This article originally appeared in: Acoustic Guitar Magazine, November 1997
When Henry Kaiser handed me a pile of tapes of guitar music from Madagascar in 1990, I was only dimly aware of the California-sized island in the Indian Ocean. I knew they had big, fuzzy lemurs there. And I knew the place was only slightly easier to travel to than the Asteroid Belt. So I was initially stunned by the new music on those tapes. Simultaneously alien and familiar, the melodies were gloriously singable, the rhythms baffling and wonderful, the language utterly incomprehensible. I wanted more.
And I wasn’t alone. Henry had become evangelical about the living guitar treasures languishing unheard in that remote and politically-isolated country. Though a few recordings had straggled to Europe and America in recent decades, they were very hard to find. So Henry got Shanachie Records to finance the first of two trips to Madagascar to document the astonishing breadth of musical expression and bring it home for the rest of us. In 1991, he took David Lindley and a crack engineering crew to Madagascar and came back with enough recorded material to fill eight brilliant CDs, including the now legendary “World Out of Time” series.
The singer/guitarist I was most taken by on those first hissy tapes was Dama, leader of the band Mahaleo. He had a voice like liquid gold and a very western alternating bass picking style. Henry had heard that Dama was credited with introducing this American pattern picking approach to Malagasy trad music and that the style was even referred to there as “Dama Picking.” We marveled that identical picking styles could be invented within a generation by two different guitarists 12,000 miles apart. Of course, when Henry finally met Dama, he found that Dama had grown up listening to plenty of American pickers on the radio. While he’d popularized the style, he made no claims of inventing anything. So much for parallel evolution.
So, as rare as Malagasy music may have been until recently to the rest of the world, the musicians on the island have hardly been culturally or musically isolated. Connected by fiercely eclectic radio programming on the government stations, the local traditions have absorbed influences from Europe, North America, South America, Africa, and even Hawaii, giving each a unique twist. In 1995, California luthier and producer Paul Hostetter traveled to Antananarivo (almost always called Tana), the capital city, to record a further series of CDs for Shanachie. He found that Dama, like Martin Carthy in England, had based his approach in no small measure on licks copped from Big Bill Broonzy. The world is indeed smaller than we thought.
But before meeting Dama and D’Gary, another uniquely innovative Malagasy guitarist, let’s pause for a little historical background.
THE GUITAR JOINS A FLOURISHING STRING TRADITION IN MADAGASCAR
Malagasy instrumental tradition has taken centuries to develop. Two of the oldest indigenous instruments are the valiha, a tubular harp-zither brought by early settlers from Malaysia, and the marovany, often called a box-zither. These many-stringed instruments are tuned diatonically (sort of) and plucked with the fingers of both hands. As new instruments were introduced from outside, they each inevitably took on both melodic and harmonic colorations from valiha and marovany.
The first fretted instrument was brought in ages ago by ocean-going Arab traders. It has evolved into the modern kabosy(pronounced ka-BOSE), a mandola-sized, four-stringed instrument with strange split-pattern frets and tuned to an open chord.
A cousin of the kabosy fitted with conventional frets is called mandalina. Either instrument can be strung up with nylon or wire, the choice usually dictated by availability. Musicians like Babata who were raised in fishing villages use fishing line for strings. Those closer to the capital, Tana, or on the high central plateau have better access to wire or reels of bicycle brake cable. By the time Portuguese and French colonial powers arrived with their European versions of the guitar, fretted instruments were well-entrenched on the island.
American newcomers to this music need to listen to plenty of kabosy technique to better understand modern Malagasy guitar approach. Performers like Dama and Johnny (best known for his work in the band Tarika Sammy) freely switch back and forth between guitar and kabosy. Also, some popular Malagasy open guitar tunings almost certainly were derived from the traditional kabosy tuning.
THE EARLY RECORDED ISLAND GUITAR MASTERS
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.”
A LITTLE ABOUT THE MUSIC
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 NEW GUITAR SCENE
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.
And Solo Razafindrakoto (or Solo Razaf), one of the most successful Malagasy musicians now living in France, represents the tradition’s counter-colonial move to conquer Europe. Solo (pronounced SOO-loo) and Dama were childhood friends in Tana. One of Solo’s main gigs for the last ten years has been touring the world with Miriam Makeba, playing mostly South African music. He is a master of the 12/8 salegy rhythm, possibly the most popular dance beat in Madagascar, and one that helps earn him a large European audience. He combines this 100% Malagasy rhythmic groove with breezy vocals that often give a Brazilian flavor to his arrangements.
But as widely-varied and technically intriguing as these guitarists are, two Malagasy musicians stand apart in my mind as being worthy of particularly bright spotlights: Dama and D’Gary.
Zafimahaleo Rasolofondrasolo, known as Dama, is Madagascar’s Bob Dylan and Bob Marley rolled into one. As a youngster he soaked up Jacques Brel, the Beatles, American country and roots music, and anything else he could find to tie in with his extensive Malagasy trad repertoire. Then, as an articulate and energetic teenager in 1972, he watched as an oppressive, dictatorial regime slammed down on his country.
Dama’s reaction was remarkable. At clandestine political gatherings and public rallies, he sang original songs of hope, peace, and justice. He sang lyrics drenched in allegory in the face of official disapproval. And he sang in Malagasy, then an extraordinary revolutionary gesture, signaling a break from the remnants of colonialism. His group, Mahaleo, now occupy no less pivotal a place in Malagasy pop culture than the Beatles do in the west.
In the last several years, the government of Madagascar finally held elections and made some tentative steps toward democratization. Dama was elected as a Deputy in the new government (similar to a senator here) and is still politically active.
Musically, Dama has two identities, the Malagasy traditional identity and the pop identity built on his European/American influences. One can hear resonances of both Big Bill Broonzy in the way he harmonizes and composes complex songs. Maybe less Broonzy influence than, say, Martin Carthy shows, but it’s there. And there’s an elusive yet essential European influence in his music as well.
Dama plays quite a lot in open G tuning, though he also uses standard and drop-D tunings. The first song I ever learned from the original pile of tapes was Dama’s “Tany Boribory,” a hypnotic, slowly building song with a zillion verses that he played and sang as a duo with his band-mate Fafa. One guitar played the loping alternating bass groove in standard A, capoed on the second fret, while the other played the upper melody line upcapoed in B. I figured out the two individual parts, then worked out how to do them together in A. I was more than delighted when Dama included a new single-guitar setting of the song on “World Out of Time, Vol. 2.” I still reach for this picking pattern when I want a truly relaxing guitar warm-up exercise. While the tune “Sangisangy,” which we’ve transcribed here, is a little perkier in tempo, it’s equally pleasant under the fingers.
If Dama’s guitar work can be described as “elegantly simple,” D’Gary’s might best be called “impossibly intricate.” D’Gary was the most amazing character and unusual talent to emerge from the “World Out of Time” sessions, becoming an instant star in both Europe and America.
Ernest Randrianasolo, dit (called) Gary, traveled up from his home in the Bara tribal lands of the southern Isalo highlands to meet Dama and Henry and lay down some tracks for the first “World Out of Time” sessions. D’Gary comes from a musical family and a musical culture. Before attacking the guitar, he played mandaliny Bara andjejolava, a one-string instrument similar to the Brazilian berimbao. The marovany also looms large in Bara culture.
So when D’Gary began developing his weird and original guitar style, he borrowed both from the South African guitar music he could hear on short wave and from all the local instruments around him, most obviously the marovany.
Henry Kaiser still shakes his head in disbelief when he recalls his first experience with D’Gary in the studio. D’Gary started out rather shy. Even though they shared no common language, he asked Henry to sit practically knee to knee with him while he recorded his tracks. Henry sat there stunned.
“He never made a mistake,” said Henry. “Every take was perfect. Sometimes there was a bird noise or something so we’d take another one. But every take was perfect.”
Henry’s job during the sessions was to tune D’Gary’s guitar between takes. D’Gary would tune it to any one of eleven open tunings he experimented with, then hand it to Henry for fine tuning. (These days, D’Gary has zeroed in on two tunings: an open G without the low E tuned down (EGDGBD) and standard.)
At one point, Henry was sitting behind D’Gary’s back and tested his tuning by playing a series of six or seven wildly dissonant chords. If you’ve ever heard Henry play, you’ll know that nobody voices chords the way he does. So, he handed the guitar to D’Gary who, without turning around, proceeded to play the identical series of chords with the same fingerings. He then turned to Henry and laughed. Henry’s hair stood up.
D’Gary’s work on “World Out of Time” and the other Shanachie CDs he recorded focus more on his own contemporary original compositions than the more archly traditional music of his youth. But lately has been getting back into his roots, as evidenced by the selections on his 1995 French CD, “Mbo Loza.” Whether playing original or trad pieces, though, D’Gary is clearly both the rawest and most sophisticated of the current generation of Malagasy guitarists.
For most fans of learning from tablature, D’Gary’s technique will be unlike anything ever attempted before. Western notation doesn’t have any symbols to describe the curious ways D’Gary pulls at tempos and crams so many notes so clearly into impossibly short spaces. It also takes a while to find a proper right hand position to reproduce his damping patterns, softening some phrases, then following them immediately with bright, ringing notes.
If you first encounter D’Gary through his single track, “Andriry,” on “The Moon and the Banana Tree,” you’ll definitely do well to follow up with either his solo Shanachie CD or his duo CD with Dama, both of which include plenty of vocal tracks. His singing locks in closely with his guitar approach. Hearing him lay down live vocal/guitar tracks will help you decipher some of what he’s doing instrumentally. Maybe.
LATER, IN ANOTHER PART OF THE RAIN FOREST
In April 1993, Henry Kaiser invited Robin Petrie and me to be part of a session he set up outside Lafayette, Louisiana for Dama and D’Gary. The two had been brought over to perform at the annual Festival Internationale the same weekend Robin and I were jumping around at the New Orleans Jazz Fest. So we were granted a unique opportunity to watch the “World Out of Time” crew in action again, reuniting engineer Bernhard Ramroth (Rammy) and Henry, and adding Paul Hostetter’s expertise into the bargain.
The bayou was hot and sticky. The air was thick enough to chew. So, while we felt like boiled crawfish, Dama, D’Gary, their sidemen Lava and Pana, and Rossy and his band all seemed to feel right at home.
D’Gary was laying down basics when we arrived. We watched as he laid down several tracks, effortlessly switching from acoustic to electric guitars, sometimes playing a song in one tuning, then switching tunings and playing it again. He spoke no English and seemed shy with his French, often relaying questions and comments through Dama, who sat with Paul behind the board. Henry was right. He never blew a note while tape was rolling.
My fondest memory of that day is of singing backup vocals with Dama. Rammy ran down the track Dama wanted us to sing on and we worked out our parts. Now, Dama has an electrifying presence about him. Though he was warm and friendly, we felt awestruck just talking to him. So we were more than a little daunted when, instead of letting us overdub into a pair of mics, he put his arms around both our shoulders and, hugging us tightly together, sang with us into one mic.
The song is called “Aza Manadino,” which means “don’t forget.” I certainly never will.
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GEAR BOX SIDEBAR—MALAGASY EQUIPMENT
Now, you’re probably expecting the usual informative Gear Box coverage of custom instruments and cool electronics favored by this month’s featured artists. Well, in the case of Dama and D’Gary and pretty much everybody else in Madagascar, when asked what instruments and equipment they prefer, the answer is: “Whatever we can get.”
Madagascar is as poor as it is remote. Until recently there was only one guitar maker in the entire country (now there are two). Import instruments dribble in sporadically and are prized even when barely playable. Cheap Brazilian Giannini nylon-string guitars have been pretty common for years, though the luckier and better-connected musicians occasionally get steel-stringed Takamines. Dama has been playing a Takamine dreadnought since his days with the band Mahaleo in the 1970s.
D’Gary’s first guitar was a “mandalina Bara,” Bara referring to his southern tribal group. He played his share of Gianninis and actually had no guitar of his own when he showed up to take part in the “World Out of Time” sessions in 1991. He played Henry Kaiser’s Martin 000-18 for those sessions, as did Dama. Before Henry left Madagascar, he gave the Martin to Dama, who still treasures it so highly he rarely lets it out of the house, feeling more comfortable touring with his Takamine.
D’Gary now owns a Yamaha acoustic-electric which Henry sent him from the U.S. as well as a solid-body electric with Novax fan frets. Paul Hostetter gave him a Chet Atkins nylon-string Gibson electric, leaving him as one of Madagascar’s best-equipped guitarists. (Although last year in Paris, he showed up for his “Mbo Loza” session without a guitar and ended up recording on a scrounged Ovation, but that’s another story.)
Oh yes, about the Malagasy luthiers. They only recently (and accidentally) discovered X-bracing. When one of the kabosys Paul Hostetter made for pop star Rossy got smashed on the plane, Rossy took it in for repair, saying it sounded better than all the others. They took it apart and saw how it was braced and have now adopted the technique for the instruments under construction. The guitar maker Paul visited in Tana operated under almost unbelievably primitive conditions. There was no electricity and all his tools could fit in a small wine box.
What about strings? They use whatever they can get. The only strings easily accessible are made in China, and they’re as expensive as they are awful. You’re as likely to get four strings in a $12 packaged set as you are to get three B strings and no E. When nothing else is available, they use bicycle brake cable. So the pros generally keep one good set for performance, then take them off when they’re just practicing.
The following recordings are easy to find.
- Dama & D’Gary—The Long Way Home, Shanachie 64052.
- D’Gary—Malagasy Guitar, Shanachie 65009.
- Various Artists (including Dama, D’Gary, and Solo)—The Moon and the Banana Tree, Shanachie 64074.
- A World Out of Time (Vols. 1-2-3), Shanachie 64041, 64048, 64069.
- Tarika Sammy—Beneath Southern Skies, Shanachie 64067.
The availability of the following runs from somewhat rare to nearly impossible to find. Nevertheless, all are worth hunting down. Some may be available by mail through Roots & Rhythm Music.
- D’Gary—Horombe, D’Gary & Jihé, Indigo (France) LBLC 2515
- Mbo Loza, Indigo (France) LBLC 2535.
- Solo Razafindrakoto—Fruits de Voyage, Ylang (France) ELA 102.
- Guitare a Balanciers, Universounds (France) ELA 101.
- Feo-Gasy (featuring Erick Manana and Colbert)—Tsofy Rano, Ylang (France) 08771.2.
- Malgache Connexion (produced by Solo, featuring Erick Manana, Solo, Rakoto Frah, and more)—Bilo, Silex Y225016
- Erick Manana—Bonjour Madame la Guitare, Universounds (France) 82858-2.