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Guitar Masters of Madagascar (2 of 5)

A player’s guide to an amazing world of music


     In this century, Madagascar was a French colony, only becoming independent in 1960. So it’s not surprising that the Malagasy recordings from the 30s through the 50s were flavored to please the colonial masters. A guitarist named Razilina is credited as one of earliest stars of traditional Malagasy guitar within Madagascar. Recently Erick Manana, a Paris-based Malagasy, recorded a tribute to Razilina on Universounds titled "Bonjour Madame la Guitare."

     Several influential musicians of the older generation are still around. Freddie Ranarison appeared on the 1963 album "Valiha Madagascar" on the Ocora label as part of Maurice Halison’s ensemble. It was Ranarison’s guitar work that first fired Paul Hostetter’s interest in the guitar’s place in this music. A couple of his sons played with Tarika Sammy on "World Out of Time, Vols. 1 and 2."

     And Etienne Ramboatiana, best known for his many years as a touring circus clown called "Bouboul," still plays in the stately and classical style he popularized 40 years ago. He contributed two tracks to Paul Hostetter’s 1995 production, "The Moon and the Banana Tree."


     Malagasy music is far too complex and multi-faceted to encapsulate in a single magazine article. But new fans of this music might consider studying tunes with the following in mind. The oral tradition is central to Malagasy culture. Everybody sings. And since the language (an offshoot of Malaysian and Polynesian dialects) is multi-syllabic and phrases tend to be on the long side, the melodies and musical phrases are often shaped to follow the linguistic shapes of the lyrics. And songs can be long because it takes a lot of syllables to say things.

     Dama’s signature finger-picking style, for instance, accentuates the way the syllables fall in his songs. And D’Gary’s machine-gun instrumental runs mirror the way he delivers his lyrics in intense bursts. But, of course, you’ll have to spend some time listening to these artists to decide how to incorporate their ideas into your own settings of the tunes.

     Theme and variation is integral to Malagasy guitar music. D’Gary is especially adept at stringing together several short melodic elements, then stretching each in new directions each time they come around. When learning tunes from recordings, remember that songs are rarely played through the same way twice.

     One other feature that can make Malagasy music slightly confusing to the newcomer (and that still confuses me) is a sneaky 6-beat rhythm that often cooks along under things, seemingly independent of any other apparent meter. This beat is often played on a bundle of reeds called kaiambarambo or on a small korintsana shaker. I can never seem to intuit where the "one" beat is supposed to fall.

     Paul Hostetter laughed about visiting with Solo Razaf in Paris and chatting about foreigners trying to play Malagasy music. Solo tried to be diplomatic about Paul’s attempt to conquer the "one" beat. Eventually he shook his head and said, "Boy, I never thought of doing it that way!" Apparently we just don’t get the groove. According to Paul, the one can fall pretty much anywhere.


     The fastest way to ramp up on what the Malagasy guitar scene has to offer these days is to listen to the ten guitarists showcased on "The Moon and the Banana Tree," subtitled "new guitar music from Madagascar." Even after a hundred times through, this CD continues to surprise and delight me. Both tab examples in this issue were culled from this great source.

     Besides the artists featured here, the CD will introduce you to masters from nearly every region of the country. In addition to Etienne Ramboatiana mentioned above, there’s Colbert, whose style is described by Solo as "deep high plateau-style," representing the best of central Malagasy tradition. His compositions grow out of distinct valiha roots.

     Then there’s Haja, a Tamatave native who is called "the father of guitare étouffée." This term literally means "stuffed guitar" and refers to a piece of suede or foam stuffed under the strings next to the bridge to dampen the strings. In Haja’s quick and capable hands, the resulting sound is very much like a marovany. Haja recently recorded a solo CD on a small British label that’s certainly worth looking for.

     Representing the southern region of the Betsileo tribal group is Johnny, who’s equally skilled at putting together complex arrangements for Tarika Sammy and at improvising wild guitar pieces. On "Moon" his playfulness is irrepressible on standard 6-string guitar, guitare étouffée, and a wild adrenaline romp on electric bass guitar.

     A wonderful oddity is the young Ralanto, who came back to his roots after an electric career trying to be Madagascar’s answer to the Yellowjackets. There’s a timeless quality about his style, both light and joyous. "World Out of Time, Vol. 3" includes one of his original songs, backed by Tarika Sammy, that sounds like it could have been written a hundred years ago.

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