I first came across Joseph Reginald Topize’s music towards the end of the Sega Club era in the early 1990s. The name was quite a mouthful so everyone referred to him by his nickname: Kaya. My dad was quite scornful of the sound being produced by this new wave of Mauritian artists. This was a concoction of the traditional Mauritian music of Sega combined with a strong influence of Reggae.
This pioneering breakthrough was called Seggae and my dad couldn’t stand it! Almost overnight Kaya was feted as le Roi du Seggae (the King of Seggae).
15 years ago last week, Kaya was found dead in a police cell at the maximum security Line Barracks prison in Port Louis, Mauritius. Witnesses recalled the sight four days earlier of police officers arriving to take into custody the slight but highly influential musician.
He had been arrested for smoking cannabis at a festival calling for the decriminalisation of the drug. He had challenged the Mauritian Government’s authority publicly and was the only one of eight taken into custody who did not deny the charge when arrested.
Immediate evidence pointed to a cover-up. Dried blood ran from his nose to his ear and had accumulated on his neck inside his hair. As opposed to being discovered facing upwards as the trail of blood would have suggested, he was found face down. His body had clearly been moved as it was impossible for the blood to have travelled upwards towards his neck, thus defying every accepted principle when it came to the laws of gravity.
An initial autopsy revealed he had suffered a blow to his forehead resulting in a fracture of the skull. A dreadlock had been torn from his head. His tongue had been trapped between his teeth in a posture that supported the theory that he had suffered a sudden (and almost certainly violent) trauma to the brain.
The uprising that followed engulfed the island and led to violence not seen for over thirty years. Five people died and over a hundred were injured during four days of social unrest. A Seggae artist who had joined the protests against the death in custody of Kaya, Berger Agathe, was shot dead by police.
I have heard accounts over the last few days which are still harrowing after all these years. One was four years old at the time and on holiday in Mauritius, and remembers the sight of his mother struggling with the effects of tear gas which had entered the house where they were staying. Another told me how her cousin was shot by police. Miraculously he survived albeit living with a stark reminder of what some referred to as the “Mauritian Revolution”. To this day he has a bullet lodged within his head, an extraction impossible due to its precarious location.
When the roadblocks were removed, the businesses reopened and Mauritius returned back to normality, the islanders undertook a long period of soul-searching. Once the navel gazing ended, wide reaching reforms were implemented which dragged Mauritius kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century.
It is almost impossible to comprehend that just fifteen years ago, complaints about the misconduct of police officers in Mauritius were dealt with at the front desk of the local police station. Eight months after Kaya was killed, the Complaint Investigation Bureau was established.
It is equally difficult to remember that fifteen years ago there was no public holiday that marked the abolition of slavery, a day so closely entwined with the history and heritage of around 30% of Mauritians. Creoles, the descendants of African slaves, were being supressed on a cultural and social level. The social mobility of Creoles has increased faster in the last fifteen years than it had done in the proceeding thirty years.
Just six years later publications like the UK-based Mauritius News were even suggesting that communalism on the island was declining. I think it was a slightly premature act of self-congratulation. But to deny there had been progress would be uncharitable in the extreme. Non-Hindu police officers were almost unheard of prior to 1999. The island had only known Hindu Prime Ministers during its first three decades as an independent nation.