The moring between disappearance and reinvention

The moring between disappearance and reinvention

By Loran Hoarau and Emmanuel Souffrin.

Combat dance, traditional boxing, ancestral game, combat sport, traditional popular game, product of Malagasy civilisation, living heritage, combat art, the definitions surrounding “moring” on Reunion Island are indicative of practices that have gradually evolved.

If today various forms coexist, the interest in these practices is not only in their origins ( everyone recognises a close link with Madagascar and Africa) but also in their development as sporting practices closely linked to the affirmation of cultural or even cultic practices.

This text presents data from an “anthropological research on Moring”, conducted between 2013 and 2015, , in order to better know it, transmit it and enhance it with a view to its inscription on UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage”, multidisciplinary team brought together by ESOI, Région Réunion, 2015. The study goes beyond the framework of current and ancient practices on Reunion Island and makes the link with practices observed in other islands of the Indian Ocean.

34 - Réunion - Combat_autor
Fight. Postcard. Image from the Loran Hoarau Collection.

1 – Disappearance

From the Indentured period (engagé) to Tan lontan, reading some traces left by the Moring

From the beginning of the 20th century until the end of the 1970s, it is very difficult to find traces of the Moring in written sources. It appears as a ‘news item’ in the press in 1907 and in 1924 feeds into the colonial novel ‘Ulysse Cafre’ by Marius and Ary Leblond. These three moments correspond to real battles. One cannot make “rules” of these fragmentary testimonies, but they provide numerous details that are interesting to note and contextualise. Before… From 1735 onwards, camps were set up in a vast area surrounding the town of Saint-Denis, where the majority of the enslaved people were concentrated. The camps constituted a structured space and were used from the Slave period until the Indentured period (engagiste 1848 – 1938). This landscape of these districts remained the same for a little over 230 years. From the middle of the 18th century onwards, Saint-Denis was structured in a geographical space delimited by various ravines and streams. The city follows a checkerboard pattern that is found in many colonial cities. Neighbourhoods are separated geographically by small arms of gullies and sociologically organised around growing families whose descendants expand the original settlement nucleus. Spaces such as gully basins, shops and crossroads materialise the diversity of the notion of public space in these neighbourhoods. It is in these spaces that the moring of the early 20th century is placed.
Rue de Bois de Nèfles, the moring was in full swing from 2 to 6 o’clock. […] Sitting in a circle, a little below the Chinese shop, a bunch of scoundrels, all more or less convicts, were banging on crates and tin cans; while two of them, in the middle of the circle, were parading in a grotesque manner”1 .
This article is only interested in the setting (a circle, near the shop) and not in a precise description of the fights, the description of the instruments being the only element specifying the moment. It was not until 1924 and the book “Ulysse Cafre” by Marius and Ary Leblond that we get details of the grips of a fight. The Leblonds show Mozambican and Comorian soldiers practising the “Moreng” to the sound of a “kaffir drum”. In the combat phase mainly the fists are used and the two bodies are at one point “welded” together. The objective is to “extinguish the opponent to make him fall over”. The fighters use “crocs-en-leg”(leg wrapping). The practice remains marked by fair play: the combatants did not “fight as savages, but as comrades”. The form described by the Leblonds has a very strong relationship with the current form of the Croche2. The writer Jean Albany provides vocabulary elements that allow us to appreciate the lexical field of combat (talon z’hirondel, jambec, bourrante, sous-gorge). He presents the moring as a “war dance of African origin that has become Creole. Some of these figures are similar to French boxing. […] It was practised on Saturday evenings after payday, not far from the camps and factories where the indentured labourers worked”. This association of Moring with indentured labour is one of the strong features of the practices described before the end of indentured period3. Jean-Claude Thing-Léo’s poem entitled “Moraing”4 extends the chronological journey to the 1970s. It features the character of “Caf Convert, le roi batayèr”. It is the first text to combine a physical description of the combatants with the music (bob and kayamb5) and the scenography of the moring through “le ron”. It gives elements of vocabulary: ‘coup d’pié bourant’, ‘in cal’, ‘in lanver’, ‘talon zirondel’. He also points out an ending “san dispit” (without dispute).

The virtual disappearance of Street Arts

The archive image allows us to explore the field of popular entertainment. It shows the presence of shared artistic and playful forms that are today classified globally under the name of Street Arts. In Reunion Island, the street arts connect populations of different origins and social backgrounds. These forms of entertainment are made visible at a time when different types of media (lithography, silver paper) allow them to be captured and disseminated via a large print run (album production, postcard publishing). We can focus on the second half of the 19th century, when technology made this capture possible. The street arts include popular art forms such as street puppets, moring and carnival. Characters such as jacquots (“zako”) or street singers are also included. They are characterised by a great variety of artistic forms and approaches, which are nourished by popular traditions and practices. These forms are installed in the public space. Until the 1950s, there was a carnival built around a disguised parade, probably at a time close to Mardi Gras.

“Moringue”, Mardi Gras and… Foot-ball

The “young people” of this era will be able to tell you about the pleasant and exciting times they spent on Sunday afternoons, some fifty years ago. In Saint-Denis, from four o’clock in the afternoon, in the Camp-Ozoux, in the Lataniers, in the rue de l’Embarcadère near the station square, one could hear the lively sound of the tambourine calling the young proletarians and inviting them to the “moringue” sessions. It was the popular sport of the day! Boxing, football and basketball were unknown. The moringue had its charm. It demanded flexibility, agility and endurance from those who practised it. The public, in a circle, applauded to the rhythmic sound of the tambourine. These were pleasant evenings until politics and rum turned everything into bloody brawls where the pebble (galet) was master. The municipal and police authorities had to intervene and forbid this demonstration which had become a public danger.

2 – Renaissance

The rediscovery (1986)

From 3 to 12 October 19866, the Fête de Témoignages (Newspaper of the Communist Party of Reunion) was held at the Parc de l’Oasis in Le Port. It was in this context that Témoignages organised cultural conferences and offered the public the opportunity to discover a Capoeira show given by Brazilians and to hear the testimony of Henri Lagarrique (then aged 70), a former moringèr (moring practitioner). He is an important bearer of the memory of Maloya. He is the father of Simon Lagarrigue (gramoun Dada) and Yvrin Lagarrigue. His daughter married Firmin Viry, a well-known maloya musician. The initiative of Témoignages, crossing the modern practice of Capoeira and the ancient practice of Moring, will be a key moment of rediscovery of Moring through the practice of Capoeira.

The “sporty” Moring (1992-1997)

The following chronology allows us to summarise a rich period in which the Moring became part of the cultural and sports landscape of Reunion Island. In 1992, a booklet entitled “Moring: Art Guerrier”7 was published and the following year, the first Moring association, “Kan Villèle”, was created near an old sugar factory. The same year, the first Moring show was presented at the Villèle museum. Through the work carried out around the codification in 1992, Jean René Dreinaza, a former boxing champion and practitioner, set himself the objective of bringing about the rebirth and adaptation to modernity of a cultural and traditional activity. This period was marked by youth movements including street demonstrations. Taking charge of some of these neglected young people by integrating them into structures that exist or are to be created is also an element that surrounds the reflection on the structuring of moringue in two stages8. On the one hand, in 1993, within the framework of an exhibition on moring at the Museum of Villèle, exchanges took place between young people, practitioners and Jean René Dreinaza. André Jean Benoît’s book “Le Moringue, son histoire à travers la presse et les textes anciens” (Saint-Gilles Les Hauts, Villèle, CURAPS, Université de La Réunion, 1994) provides a link between the museum and the practitioners of moring (moringèr)9. The project aims to accompany a group of young people from the neighbourhood in a process of integration through sport. On Sunday 3 November 1993, the first meeting between the young people and Jean René Dreinaza took place through the Kan Villèle association. The aim was to form a group of young people from the neighbourhood for a moring show on 20 December 1993. The musical accompaniment was provided by the Fowar association of the CASE du Chaudron and by young people trained by the percussionist Nicolas Moucazambo. In 1995, the first school of contemporary Réunionese Moring, BATAY COQ, was created. This was followed by numerous international events and meetings, and in 1999 the first international festival of traditional combat dances in Reunion with guests from Brazil, Martinique, Guadeloupe, the Comoros, Mayotte and Madagascar. In 1996, the Reunion Commitee of Moring was created, which led to a request for recognition of the discipline by the public authorities. That same year, the Moring movement received official approval from the Ministry of Youth and Sports as a full-fledged sports discipline, specialising in “popular arts and traditions and ethnography”10. This approval allowed the movement to build itself through the mechanisms set up by the State to meet the needs of young people before the introduction of a qualifying diploma for seven young people in 1997. In 1996, the Committee had 17 clubs spread over 24 communes and 5 sports and socio-cultural leaders were hired for 5 years. In 1998, the Moringue Angola association11. was created. It proposed another way of thinking about the practice of Moringue by anchoring it in a form called “Moringue 46” in reference to the name of a neighbourhood, where it was still practised in the 1970s and crossing its practice with that of Capoeira. In 2002, the association presented itself as the first Capoeira school in the Indian Ocean. In 2019, 11 schools were affiliated to the Comité de Moring Réunionnais and the following year the island had 750 members, thus anchoring the discipline among a large population. The same year, two practitioners and historians, Jean René Dreinaza and Joseph Ardon, published a book entitled “Techniques and learning of the Reunionese Moring”.

In conclusion

This clarification exercise is to be reviewed in the light of future research that will make it possible to link sociological, urban, political, archaeological and genealogical contexts to the question of the Moring. It also seems necessary today to find the middle way to reconcile the memories of the Moring and its ”sporty” form. It is also necessary to reflect on the interactions between the Croche and the Moring, which require a historical parallel for a reading under the umbrella of the street arts. For this, a memory project is necessary to gather and confront the traces that are still palpable today. In 2021, Région Réunion (the Regional Council is the elected administration of the territory) is building on the study carried out in 2015 with a new project which should start in 2022. The project aims to share and deepen the scientific knowledge and practices of this element of intangible cultural heritage common to the geographical areas concerned. The main objectives are to preserve these heritage elements and to make them known and recognised, thus enhancing their value in order to better transmit them. It will bring together teams of practitioners, researchers in history and anthropology, dancers and artists to collect and share ancient and current data on this emblematic form of Reunion’s cultural heritage and to connect it to the Indian Ocean. The Moring thus has its roots in the history of the settlement of Reunion Island, marked by slavery and its resistance movements when, from the 17th century onwards, enslaved people from Madagascar and Africa arrived on the island.

1  La Patrie Créole, n.1966, 15/01/1907.

2  La Croche is one of the forms of combat encountered in Reunion Island which has a common destiny with the Moring in terms of disappearance and rebirth.

3  The end of the Franco-British agreements in 1882, which allowed the arrival of indentured Indians in Reunion, led to the need to find new workers. Migration at the beginning of the 20th century brought groups from Mozambique, Madagascar and the Comoros. This vision is attested to by the current state of knowledge, reinforced by a relatively large amount of iconography for the beginning of the 20th century representing these same migrants on their arrival in Réunion.

4  Reproduced in Créolie, poésies réunionnaises, 1978, éditions de l’UDIR.

5  The “Kayamb” musical instrument is made of a resonance box made of choca pole and sugar cane flower stems, mounted with string and glue and filled with brown saffron seeds; The “bob” or “bobre” is made up of an amplifier made of a hollowed out calabash, a rattle (kaskavel) made of woven vacoa filled with conflore seeds, a bow made of yellow wood and green choca fibre that is struck by a stick (tikouti) made of schooner wood.

6  Testemonies from 30 September 1986, “Kan moin lété zènn Moring lété mon zé”, article by Yves Van Der Eecken.

7  This work constitutes the “bible” of the Moring Committee.

8   Fuma and Dreinaza, 1992.

9  In “Jean René Dreinaza, le parcours atypique d’un réunionnais”, by Jean-Paul Géréone, Océan Editions, 2013, page 55.

10 Arrêté du ministère de la Jeunesse et des Sports sobre a instrução n°93-166 JS, de 13/09/96.

11  The association has gathered a large number of documents and articles, available on its website, that make it possible to write a history of the association:

Un jouer de Bobre_autor
A bobber player. Postcard. Image from the Loran Hoarau Collection.

Bows are called “bob” or “bobre”, an instrument found in several places (in Brazil too), not so much in Madagascar as far as I know, but in Seychelles, for example.

Comment by Emmanuel Souffrin

Referências bibliográficas:

Créolie, poésies réunionnaises. UDIR, 1978.

FUMA, S. et DREINAZA, J.R.  Le moring, art guerrier, ses origines afro malgaches, sa pratique à La Réunion. CDRHR- Université de La Réunion, 1992.

GÉRÉONE, Jean-Paul. Jean René Dreinaza, le parcours atypique d’un réunionnais. Océan Editions, 2013, p. 55.

HOARAU, Stéphane. “Le moring, danse réunionnaise de combat”, 2010. In:

La Patrie Créole, Saint-Denis, n. 1966, 15 jan 1907.

VAN DER EEKEN, Yves. “Kan moin lété zènn Moring lété mon zé”. Témoignages du 30 septembre 1986.

Loran Hoarau é historiador e Emmanuel Souffrin é etnólogo.

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