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Guitar Masters of Madagascar (4 of 5)

A player’s guide to an amazing world of music

     At one point, Henry was sitting behind D’Gary’s back and tested his tuning by playing a series of six or seven wildly dissonant chords. If you’ve ever heard Henry play, you’ll know that nobody voices chords the way he does. So, he handed the guitar to D’Gary who, without turning around, proceeded to play the identical series of chords with the same fingerings. He then turned to Henry and laughed. Henry’s hair stood up.

     D’Gary’s work on "World Out of Time" and the other Shanachie CDs he recorded focus more on his own contemporary original compositions than the more archly traditional music of his youth. But lately has been getting back into his roots, as evidenced by the selections on his 1995 French CD, "Mbo Loza." Whether playing original or trad pieces, though, D’Gary is clearly both the rawest and most sophisticated of the current generation of Malagasy guitarists.

     For most fans of learning from tablature, D’Gary’s technique will be unlike anything ever attempted before. Western notation doesn’t have any symbols to describe the curious ways D’Gary pulls at tempos and crams so many notes so clearly into impossibly short spaces. It also takes a while to find a proper right hand position to reproduce his damping patterns, softening some phrases, then following them immediately with bright, ringing notes.

     If you first encounter D’Gary through his single track, "Andriry," on "The Moon and the Banana Tree," you’ll definitely do well to follow up with either his solo Shanachie CD or his duo CD with Dama, both of which include plenty of vocal tracks. His singing locks in closely with his guitar approach. Hearing him lay down live vocal/guitar tracks will help you decipher some of what he’s doing instrumentally. Maybe.


     In April 1993, Henry Kaiser invited Robin Petrie and me to be part of a session he set up outside Lafayette, Louisiana for Dama and D’Gary. The two had been brought over to perform at the annual Festival Internationale the same weekend Robin and I were jumping around at the New Orleans Jazz Fest. So we were granted a unique opportunity to watch the "World Out of Time" crew in action again, reuniting engineer Bernhard Ramroth (Rammy) and Henry, and adding Paul Hostetter’s expertise into the bargain.

     The bayou was hot and sticky. The air was thick enough to chew. So, while we felt like boiled crawfish, Dama, D’Gary, their sidemen Lava and Pana, and Rossy and his band all seemed to feel right at home.

     D’Gary was laying down basics when we arrived. We watched as he laid down several tracks, effortlessly switching from acoustic to electric guitars, sometimes playing a song in one tuning, then switching tunings and playing it again. He spoke no English and seemed shy with his French, often relaying questions and comments through Dama, who sat with Paul behind the board. Henry was right. He never blew a note while tape was rolling.

     My fondest memory of that day is of singing backup vocals with Dama. Rammy ran down the track Dama wanted us to sing on and we worked out our parts. Now, Dama has an electrifying presence about him. Though he was warm and friendly, we felt awestruck just talking to him. So we were more than a little daunted when, instead of letting us overdub into a pair of mics, he put his arms around both our shoulders and, hugging us tightly together, sang with us into one mic.

     The song is called "Aza Manadino," which means "don’t forget." I certainly never will.

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     Now, you’re probably expecting the usual informative Gear Box coverage of custom instruments and cool electronics favored by this month’s featured artists. Well, in the case of Dama and D’Gary and pretty much everybody else in Madagascar, when asked what instruments and equipment they prefer, the answer is: "Whatever we can get."

     Madagascar is as poor as it is remote. Until recently there was only one guitar maker in the entire country (now there are two). Import instruments dribble in sporadically and are prized even when barely playable. Cheap Brazilian Giannini nylon-string guitars have been pretty common for years, though the luckier and better-connected musicians occasionally get steel-stringed Takamines. Dama has been playing a Takamine dreadnought since his days with the band Mahaleo in the 1970s.

     D’Gary’s first guitar was a "mandalina Bara," Bara referring to his southern tribal group. He played his share of Gianninis and actually had no guitar of his own when he showed up to take part in the "World Out of Time" sessions in 1991. He played Henry Kaiser’s Martin 000-18 for those sessions, as did Dama. Before Henry left Madagascar, he gave the Martin to Dama, who still treasures it so highly he rarely lets it out of the house, feeling more comfortable touring with his Takamine.

     D’Gary now owns a Yamaha acoustic-electric which Henry sent him from the U.S. as well as a solid-body electric with Novax fan frets. Paul Hostetter gave him a Chet Atkins nylon-string Gibson electric, leaving him as one of Madagascar’s best-equipped guitarists. (Although last year in Paris, he showed up for his "Mbo Loza" session without a guitar and ended up recording on a scrounged Ovation, but that’s another story.)


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