Comoros' cross-continental culture is embodied by Maalesh's debut album
‘Africa’s moon islands’ AKA the Comoros, has this affectionate nickname as it was named after the Arabic word ‘qamar’ meaning moon. Though there are of course other African nations with an Arabic influence, there perhaps is not a nationality of people in the continent with as complex a racial mixture as Comorians. Though it was one of the few African overseas colonies originally settled by Africans (the Bantu people), it has seen an influx of Arab, Malay and French people arrive to its shores over the decades. This mixed ancestry that resulted in the Comorian people as we know them today certainly has had a bearing on the culture and music of the archipelago of islands. Whilst traditional music of other nations in the Indian Ocean may sound more distinctively South Asian, like the Maldivian Faruma Boduberu Group, that is not the case in the Comoros. It is hard to pin down what is 'traditional', as influences upon Comorian culture and music come from far and wide, however Maalesh’s attempt to blend these wide-range of influences together makes for perhaps the most traditional example of what Comorian music could be as he fuses together a variety of potential musical ascendencies.
“This type of discord and in-fighting must be infuriating for the likes of Maalesh who, in turn, chose to use many languages in his album which at times serves as a plea for unity.”
Whilst there is commonality between all of Maalesh’s songs, in that they all include delightful harmonies between him and his backing singers, there are some subtle differences that are worth noting. Before I go into these peculiarities, it is interesting to first point out that aside from the sweet vocals that are heard throughout the album, another key obvious feature is the beauty of his guitar playing. Having started off in his teenage years as a chorister and percussionist, it is mightily impressive to see how he switched to the guitar with such ease. It seems that it was Maalesh’s travels in his formative years as a musician, spending long stints abroad in Kenya and Saudi Arabia, where he not only honed his skills as a guitarist, but also became a ‘citizen of the world’ in which he learnt the values of tolerance and learnt to appreciate the beauty of other cultures that as a Comorian he had much in common with.
The word Maalesh means ‘it does not matter’ in Arabic, and it is this non-judgemental and open-minded mentality that is at the centre of his first album Wassi Wassi. Perhaps his respect for cultural diversity does not only come from his travels, but also because he has perhaps seen the danger of intolerance first hand in the Comoros. For many years there have been huge tensions between the people on Mayotte Island, who feel themselves to be French and thus distance themselves from their neighbours, despite living on the same archipelago, sharing much of the same history. Although, Comoros is a nation which is unfortunately best known for its struggling economy, perhaps due to the huge age gap in their population, another miserable fact about the country that is a little less well-known is that it has witnessed over 20 coups or attempted coups in its short history since it gained independence from France. This type of discord and in-fighting must be infuriating for the likes of Maalesh who, in turn, chose to use many languages in his album which at times serves as a plea for unity.
His songs do not just touch on the struggles in the Comoros; the song La guerre, a slightly rockier number than he tends to perform, addresses zones of conflict in the 90s including Chechnya, Angola, Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda. This is one of his most Arab sounding tracks, alongside Habbeitak which is a little bit bluesy as it starts in a somewhat eerie fashion with a moody guitar sound before angelic singing then comes in. This in stark contrast to the more African rhythms that can be heard on Kodjaizo, Sina makossa and 150 ans, the last of which is almost like a traditional African prog-fusion piece. It is over seven minutes long and does not follow the structure of an ordinary song. His voice is very uplifting, it has a rocky section with firmer guitar than he typically plays on the rest of the album. Even though I found myself tapping my toes throughout this track, by the end it starts to feel like the song has been going on for 150 years, as the name suggests. In these tracks the album features the inclusion of ngoma drums which are indigenous to the Bantu people who settled on the islands many centuries ago.
There are also other slight global influences that can be detected that seem to have little to do with African or Arabic music traditions. For example, the first track, Wangamiya, sounds like island music native to the Pacific Ocean, reminding me a lot of The Kavaholics from Fiji due to its relaxing tone. Hari Hari dub features a Spanish guitar sound, whilst Mambo has a quasi-Latin beat, not too dissimilar to rumba music that can be found in the Congo. However, the pick of the bunch for me, however, is the title-track Wassi wassi. The stripped-back nature of the song epitomises the broad tone of many of the tracks on the album such as the beautiful Uzade and Hakki. If you want to get a small taste of Comorian music culture then listen to the album and you’ll be bound to forget about your worries, much like Maalesh seems to have intended from the start.