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Guitar Masters of Madagascar

A player’s guide to an amazing world of music

     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.


     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.

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