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Gitara Gasy

No sooner do you think you've figured out something about Malagasy guitar than the bigger picture expands faster than you can follow. The more you visit, the more music you hear and musicians you meet, the less you realise you know. I'm married into this culture, been there often, and it's still bewildering. I'd intended to interview a few current players of apparently marovany-influenced guitar, but the project spun off into a maze of byways. Instead of a simple feature, this is a scratch on the surface, a whiff of the scent, barely a beginning. Just like Madagascar's fertile soil produces the most intensely flavoured fruit - pineapples that are pineapply beyond your taste-buds' wildest imagination - this musical culture is serious.

Mandoliny (kabosy) & farara (harmonica) player Torosoa, Tuléar
Photo: Ian Anderson
Mandoliny (kabosy) & farara
(harmonica) player Torosoa,

Of course, grinding poverty and the desire to get out of it breeds a certain desperation, not the least among some Malagasy musicians who walk around with an accumulation of each others' metaphorical knives bristling between their shoulder blades. Then there are subtle inter-tribal rivalries. You learn the hard way to beware of the hidden agenda, and take some assertions with a large pinch of salt. It's so easy for us vazaha (foreigners) to make big errors of assumption, and then have people tell us what they think we'd like to hear...

There is no single, uniform Malagasy guitar style. Between the almost mainland African lead guitars of the electric salegy and watcha-watcha bands from the north, through courtly, classical highland plateau playing with echoes of 19th-century parlour music, slack key and ragtime, to the dauntingly dense flurries of the marovany-inclined players like D'Gary, Dozzy and Solomiral's Haja, there are major gulfs. It's a huge island - our drive south to Tulear took several long days to achieve, and that was starting from the central highlands, not the north. Not only are the regions hugely and breathtakingly different in climate and landscape, so are the cultures and roots musics of the many tribes.

And please don't believe the fanciful notion that Madagascar is entirely 'exotic', which some like to labour. To be sure, it's a long way from California, and there is indeed stuff that's deliciously other-planetary, but you have to remember that the country was a French colony for over 60 years. Long before that, under the Merina queens and kings and British influence in the 19th century, it already had one of the most advanced and educated civilisations in the African sphere (check Mervyn Brown's A History Of Madagascar, Tunnicliffe, for a rivetting account). Madagascar certainly has more than its share of unique traditions - like many cultures do if you care to look - but it has also had major musical input from outside. The guitar, for example...

This feature first appeared in fRoots 178, April 1998


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