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Gitara Gasy

Long before Ny Antsaly, Madagascar's first internationally acclaimed touring group, were playing for the crowned heads of Europe (and the Welsh National Eistedfodd in 1962), the guitar was already a central instrument alongside the valiha (tubular zither). A big Malagasy export in the '60s were the pop group Les Surfs, hit makers in France with Francophone covers of Beatles and Motown tracks. The major local '70s band Mahaleo, whose excellent guitarist/ songwriter leader Dama still performs and records when not busy as a politician, took as much influence from international soft rock of the Simon & Garfunkel/ Eagles era as they did from local roots. Their great success was in finding the perfect blend, taken up by later bands like Lolo Sy Ny Tariny. Jazz, rock, reggae, rap - all those international musical forms have their local practitioners.

Freddy Ranarison   
Freddy Ranarison

Ny Antsaly in Llangollen, Wales, 1962 with valiha and guitars
Photo: courtesy Razafindrakoto

Ny Antsaly in Llangollen,
Wales, 1962 with valiha and

There's so much more. French cabaret and chanson left plenty of traces - it's easy to hear echoes of George Brassens in the style of one particular guitar legend, Razilina, for example (though he never recorded commercially and died some time ago, his repertoire has been reproduced on a tribute CD by Eric Manana, now in the fine group Feogasy). Formerly Paris, now Reunion-based Freddy De Majunga (FR107) brings the hi-tech pyrotechnics of Zairean soukous guitar techniques to salegy and watcha-watcha, whilst Toronto-based Madagascar Slim (FR169) is mixing the electric blues of B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix with lessons learned from valiha master Sylvestre Randafison of Ny Antsaly. And one of the respected pioneers of modern guitar, Freddy Ranarison (who appears in the imminent documentary film about the legendary Rakotozafy - see also FR146/7 and Froots #5) could be found playing double bass behind a valiha player on an early Ocora anthology, but also led a regular hotel dance band in his time. One of his early sega 45s I have is a fair mix of surf-guitar-meets-Herb-Alpert!

It's this seamless blend of the new and the traditional that seems to be the key. Some musicians transform the sounds of local traditional instruments onto guitar, a commonplace idea all over Africa from Mali to Zimbabwe. The mighty Tôty, who is equally good at jazz funk, pioneered the marovany style of bass guitar playing that has been widely imitated in recent years. But the skilful Solo Razafindrakoto, one of valiha master Justin Vali's sidemen, is just as likely to delve into Pierre Bensusan-like pieces as stick to a straightforwardly rootsy approach. Ideas and influences come from everywhere and strike in unexpected ways. Off the guitar track, there's a delightful out-take from the Rakotozafy film in which southern marovany player Bekamby improvises the arse off Kassav's Antillean zouk anthem Zouk-La-Se Sel Medikamen Nou Ni. It goes on. Nothing is ever simple.

My brother-in-law Naina suggested that a visit to his old guitar teacher might be useful in the course of my researches. This turns out to be something of an understatement, since he is a legend among Malagasy musicians, Etienne Ramboatiana, better known as 'Bouboul'. A captivating, sparkling-eyed gentleman of around 65, he sits gently spinning anecdotes about his life and a rain of historical information that in a short space of time could fill a book about the history of the guitar in Madagascar and the origins of the high plateau style in Antananarivo.

This feature first appeared in fRoots 178, April 1998


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