Les Electropicales: Reunion Island’s music fest plays out on a high note

Every city needs a signature festival; whether it’s a musical, cultural or surfing event. Reunion Island has a handful of these – one of them being Les Electropicales, which is now celebrating its seventh year. The electronic music festival runs until Saturday May 9, popping up in different venues around Reunion.

On Wednesday, local and international journalists, invited guests and lovers of electronic music gathered at the inaugural event at Ancien Hotel de Ville in Saint Denis – Reunion’s capital.

Thomas Bordese, founder and director of the festival, says the objective is not to create a big festival. It’s all about exposing the people of Reunion – from the young to the old – to music; specifically electronic music. Last year, the festival was attended by 65 00 people in total with 45 artists performing.

This year, the line-up includes artists such as Nozinja, Loya Project, Mad Professor, Kenny Larkin, DJ Spoko and others from as far as Belgium and France. Fantasma’s Spoek Mathambo was booked as one of the headliners but unfortunately cancelled his scheduled performance at the last hour.

With visual performance art being screened on the walls of the town hall, festival goers occupied the spaces demarcated for the event – some queuing for local snacks of samoosas and chilli poppers and fish-filled rotis, others patiently waiting for their rhum cocktails to be prepared or hanging around in clutches chatting or admiring the art that adorns the walls.

Takeover of the colonial establishment
One of the revellers, Johannes Swartbooi, a self-confessed regular “part of the cultural community”, says the hall was a perfect choice to stage the event and remarked on the takeover of the colonial establishment by the arts community. Born in Namibia, he travels between Reunion where he married (and divorced) and has children with a French diplomat, and South Africa where he “chills in Alexandra with people like Joe Nina and Steve Kekana”. You know Steve Kekana, he asks me?

Ancien Hotel de Ville is a stately, grand old lady, built in 1846. Beyond its terracotta façade, Tuscan-style columns and marble finishes, festivities took place in the belly of the building with dancing centred around a monumental fountain sculpture – a reproduction of the “Three Graces” by Renaissance sculptor Germain Pilon – that anchors the courtyard.

(Pic: Zodwa Kumalo-Valentine)

The evening kicked off with a press conference and a discussion on what music is, followed by performances by three artists who exemplify the spirit and sound of the festival, namely Mehmet Aslan, Mawimbi présente: Pouvoir Magique and Loya Project. It’s not the ince-ince or the doof-doof usually associated with techno music but rather the DJs mix everything from bangra to house music and afrobeats. In fact, Pouvoir Magique had the crowd in the palm of their hands as the Persian pair took turns spinning the decks and playing off one another – throwing out tunes of a distinctly world music flavour backgrounded by that catchy mechanical sound while dancing in a quirky, slightly offbeat manner.

Performance artist Loya Project, whose real name is Sebastien Lejeune says, “I grew up here in Reunion.” But he lives in France to be closer to his two children, 13 and 14. Perspiring profusely and in high spirits after an energetic set he explains his background. “I am a self-taught musician born in Reunion. My family is from India.” He describes Reunion as a melting pot. “My grandfather was a Tamil priest and I was always in the temple of Tamil people and would hear music and watch dancing and singing from India.”

‘Meeting of music’
The influence speaks to the sound of the music he chooses to play. “My music is the meeting of music from India, Madagascar, Reunion, Africa … there’s a lot of rhythm in my music. I just want to let people from Europe know this [my] music differently – not in the traditional way.

“There is also a lot of German and UK rap music influence, which I used to listen to a lot growing up. I started playing electronic music using the guitar, which is my first instrument. I also play the saxophone. I have a band that plays Afrobeat music like Fela Kuti,” he says in jagged English.

With his long, soft curls that bounce as Lejeune bobs to the beat while performing, he appears to be in a state of rapture as he takes his listeners through the rhythmic motions. One of the instruments he uses is brightly lit neon-coloured, square keyboard that he jabs at every now and then.

“You can play do re me fa so on it,” he says as a way of explaining how his keyboard works. But it’s a modern keyboard. When I play a note this keyboard plays a specific sound like a woman’s voice for ‘F’ note or a piano sound for ‘G’,” he says of the keyboard he programmes for each show he plays.

During his performance, a woman – Benedicte Marshall – croons along to one of his offbeat soundbeds. Her eyes close as she feels the beat and nods her head appreciatively as she matches the sound in pulse and rhythm and energy. Her textured voice and tone hold a certain quality that feels like rich, warm, sugared coffee.

Lejeune explains that she is an artist from Reunion whom he met in France. She expressed her wish to play with him at Electropicales and he agreed. Such is the spirit of collaboration within Lejeune and many of the artists who grace the line-up of the festival.

“I would love to collaborate with Indian musicians – my spirit is Indian; African people like Seun Kuti and Reunion musicians like Daniel Waru,” he says.

Les Electropicales culminates in a series of evening events on Friday and Saturday night at Champ Fleuri, under the night sky and a bonus event programme that’s aimed at kids and parents called Electrokids, as well as speed dating. Visit the site, or Facebook.

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