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Gitara Gasy

"There was a competitive spirit because of the piano. The piano was brought here before the guitar by missionaries and its place was always in the royal court. In La Haute Ville, people had piano; 'les grand bourgeois' in Ambatovinaky and Faravohitra had harmonium, saxophone and accordeon, and in Ambodin'Isotry [the poor part of Antananarivo] they had the guitar wizards such as Rakotondrainibe. If you went down still further, what you would find in people's home were traditional instruments."

"When people down here heard that the piano made a really high sound, they put the capo on. When there was a very bassy sound they changed the bass strings by re-tuning it into C and G to get what we call today Malagasy style. I changed my bass string into D because it's just too much to change it to C. In Antananarivo, some people would even change that string into a piano wire to get that big bass note."

"Since the piano was used for theatrical pieces, that's what guitarists translated onto their guitar. Theatres were very French so actors and artists would even change their names to names like Rakoto de Mon Plaisir, Simon de l'Aurore. So the guitarists also changed their names to Ramistery [Mr. Mysterious], Rakasikety [Mr. Cap], Rajebo [Mr. Zébu] and that was how Razilina was made. In 1942, these guitarists would go out serenading. They wore caps, big clothes and scarves, and girls would come out. They had to stop around Faravohitra because if they continued upwards, they would get soaked because people from La Haute would throw dirty water on them. La Haute is a piano place. Faravohitra was the highest area a guitarist could go up to and then they had to go back to Ambodin'Isotry where they came from."

"In 1858, during the second empire, the guitar started to be famous abroad and it was a new thing here in Madagascar. The quadrille arrived in Madagascar because of the Napoleonic soldiers. The Malagasy people invented something out of that and one of the most famous things still known today is the Afindrafindrao."

"But you see, if you really want to find out about the Malagasy guitar style, it came from the way the Malagasy played the piano, but the piano was only copying the valiha. So the valiha is the origin of it all, then on to the piano and then on to the guitar. The piano did this little triplet and tremolo that it got from the valiha so whenever I teach guitar these days, all the students have to take a valiha lesson first. But the interesting thing is, where did this little style come from? Here is where we know that we really came from the East!"

"Things changed around about the second world war. The Malagasy got some style out of Charlie Kunz's songs, a German who ran away to England. During that time, we always thought of abroad as very far away and that things from there were as if from another planet because they took 21 days to get here. So guitarists started to copy that style."

This feature first appeared in fRoots 178, April 1998


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