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A Tour of Madagascar's Music
Pop and Alternative Music off the African Mainland

By Alex Gorelik and Steve Bollinger

In terms of music the world is definitely getting to be a smaller place. Case in point: the island nation of Madagascar. Although physically isolated, Madagascar has been influenced by other cultures and interwoven their elements into Malagasy ways. American and South African pop, rock, jazz, rap, reggae, and Congolese Soukous have all left their imprint on modern Malagasy music. However, despite these outside influences, the music of Madagascar remains as unique and varied as the land and people from which it grew.

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View slide show

Recently, a group organized by World Music Productions which produces the radio program Afropop Worldwide, visited the island of Madagascar and experienced the music first-hand. In a tour led by Hanitra, lead singer of the Malagsy band Tarika, the Afropop group was introduced to the full range of Malagsy music. Over a two week period they heard styles ranging from traditional village music to modern styles such as salagy and tsapika, and to local versions of varieté, rap and heavy metal.

The Afropop tour began in the capital Antananarivo (Tana), where radio play is dominated by pop styles like varieté. Varieté, a format reminiscent of musicians such as Celine Dion, features sweet melodies and syrupy ballads.

However with Hanitra as musical guide the Afropop group had little need to sit around listening to the radio. On their first night in town Hanitra hosted a party in which some of the countries greatest musicians played. A featured instrument was the valiha a tubular zither made from bamboo with 16 to 21 strings strung lengthwise down the tube. Masters of the instrument including Sylvestre Randafison, Doné, and Rajery each took a turn at playing.

The folkloric group Benja Gasy played as well and in the process introduced the Afropop group to a variety of traditional instruments including the sodina, end blown flutes, the marovany (harp-like lutes), and the jejy-voatavo, made by stretching strings along a thin fretted neck and fastening them to a gourd.

The jejy-voatavo hints at an early cultural influence. Madagascar was settled around 500 AD by Malay- speaking people and African settlers. The language of Madagascar, Malagasy, is related to the Malay dialects of Indonesia. Sulwesi, in Indonesia, is thought to be the place of origin for Madagascar’s first in

Listen to an MP3 sampling of short clips:
Cabosy (93k) 00:00:11
Chants (278k) 00:00:35
Jean Emilien (149k) 00:00:19
Morovany (229k) 00:00:29
Orator (76k) 00:00:09
Salegy (152k) 00:00:19
Tsapiky Mercenier (217k) 00:00:27
Valiha (100k) 00:00:12

habitants. The traditional music of Madagascar reflects this blend of Indonesian and African roots. In the intervening centuries, Arab traders, Portuguese merchants, British missionaries and French colonizers have added to the mix.

As the party continued, Hanitra’s own band Tarika, which plays a combination of traditional and modern instruments, played a few numbers.

Another stand out of that first night was provided by the lead singer of the rap group 18.3 who was backed by an acapella band. As throughout the world, rap is increasingly popular in Madagascar where it has established itself as an influential vehicle for political and social expression of the youth. Bands like "18.3" have emerged to carry the style locally.

Over the next few nights in the capital, the Afropop group heard a wide variety of music including an acoustic guitar and valiha group, heavy metal, blues, a kind of roots rock in which the musicians combined traditional instruments with electric guitars, and jazz played on the valiha. On the last night in the capital, the group visited the very popular Club Glacier where they were introduced to Salegy as played by popular artist Lego.

slide show
A Hira Gasy acapella group

Salegy is the most widely exported dance music of Madagascar. The fast-paced 6/8 and 12/8 rhythms of Salegy (from the Sakalave people) became widespread throughout the island in the 1970s. Fanned by the island’s major record label Discomad, it spread from northern coastal towns picking up artists such as Jean Fredy, Jaojoby, Tianjama and Mahaleo who achieved national fame during Madagascar’s politically turbulent decade. Mahaleo’s leader, Dama Mahaleo has gone on to work on numerous solo projects including recordings with locally renowned guitarist D’Gary.

While the ‘80s produced less salegy artists, multi-instrumentalist Rossy emerged as a major innovator. Many veterans still produce work alongside new artists such as Lego – Rossy’s half brother – and Dr. J.B and his band, The Jaguars. The record label, Mars, currently produces a number of Salegy artists.

Trying to keep traditional music alive in Madagascar, as in much of the world, is not easy.

Groups like Tarika Sammy and Tsivahiny who play their own versions of Malagasy roots music utilizing various combinations of local instruments with guitar, accordion, violin and drums struggle to get local media support for their music. Traditional music is often relegated to rural areas of the country. And it was to the rural south and south-west that the Afropop group headed to hear more traditional forms.

slide show
Girls in a village sing in a style reminiscent of Tsapiky Celebrity Bodida

In the city of Anistrabe, the group was introduced to the kabosy, one of many instruments unique to Madagascar. Using 3 or 6 strings made with unwound bicycle brake cables, the kabosy is tuned to a triad and has a sound similar to a mandolin. Over the next week, the group visited a number of villages where they saw and heard a variety of homemade kabosy in many sizes and shapes.

Traditional instruments such as the kabosy have played a large role in shaping the modern music of Madagascar. For instance, tsapika, has grown from music played in rural southern villages on the kabosy to raucous electric guitar pop.

Tsapika is still largely a regional music played in the area around Tulear in southwest Madagascar. Centered around a quicksilver fingered guitarist, tsapika, features a driving 4/4 drum beat along with organ or keyboard and often accompanied by shrill female vocals. Musicians Jean-Noel and Said Alexis and bands such as "Tsapiky Mercenier" can’t make money playing clubs, so they tour villages and sapphire mining camps where they play from the back of trucks loaded with generators and amplifiers.

Hanitra will be touring the US with her band Tarika this September and October. For more information on the tour visit: http://www.froots.demon.co.uk/tarika.html.

To find out how you can get involved with Afropop check out their Web Site at http://www.afropop.org.

Additional online resources on Madagascar and its music can be found at:
fRoots Magazine
The Malagasy band Tsivahiny
Africa Online - Madagascar

Slowly, Malagasy musicians, musical styles and record labels are beginning to emerge on the global market. Though few have made it onto the Internet, their online numbers are growing as they look for new ways to distribute and attract a larger audience. As in the States, talented Malagasy musicians without a pop following must find creative ways to make a living off their music. Traditional and innovative artists alike are looking for support for a style their countries' media institutions won't sell.


Mike Doughty



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