A visit to the Seychelles would clearly be a privilege at any time, and none more so than during the annual ‘Festival Kreol’.
Whilst carnival is a newer addition to the Seychelles’ calendar, the Creole Festival offers an intriguing and entrancing window into the culture and history of these islands.
This was the festival’s 31st year, and there was one event of particular significance: the inauguration of a Creole Language and Culture Research Institute. An addition to the already existing Creole Institute – ‘Lenstiti Kreol Enternasyonal’ in Creole– this new entity unites the islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe, the Commonwealth of Dominica and Haiti, from the Caribbean and, to some extent, the American state of Louisiana, as well as the Seychelles, Mauritius and Reunion Island from the Indian Ocean, in a body that will bind them in an international partnership as well as celebrate their shared Creole heritage. Academics representing Dominica, Guadeloupe and Martinique were present to sign the inauguration documents, as well as those from the regional Indian Ocean neighbours.
Finding cultures with much in common, formed in places far apart, feels extraordinary; if you’re accustomed to the Caribbean, the Seychelles will startle you with its similarities, and then its differences, over and over again. There’s logic there, when you think about it, because many of the peoples who came together to create these lands have similar origins, share strands of history that brought them to these places, and before – but that doesn’t make the initial impact less surprising.
And there are the likenesses within nature, too. From the time the plane begins its descent onto Mahé island, one could be forgiven for witnessing the landscape and the architecture, and forgetting that this destination is not in the Caribbean. These moments of forgetfulness can recur frequently – when you see dominoes being played in the marketplace, when you eat some curried chicken and seasoned rice – but then they fade as the uniqueness of this place shines through.
The Seychellois are rightfully proud of their Creole culture. As signs and T-shirts proclaim everywhere you looked during the festival, they designate themselves the Creole capital of the world. Banners throughout the capital Victoria, written in Creole, beseech everyone to celebrate their Creolité (Creole-ness). It’s heartening to see a country celebrate and preserve their culture so actively and emphatically, and an example to many that don’t, or that only manage to do so in a more negative way.
An annual inclusion in the festival is a traditional Seychellois wedding, and an accompanying exhibition including photographic storyboards and lifesize figures depicting the traditional and enduring manner and dress of a Seychellois wedding. Visitors are invited to attend the wedding itself, to witness first hand how it’s done, the Seychelles way.
Diverse artforms comprise a great part of the festival; there is storytelling, poetry and drama, as well as musical performances. This time, two plays were performed in the Creole language, one being an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by actors from Rodrigues, an autonomous island that’s part of Mauritius. An exhibition featured the works of Jean Bernard Grondin, an artist from Reunion who uses ‘goni’ to create his pieces. Goni is jute, the material used to form the sacks that transported sugar cane, and by slaves for household items and clothing, so is uniquely intrinsic to and significant in the history here. Several of Grondin’s works are depictions of the much-prized and protected coco de mer, the fruit of the palm tree that’s unique to Seychelles; the colloquial name for the nut is ‘coco fesse’, which refers to its perceived similarity in shape to a woman’s posterior. The coco de mer has become the iconic symbol of the Seychelles.
There’s a regular night market in Beau Vallon, by the beach in the North West of Mahé, with plenty of food and drink to keep you happy whilst you wander browsing amongst the stalls or sit on the sand as the sun sets. Especially during the Creole festival, you may see local musicians, who come to soften their goatskin drums on the fire and play some traditional music. And if you’re really lucky, some of the people who start dancing around the fire will be experts, who know how to do it the right way. We were reliably informed: there is only one right way.
A high point of the festival is the ceremony for Commemoration of the International Day of Creoles, held at the stadium. A costumed parade moves through the town, culminating inside the stadium with synchronised dancing, spectacular in the failing light. Following the parade is a regional concert, featuring popular artists from Mauritius, Reunion Island and the Seychelles performing some traditional, some contemporary music and dance. For 2016’s festival, Patrick Victor, one of Seychelles’ most popular musicians, introduced the event alongside the ever-present tourism minister Alain St Ange; the latter spoke with impressive passion of his country and culture at several of the festival events. As an added touch, Victor had with him a guitar-type instrument made from a coco de mer.
It was fascinating to hear the local music, and to see the experts dancing to it. The traditional music is ‘moutya’, which now also comes in modern forms, and the newer ‘sega’. The dancing almost seemed to be made up of two distinct and distinguishable elements – African and European. In fact, some of the music at the concert also sounded a little like French or German folk music. The waist, or hips, looked African, the footwork looked like that from Latin dances.
It would be interesting to hear an expert’s view of how these origins intertwine. To the untrained ear (although one of a soca lover), the music seemed quite different to that of the Caribbean, the dancing somewhat more familiar, but different enough to be difficult to mimic; if you dance to moutya as you do to soca, you’ll be laughed out of town (as I tragically discovered).
An evening fashion show at one of the hotels showcases the work of local designers, presenting an impressive and diverse range of styles. The dinner and show are attended by anyone who is anyone in Mahé, and there follows a short concert of traditional music which has everyone up and dancing.
The next day there’s a popular beach lime – ‘Dimans Kreol Bor Lanmer’, which translates roughly as ‘Creole Sunday by the Sea’ – with a wide choice of food and drink stalls set up close to the beach and large crowds who come to hang out and join the party. A sizeable stage plays host to recorded and live music throughout the afternoon and early evening. The introductory speech from Alain St Ange last October made clear that, as well as a party, this event is an homage to what makes the Seychelles, the Seychelles.
In between the festivities there are, of course, opportunities to nip to the beach – and what beaches they are. Stunning white sand and palm trees abound, and the geology is extraordinary; monolithic rocks appear, polished and curved, as giant, lumbering creatures hugging the shore or wading out to sea. In photographs they seem almost superimposed, intentionally positioned for dramatic effect.
The festival closes with a ball, a huge party that runs from Monday night until 6am on Tuesday morning. And then it’s all over… until next year. In October 2017, the 32nd Festival Kreol will again welcome visitors new and old to its joyous celebration of language and culture. You’d be well-advised to experience it for yourself.
If you can’t make the festival, the Seychelles is a stunning and fascinating destination at any time.