‘This isn’t just music, it is magic‘, commented music producer, critic, multi-instrumentalist and Madagascar expert Paddy Bush on one of the recently aired episodes of a stunning, 5-part series of BBC programs about the traditional music of the Great Red Island, Madagascar.
To make the series for BBC Radio 3′s World Routes, the crew embarked on an fascinating and sometimes adventurous trip in September 2009, with members including BBC producer Lucy Duran; Paddy Bush and Madagascar’s ‘musical ambassador’ Justin Vali. Travelling along the much- enjoyed ‘RN7′ route from Antananarivo down to Tulear and Anakao on the south-west coast, their mission was to record what Bush aptly describes as authentic Malagasy music in its various forms. Listening to the tracks featured in this series, the association between some of the music and a variety of rituals and ceremonies which vary regionally across the country, quickly becomes apparent.
Indeed, what you are listening to is more than just music. In Madagascar, traditional music is regularly linked to spiritual practices. It is used for example, to induce the tromba, a trance state which in the southern region is known as bilo. During the tromba of the Sakalava in the western lowlands, mediums are invariably female while the tromba spirits usually male. Spirits of course, have human personalities, so each will have its own, choice pieces of music. Among the Betsimisaraka people of the eastern coastal region, musicians might place toaka gasy (rum), cigarettes or other potentially appreciated objects inside an instrument as an offering to ancestral spirits so as to receive blessings. In the highlands, music features heavily during the famadihana ceremonies, which are periodic exhumation and reburial of ancestors at family tombs. Among the many exceptional musical tracks included in the BBC series, was some music which is sacred to the Merina people.
I remember telling Paddy after I had listened to an episode which included a Hira Gasy performance by the Merina people of the Central Highlands that it didn’t only give me goosebumps, but that I had an almost out-of-body experience, so intense was the effect of that track. Interestingly, a number of other listeners reported the same response. Hira Gasy are usually day-long events of music, dance and oratory known as kabary, performed by ensembles of (mostly Merina) musicians.
It was largely thanks to Justin Vali that they were able to record the Hira Gasy, as well as some mind-blowing music of the Antandroy and Veso people, who live in the harsh, south-western sub-desert. There, they had the privilege of meeting up with two local legends: Madame Masy, the only woman to have mastered the Marovany; an instrument related to Madagascar’s ‘national’ instrument, the Valiha, a bamboo tube zither. Like the original Malagasy settlers, the Valiha has its origins in faraway Indonesia rather than Africa. They also recorded Remanindry, an imposing and unmistakeable figure, who has performed with the internationally popular Orchestra de Madagascar. He can be seen in action with the orchestra the rare clip below.
Also on stage, to the left in the same clip is Justin Vali, arguably the best Valiha player around today. Besides having made excellent albums – one of which, The Sunshine Within – was produced by Paddy Bush, Vali has recorded with the likes of Paddy’s sister, acclaimed British musician Kate Bush. On the more upbeat tracks of her ‘Red Shoes’ album, Justin and Paddy played plenty of Valiha, which brought Malagasy music to the attention of a wider international audience. For anyone interested in a memorable and very unusual musical journey which delves beneath the surface of the multi-layered and complex culture of the Malagasy, I highly recommend listening to these programs. The episodes can be heard on Lucy Duran’s BBC page.