their troupe. Toyaria is one of the best known groups, having performed at several international festivals, but for the women, who recently turned 18, this year was their first tour abroad. ‘We learned to work as a team,’ says Ousseni, whose mother is currently head of the madrassati. ‘The debaa is a social experience – it’s all about being part of the group.’

For Ousseni and Sadanti, who are now studying abroad, wearing the traditional salouvas transports them back to their home village of Mtsangadoua. ‘It’s the traditional costume,’ says Sadanti. ‘I feel different when I wear it. For me the salouva symbolises Mayotte.’

While recent performances of this unique blend of art and spirituality abroad have raised awareness, Bertuzzi is cautious. ‘There was a positive effect initially, as the artistic quality improved,’ she says. ‘But the monopoly of a small number of selected groups has allowed for tensions and rivalry. Tours are now restricted to the better off members, so the criteria is becoming more economic than artistic.’

Due to Mayotte’s singular mix of African culture and French administration, this sort of evolution is perhaps inevitable. It remains to be seen whether the popular tradition of the debaa will survive in the long term, especially when positioned alongside the more professional form that’s now emerging.