Meeting Menwar at his home in Pointe aux Sables, a residential area west of the Mauritian capital (Port Louis), is always a priceless moment in time. Tall, thin, impressive, but also very soft spoken and extremely kind, Menwar is a legendary artist on the Mauritian music scene, who will always inspire you, make you listen and engage into a great conversation.
His sparkling eyes and Rasta look, dreadlocks floating in the coastal winds at the mouth of the harbour, first took us back to his debut in the early 70s, when Mauritius was still a newly independent nation. Menwar was walking around Port Louis, exploring. But at the time, he had already made a name for himself in his neighbourhood, where he was known by the nickname “Lelou” (the wolf). He started playing in 1972 in the band «Soleil Rouge»,which was creating fusion sounds around typical Sega, enriched by Indian instruments like tablas, the cithara and more Bluesy elements, such as the harmonica, going all the way to incorporating classical instruments, particularly the flute.
Step by step, he was fine tuning his art. With the burning energy of a young wolf, “Lelou”, not yet Menwar, gave shape to his first songs. In 1976, he released his first two 7’’ singles: CAPITO & SALAVILA. The young man, in tune with the social realities of the Mauritian Creole community and inspired by the economic difficulties in the harbour, built up a rich cultural context to sing about. Two more singles were released in 1978: DAMOREL’O & SEGA MENWAR. Having composed enough songs, in 1980, he released his first album on tape: «Souvenirs le Port», a tribute to the working class, including his own father, who laboured in the harbour. Lelou was growing in popularity in Mauritius and his name started getting noticed in neighbouring islands.
In 1980 and 1981 he was invited to take part in two festivals in neighbouring Réunion island. In 1982, while working on his second tape and looking for a guitar player, he meets Kaya in Camp Zulu. The latter went on to join Menwar and stayed at his place in Cassis for nine months, in order to finalize his second album: «Letanlenfer». The same year they took their band to Rodrigues island, and played there for three months. Menwar and Kaya endlessly talked about their common hero, Bob Marley, and also were discussing the new direction in which to take Mauritian music. Merging the Sega and Reggae genres started to emerge. There is no doubt that the first album by Kaya called «Seggae nou la musik», released in 1989,was influenced and inspired by his years alongside Menwar since 1982 onwards.
In 1985, Stephano Honore, Menwar’s real name, decided to fly away to the sister island of Réunion. He stayed there for 8 years. From 1985 to 1993, he went around the French island of the Indian Ocean to share his music, to enrich it and create ties with the local Maloya(1) scene. He made some great artistic encounters (Danyel Waro and Gilbert Pounya, from the band Ziskakan) and forged lasting personal relationships, including his future French wife. He also travelled to Europe in 1987, where he visited family members. The idea was to find artistic opportunities… He stayed in France for six months before flying back to Réunion. In 1992, he started being home sick and the idea of returning to Mauritius grew stronger. Yet, his years on the neighbouring island were infused with the energy of the “Piton de la Fournaise”, the active volcano in Réunion, which is akin to the fiery flamboyance of Menwar on stage. In 1993, he finally flew back home to Mauritius.
Then, in 1994, he met Jean-Paul Roth (from «La Fabrique») and his team, who were working in Mauritius as part of the Port Louis theatre renovation project. They were also auditioning singers and performers to put together a musical for the theatre re-opening program. This spectacle took shape and was presented at the end of 1994, with the title «Moko». It was played for the whole month of December in the Mauritian capital. Soon after, Jean-Michel Bruyere (Musical Director at «La Fabrique») decided to take the musical to the “Théâtre du Merlan”, in Marseille. The whole gang thus flew to France, including Henri Coombes (a Mauritian painter, in charge of the decors). This musical, paying tribute to Malcolm de Chazal, was played for several months in 1995 in the French coastal city. In 1996, after two constructive years in France, Menwar decided to return to Mauritius. Yet, Marseille had been a revelation: hot, bright, multicultural. Like home.
During his whole career, Menwar has always been an innovator. Since his teenage years in Cassis (a Creole suburb of Port Louis), he started creating his own instruments. First it was a Banjo with a large shoe shine box, a wooden stick and nylon cords. He then started learning to play the Ravanne (2) with a Chagossian (3) to whom he famously asked to «play slower». During his short transit in Mauritius between stays in Réunion and Marseille, in 1993-1994, he decided to create a written method on playing the Ravanne. This emblematic instrument of Mauritian Sega, is made with goat skin, stretched on a rum barrel hoop which is then tuned with the heat of a wood fire. Until then in Mauritius, the art of playing the Ravanne was learnt, like in Africa, only through the spoken word, on the beach, watching the elders play. This project would only be completed four years later, in 1998, when a book and audio tape were published in France.
Some years later he continued with his creative spirit, inventing new instruments and mixing them into his new compositions. He first made his own kind of Sanza, a new version of mbira or likembe from Congo Kinshasa. With a small sounding board cut from an oval pilchards can, with a lid covered in thinly sliced metal strips, one can play with both thumbs, and thus produce a melodic and polyrhythmic tune, which is both smooth and enduring. He also created his own original «shaker», from empty cashew nut shells tied together with pieces of string and kept in a goni bag (coarse fabric made of jute fibre). This is a new rendition of a West African mandingo instrument called the Shékeré, (from which the word shaker in English is derived).
Menwar continues to develop a body of work as a timeless smuggler of ideas, especially from Senegal. For those familiar with West Africa, it is impossible to ignore that Menwar, with his tall stature, both physically and artistically, has at least some ancestral connection to this part of the black continent. His lasting creations, all truly original to Mauritius, and yet strongly connected to rich, yet distant roots, make Menwar a unique and remarkable artist. With the burning energy of a young wolf, he was fine tuning his art.
From this solid African thread, one could easily conclude that Menwar is a true Mauritian Griot. Singer, messenger, healer, link maker, spiritual guide : he is all that and more, simultaneously. From his famous single «Pop Lekonomi» released in 1998 available on Youtube, to the concept album «TANDELA» in 2003 with the local Jazz stars: Ernest Wiehe (Saxophone), Noël Jean (Piano), Annick Clarisse (Vocals), from his latest album in 2006 «Ay Ay Lolo» on the French label Marabi, to his collaboration on the song «AYO!» with The Clarisse Sisters on their first album released at the end of 2015, Menwar has, time and time again, demonstrated that he is a key proponent of the musical diversity of his island.
He also chronicles the difficult social realities of Mauritius (listen to his song «Sizann» (4), without taking a truly political stand, fully aware of the various trappings of truth talking on the island, where most important subjects are kept taboo so as not to rock the communalist boat. However, he continues to share his music and his deep beliefs, like in his latest album, in preparation since end 2016, «Vwayaz ar moi».
Menwar’s success on the international stage for the past 25 years, like at the Rio Loco Festival in Toulouse (France) in June 2017, proves that he is the most authentic and therefore credible voice of contemporary Mauritian music. His presence on the «Soul Sok Sega» (5) documentary produced by the Réunion DJ duo «La BasseTropicale» released in early 2016 through the legendary British label STRUT Records, as well as his presence in the very first scenes on the trailer of the movie «SEGA TIPIK» produced by ERUPTION (6) studio in Mauritius, also released in 2016, both demonstrate that Menwar is a man of authority. He has opened the way to serious discourse on the Mauritian Creole heritage: from Le Morne mountain to Sega, an intertwined story mixing exile and suffering, but also music and hope, as backgrounds to a history of slavery.
Now aged 62, Menwar remains true to his roots, his people, his country and to the music from his island. Ti Frere (real name Alphonse Ravaton), the Father of Sega, must be proud of the work accomplished by Mauritian artists who have enabled in 2014, that Sega be finally listed by UNESCO as an immaterial World Heritage. Menwar will forever remain a prominent one of them.
- TheMaloyais the traditional music of Reunion Island. Basedon a 6/8 rythmn, it is similar toMauritian Sega.
- TheRavanneis a traditional percussion from Mauritius
- Person from the Chagos Islands: their history is best explained in this documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17OPvurq97I