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Guitar Masters of Madagascar (3 of 5)

A player’s guide to an amazing world of music

     And Solo Razafindrakoto (or Solo Razaf), one of the most successful Malagasy musicians now living in France, represents the tradition’s counter-colonial move to conquer Europe. Solo (pronounced SOO-loo) and Dama were childhood friends in Tana. One of Solo’s main gigs for the last ten years has been touring the world with Miriam Makeba, playing mostly South African music. He is a master of the 12/8 salegy rhythm, possibly the most popular dance beat in Madagascar, and one that helps earn him a large European audience. He combines this 100% Malagasy rhythmic groove with breezy vocals that often give a Brazilian flavor to his arrangements.

     But as widely-varied and technically intriguing as these guitarists are, two Malagasy musicians stand apart in my mind as being worthy of particularly bright spotlights: Dama and D’Gary.


     Zafimahaleo Rasolofondrasolo, known as Dama, is Madagascar’s Bob Dylan and Bob Marley rolled into one. As a youngster he soaked up Jacques Brel, the Beatles, American country and roots music, and anything else he could find to tie in with his extensive Malagasy trad repertoire. Then, as an articulate and energetic teenager in 1972, he watched as an oppressive, dictatorial regime slammed down on his country.

     Dama’s reaction was remarkable. At clandestine political gatherings and public rallies, he sang original songs of hope, peace, and justice. He sang lyrics drenched in allegory in the face of official disapproval. And he sang in Malagasy, then an extraordinary revolutionary gesture, signaling a break from the remnants of colonialism. His group, Mahaleo, now occupy no less pivotal a place in Malagasy pop culture than the Beatles do in the west.

     In the last several years, the government of Madagascar finally held elections and made some tentative steps toward democratization. Dama was elected as a Deputy in the new government (similar to a senator here) and is still politically active.

     Musically, Dama has two identities, the Malagasy traditional identity and the pop identity built on his European/American influences. One can hear resonances of both Big Bill Broonzy in the way he harmonizes and composes complex songs. Maybe less Broonzy influence than, say, Martin Carthy shows, but it’s there. And there’s an elusive yet essential European influence in his music as well.

     Dama plays quite a lot in open G tuning, though he also uses standard and drop-D tunings. The first song I ever learned from the original pile of tapes was Dama’s "Tany Boribory," a hypnotic, slowly building song with a zillion verses that he played and sang as a duo with his band-mate Fafa. One guitar played the loping alternating bass groove in standard A, capoed on the second fret, while the other played the upper melody line upcapoed in B. I figured out the two individual parts, then worked out how to do them together in A. I was more than delighted when Dama included a new single-guitar setting of the song on "World Out of Time, Vol. 2." I still reach for this picking pattern when I want a truly relaxing guitar warm-up exercise. While the tune "Sangisangy," which we’ve transcribed here, is a little perkier in tempo, it’s equally pleasant under the fingers.


     If Dama’s guitar work can be described as "elegantly simple," D’Gary’s might best be called "impossibly intricate." D’Gary was the most amazing character and unusual talent to emerge from the "World Out of Time" sessions, becoming an instant star in both Europe and America.

     Ernest Randrianasolo, dit (called) Gary, traveled up from his home in the Bara tribal lands of the southern Isalo highlands to meet Dama and Henry and lay down some tracks for the first "World Out of Time" sessions. D’Gary comes from a musical family and a musical culture. Before attacking the guitar, he played mandaliny Bara andjejolava, a one-string instrument similar to the Brazilian berimbao. The marovany also looms large in Bara culture.

     So when D’Gary began developing his weird and original guitar style, he borrowed both from the South African guitar music he could hear on short wave and from all the local instruments around him, most obviously the marovany.

     Henry Kaiser still shakes his head in disbelief when he recalls his first experience with D’Gary in the studio. D’Gary started out rather shy. Even though they shared no common language, he asked Henry to sit practically knee to knee with him while he recorded his tracks. Henry sat there stunned.

     "He never made a mistake," said Henry. "Every take was perfect. Sometimes there was a bird noise or something so we’d take another one. But every take was perfect."

     Henry’s job during the sessions was to tune D’Gary’s guitar between takes. D’Gary would tune it to any one of eleven open tunings he experimented with, then hand it to Henry for fine tuning. (These days, D’Gary has zeroed in on two tunings: an open G without the low E tuned down (EGDGBD) and standard.)

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