Saturday, March 26, 2016


What’s amazing about this island is that it’s so highly diverse, and their music is a reflection of it. Elements of musical styles from Africa, Southeast Asia, Arabia, France, England, and the United States all have had their impact on Malagasy music. 

The musician Rajery with his valiha

Traditional music can vary depending on what part of the island it originates from. Many styles tend to stay in major keys or diatonic scales, but there are some coastal areas that utilize minor keys as well (mostly likely a trait borrowed from Arab music). Vocal traditions are strong on Madagascar and are generally polyharmonic. Vocal music of the Highlands often sounds like traditions coming out of Polynesia or Hawaii. 

There are a number of musical instruments that are used in Malagasy music. Perhaps one of the most iconic instruments of Malagasy music is the valiha, a type of zither made from a bamboo tube. It has its ties to Indonesia and the Philippines and is typically tuned diatonically so that it uses parallel thirds to accompany a melodic bass line. A kabosy is a four- to six-stringed guitar with a small soundbox that can either be square, rectangle, or “guitar-shaped.” It can come fretted or not. Other instruments heard in Malagasy music include the lokanga (like a three-stringed fiddle), jejy voatavo (two-stringed bowed instrument with a calabash resonator), guitars, piano (introduced by the British), sodina (end-blown flute), conch shell, accordion, clapping, a variety of drums, European instruments (bugles, clarinets), and xylophones. 

In Madagascar dance traditions serve a number of purposes: mainly, it serves as a kind of social identification but also as a secondary purpose of being able to pass along historical information from generation to generation. In some cases, secret information is passed along through various dance steps and movements. Dance moves are derived from ancient Asian, African, and Arab influences. Different dances are performed during an array of ceremonies (weddings, births, etc.); some of the more common ones include Joros (sacrificial dances), Tromba or Salamanga (religious/magical dances), and Fampithana (dances for social relationships). Dances are also categorized by gender and age. 

About the time Madagascar gained its independence, they began to really become exposed to the music coming out of Europe and the United States as well as pan-African music. From the 1970s, Madagascar was well on its way to modernizing its music scene with bands and radio stations forming across the island. One of the first groups to come on the scene (and is still often viewed as one of the most successful Malagasy bands) is Mahaleo. Another early musician is Rossy. 

Other musicians from the Highlands region include Justin Vali, who is known for playing the valiha. It’s actually a very relaxing instrument to listen to. I’d like to hear a valiha and mbira duet. 

Tarika is a Malagasy fusion band based in England. The music is kind of relaxing, and the harmonic vocals are in homophonic style. I can hear a type of gong-like instrument that reminds me of Indonesian gamelan music. But it makes sense if they were originally from that area. Another fusion musician is Samoëla. His music is described as political commentary, but seeing how I don’t understand Malagasy, I’ll just take Wikipedia’s word on it. 

When it comes to coastal styles, I came across Senge, whose music is highly based on vocal styles. I also listened to Jaojoby, whose style is much like any other mainstream African music to the untrained ear, but utilizes a call-and-response style of vocal music. D’Gary is a renowned guitar player (which reminds me: I need to get my mandolin out and actually learn how to play it). There are a number of other musicians out there I didn’t even get to. 

And of course, one singer often considered a national treasure has the most unfortunate stage name translation in English: Poopy.

Up next: The Food

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