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Gitara Gasy

Ian Anderson started out to write a short feature on a couple of guitarists from Madagascar, D'Gary and Haja. But one thing led to another...

Back where you were, it was Boxing Day and you were maybe slumped, turkey-stuffed, in front of the TV, or perhaps stumbling back from watching some dodgy Morris side down the local. Meanwhile, some 30 km outside of Tuléar in south west Madagascar, it was 32 degrees of dry summer heat and we were bumping dust-caked along a sandy coast road bounded by baobabs, giant sizal and acres of impressively spiky cactus.

A gang of kabosy kids, near Tuléar   
Photo: Ian Anderson
A gang of kabosy kids,
near Tuléar

Sources: Sambiasy on the marovany and Manantsoa on katsa, Tuléar
Photo: Ian Anderson
Sources: Sambiasy on the
marovany and Manantsoa on
katsa, Tuléar

Calling a roadside halt to get in the mango supplies - 50p for a shopping basket full, including the basket - we realise something's going on in the village where we've stopped. Crowds of dancing people are legging it up the road, and women are already in toka (local rum) fuelled trance. Half a dozen wandering trios of kabosy players (the small Malagasy box guitars, probably descended from the Arabic lute and locally called mandoliny, curiously fretted and some actually of improbably large size) are sauntering in from the bush. A protesting zébu is being hauled off to meet its maker, ceremonial fish tied around its neck, and then from over the brow of the hill comes the unmistakeable sound of an electric guitar cranked to 11.

By luck, we've hit this village on the one day in every seven years when they hold the sambatra circumcision ceremony and an all-night party is about to commence. Under the village shade-tree, the festivities are led by Orchestre Rivo-Doza ('the cyclone band'), comprising one probably Russian-made lead guitar, one 3-string bass guitar and a partly home-made drum kit. The fearsome music they're driving out is called tsapika.

It's the omnipresent style of many local bands like Tsodrano and Safo-Drano, whose pirate tapes blare at full distortion from ghetto blasters throughout the region. The unmistakeable Malagasy groove is layered with blockbuster township drive (Radio Mozambique's signal flies in straight across open sea, whereas capital Antananarivo's transmitters are nearly 1,000 km away through the mountains). Over the top of full-scream female voices, lead guitarists scatter dazzling, fractured lines which seem to come straight off the marovany (box zither), though some reckon they're filtered via the now-declining squeezebox tradition.

By another serendipitous stroke a few days earlier, we'd run into tsapika superstars Tirike (their CD Hot Tsapiky From The South Of Madagascar was reviewed in FR163/4) playing on another roadside stage, but they are now without wild young electric guitar prodigy Manantena. He was nowhere to be found, nor was Bloko (pronounced 'Blook') who two of Madagascar's best-known guitarist exports, D'Gary and Njava's Dozzy, rate as a legend of the style. We hunted for Bloko in Tuléar, but he was out of circulation and the best we could come up with was a very poorly copied bootleg cassette which nevertheless showed pretty amazing playing. Another time...

This feature first appeared in fRoots 178, April 1998


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