Features March 14, 2014
Feature: Malagasy Guitarists

During Afropop Worldwide's April 2001 adventure in Madagascar, Banning Eyre made a point of meeting and interviewing as many guitarists as possible. Their remarkable and varied music is sampled on Afropop Worldwide's 2001 Malagasy Guitar program. Here are some of Banning's photographs, and some quotes from his interviews with guitarists.

Jean "Colbert" Ranaivoarison

"I work in a bank. As far as music, at the age of 14, I started playing guitar, here in Tana. From then until now, I have done a lot of research in Malagasy guitar, the Malagasy way of playing guitar. That's why I've been with Malagasy groups, making tours in Europe, and also in Africa. I've done tours with folkloric Malagasy groups. I play, apart from the guitar, the valiha, the kabosy, and I play some percussion."

"The valiha was the first Malagasy instrument. In the time of the kings and queens, there was nothing but the valiha. Afterwards, the piano and the guitar came."

"The history of the guitar in Madagascar is a bit long. It began in the time of the monarchies. You have seen the panorama at the palace of the queen. This neighborhood is for the bourgeois, the families of the kings, and other persons. They are rich. They have a lot of money, and also the possibility to import things, like the piano. The English brought them to Madagascar in the 18th century. People in the highlands could buy instruments like that. By contrast, the people who lived down below, these were the peasants who were poor. They wanted to buy a guitar because it was possible for them. It was probably the French and English both brought guitars. So it was two very different things between the town on top and the one below. The people who played the Malagasy guitar, they played serenades, almost all night in the villages. They would walk around the village playing."

"Here, everyone has their technique. I too have my way. I started working with old songs. I started from the roots and moved out to the branches of the tree. I started to search for the techniques of playing the guitar. I studied the songs of old people. Guitar songs. There were already compositions by great Malagasy composers like Ratianarivo Andrianary, Naka Rabenaratsoa, and also Justin Rajoro. These are the three composers of the early 20th century."

"The pianists could make chords like that. The guitarists imitated this way of playing the piano when they played the guitar. There is the bass voice, the second voice, and the first voice, the melody. There's a way of singing. It's a Malagasy style."

Germain Rakotomavo

"I was born in the province of Fianarantsoa. I left to do my university studies, but before that, I was a member of a musical corps of boys organized by a Jesuit priest. My goal was not music then. I sang Gregorian chant, the Catholic liturgy. And then in 1977, the father who was organizing us fell sick. He couldn't continue, so the singing stopped there. I never sang again. But I picked up some instruments, and I started with the guitar."

"I had two professors…two great guitarists, trained at the national conservatory in Paris. I was lucky, because they taught me classical guitar regiment. And then afterwards, I was astonished by their style. I played a little jazz, a little folk picking--like Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, and Doc Watson. And then I found that I could make the guitar sing like one of our own typical instruments, the valiha. To play the guitar in the style of valiha…I didn't actually learn to play the valiha, but the repertoire of the valiha. I did not compose the songs that I played. I was not like Haja or Colbert or D'Gary. They play their own music. I play the repertoire of the valiha of the high plateau. When I saw [guitarists like] Martin Simpson, who play traditional music arranged for the guitar, I thought this was a good road."

"One man, who wrote in journals and who died on the 5 of June, 1998, at the age of 77, said he would teach me. He was the great man for this, Jean Paul Ranovason. He's unknown. But he's the one who taught me. If I play now, it's in his memory, because he taught me his way of playing."

"The guitar was introduced--it's a European instrument--I believe during the end of the last century, around 1890. Since then, the guitar has existed in Madagascar. We already had the valiha, a string instrument. But to accompany with chords, that did not interest the Malagasy. They wanted to make the guitar sing. They wanted the guitar to sing. And at that time, there was not method. Most people were illiterate. They couldn't read or write. They learned by ear."

"Normally the guitar is tuned the way Europeans tune it. It doesn't sing. It's for playing chords. But this way [C, G, D, G, B, E], it sings. [Most guitarist in Tana use this tuning] to have easy fingering in first positions. It's not just in Madagascar that they use this tuning. Others do too. Chet Atkins used it, and some of the bluesmen. Big Bill Broonzy, and others [including Richard Thompson and Gabby Pahinui of Hawaii--Editor]. We use it a lot. It's the most typical. But for me, this tuning is not the best one for getting the sound of the valiha. I raise the B up to C, and the D also to C, the A to F, and the E to Bb. [Bb, F, C, G, C, E]. It's even lower. Now, to get the sound of the valiha, I use the capo."

"One advantage of this tuning is that you have the very high notes and the very low notes. There's a big range. That's why it works well on the guitar. This way, we can have the voice of the women, and also the voice of the men. That's Malagasy, because when the Malagasy sing, they don't sing alone. There are always the women and the men. That's tradition."

"But the problem in Madagascar is that we are no longer interested in instrumental music. It's neglected. Even D'Gary. It's sad, because he's a big guitarist, a phenomenon. He takes his vacations all the time in Madagascar, but he doesn't play. That's the problem, because we have inherited a French tradition that says we must always sing. We must have words. So we don't make the instruments sing anymore. But we have a rich instrumental tradition."

"Ny Antsaly was a trio, guitar, valiha and violin. It was the first group that married the valiha and the guitar. Sylvestre Randafison's big brother was a great guitarist. He is already dead. Remy Randafison. They tried for the first time to marry the Malagasy guitar and the valiha. They married the tradition and modernity in the Malagasy way. It was formed in the 1940s. We could say that they were the original musical ambassadors of Malagasy music. Now, only Sylvestre is from the original group. When they play, I play guitar. He chose me since1988. He tried a few guitarist, but they didn't get it. I was lucky. I worked hard on those songs, and I was chosen. It was a strong point for me because I couldn't play any other music without first knowing Malagasy music. I could play any music in the world, but first, Malagasy music."


"I was born here in Antananarivo in 1965. I started playing guitar at 9 years old. I was brought up in a family of musicians, as my father was a guitarist and my mother was a singer. I had an older brother--he's dead now--who was a real guitarist also. So in the family, we were almost all guitarists. In addition, we had another advantage. We lived almost all over Madagascar. That is to say, we lived in the south as well. In the little provinces. This is why we have many interesting things from Malagasy music."

"I try to mix everything I know, including Malagasy traditions. My favorite musicians--especially Rakotozafy, the great valiha/marovany player, and also Randafison the great valiha player, and the great accordion players here in Tana and also in the provinces--I had the idea to transfer all the reharmonizations that exist around Madagascar and put them on the guitar. So I find that there is something not so different in Malagasy music. It's diatonic. There is major and minor. There are tunings that I've practiced a lot. The mixing of kabosy and ba gasy--the way of tuning the Malagasy guitar--I mixed that and put it on the universal guitar. I don't need many guitars on stage. With a single guitar, I can go far to explore from its roots Malagasy music."

"I use do-sol tuning [C, G, D, G, B, E], but I also mix the kabosy tuning: [C, G, D, G, B, D]. That's my preferred tuning. That's what we call the mixture of kabosy and ba-gasy."

"This is my guitar. I made it because in the past, the farmers made them this way. They made it a bit like a kabosy, with bizarre things. I like that. [STRINGS ARE DAMPED WITH BUILT-IN RUBBER BANDS.] This way it damps the notes regularly. The strings do sound. I can regulate it. If I don't want it, I leave it aside, like that. Because the sound of the valiha/marovany in the past was just like the sound of the guitar etouffé. Because, our ancestors played the valiha with fiber strings. Bamboo. I really wanted to keep that sound."

"Solomiral is my group. It's kind of a family group. 'Brothers of Miral.' Me, Ny Ony, the guitarist of Tarika. I have three brothers also, guitarist, bass and drummer. And then we sing at the same time. I sing lead vocals and play guitar. So Solomiral is now in it's 25th year, because we started in 1978. That's when we made our first recording. We are always in solidarity."


"What is salegy? Salegy is Malagasy folk songs. The beat is 6/8, and it's played with a band, with electric musical instruments, or at least with an accordion… In the early 1970s, we began to play the salegy. My eldest colleagues, of course, began to play salegy since the '60s. But at that time, it was mainly instrumental. In 1975, I left the band. I left the nightclub. I joined a younger band called Players. We went anywhere where people called us--in town, in village, in the field, in markets, on the ground, in open air. [We used] an energy generator. We made more African and Malagasy rhythms, and also rhythms from the Indian Ocean, like sega. As African rhythms, we made kwassa-kwassa, sigoma. Most of the African rhythms, we made them Malagasy."

"I'm not a theoretician, but 'Afindrafindrao' is Malagasy. The salegy is Malagasy, but Afindrafindrao is from the high-lands, from the region of Antananarivo, but the salegy is from the whole country. For me it's the same thing. 'Afindrafindrao,' you know? [SINGS 27:50] On that beat, you can also make the salegy."

"Malesa. It's a sister of the salegy, you know. But it is slower. Salegy is a little bit speedy. Malesa is love salegy. Even the way of dancing it, you know. You put the woman in front of you, and you from her back. [LAUGHS] And then you move, you dance. Yeah, yeah!"

"I am not a real guitarist. I am a singer. But I can play guitar. Not very good. Yeah, yeah. So in Malagasy music, at the beginning the valiha or the marovany took a great place. Young musicians, or musicians who tried to play the salegy tried to imitate those traditional music instruments: valiha and marovany."

Jaojoby Elie Lucas, Jaojoby's son

"Since the age of 7 or 8, I have played the guitar. It was my father who taught me. Afterwards, when I was 14, we formed a group called Jaojoby Jr. Then I was the soloist, from 1997 until now. Certainly he had his soloist who said, 'I don't want to play anymore with you.' He said he wanted to teach me."

"There was no one to teach me. But on cassettes, I didn't know how to play, but I just listened. I listened to lots of American, French, Mauritian, Congolese, and South African songs. All that. I watched. When the soloist rehearsed, I did nothing but watch him. And then I began playing myself."

"For the salegy, there isn't a real solo style, but there is the valiha style. It's typical to have the rhythm player using fingers, and the soloist using a pick."

Jean Noel

"In the beginning, I played with a pick. Now I never use one."

"Tsapika is a name we found. It comes from the movement in the dance. It moves a lot. It's just a name. There are five people in my group. Bass, solo guitar, drums, and two singers. In tsapika, the original tsapika, there is just one guitar. It began with guitar, no synthesizer."

Ernest Randrianasolo, a.k.a. D'Gary

"I come from the south of Madagascar. My father was a gendarme. I was in the town of Tulear during my youth. In Tulear, you can find guitars to fool around with in the neighborhood. Before, the popular music in Tulear was blues, pop music, mixed with traditional music. For that, you would find groups that played dances with one guitar, bass and drums, because before it was blues and pop music mostly. There were no proper guitars, no guitar strings. You tried to manage. It depended on you. If you really love music, you find a way."

"After my father died in 1978, I returned to my village, Betroka. This was the first time I found my entire family, among the Bara. It's our Bara custom that when there is a death, there are ceremonies in the family. We call all the distant family. We call the people who know the traditional music of the Bara. It was the first time that I had seen people playing the Malagasy violin, the valiha, the accordion. Acapalla singing. Dancing. When someone dies, the Bara musicians who sing are like people crying. Even among us, all the people, when they cry, it sounds like people singing. It's the same. The people who cry and the people who sing there--it's the same melody."

"In Tulear, I played the musical style of Tulear, the pecto--because before there wasn't yet tsapika--I played tsapika and other things. But after I went to Betroka, suddenly I changed because I loved these melancholy melodies."

"The Bara kabosy is not like the Tulear kabosy--the 'mandolin.' There just one person plays on five strings. In open (tuning). There you find the accordion, singing, percussion, flute. But I didn't know these traditional instruments… After Betroka, I came here to Antananarivo to prepare the pension papers for my mother. It was here that people found me playing with musicians, looking for money. I was a mercenary. That's the story. A friend in Tamotave cared for me. He loaned me a Takamini guitar. I never had a guitar before that."

"During 1980, right up to 1987, I was a mercenary. I played dances. Above all, I played electric guitar, all the styles of Madagascar. Everything… People didn't know me. Because me, I hid everything away. Because each time we made a tour around different parts of Madagascar, I took advantage of the time alone in my room, to work. I tried to do all these things that were sounding in my head. Even when I was walking around, I was hearing flute melodies, kabosy melodies, accordion, acapella. These made me find the open tunings. But nobody found me. If somebody came, I wouldn't play. …because it wasn't yet ready. It wasn't really good yet. My thing is not easy. It's very difficult."

"I did a thing with Discomad. It's Studio Mars now. During the time I was being a mercenary, I made some recordings there, just two songs. In 1991, I was touring with a group here in the north of Madagascar. That was when I received a message: 'Come back to Antananarivo. There are some Americans who are looking for you. You must come quickly.' It was David Lindley with Henry Kaiser."

"Before, I always used standard tuning. And I used a pick. I listened and I tried to interpret. That was in my youth. After I began to discover the music of the Bara, among us, I began to play with my fingers. It depends on your research. Since I was playing with a pick, it didn't work, because there are melodies from, say, the marovany, or the accordion. With the pick, it was a bit bizarre. I needed to be picking. With thumb and index. Sometimes I play with three fingers… Sometimes my tunings are a bit bizarre. [LAUGHS]"

"The name of my style is 'Gofo.' Since I began to do research with the guitar, everything has been in the heart. That's where it begins. If I don't like something, that's as far as it goes. Because you see that the culture here is not like in foreign places where it can just be shown like that. Here, the tradition is always at the side. People who live in the countryside always respect their culture, but in the country as a whole, culture is always kept aside. So GOFO is 'Government' and Fo "in my heart." That is to say that I am independent. There is no need to find a minister of culture here. That's Gofo. Freedom. Everytime I play the guitar, there are lots of open strings. That's freedom. That's Gofo. Sometimes I play very fast things. That's gofo. That's why, right away, I found my way to adapt the sound of the marovany on guitar. For me, it was no problem. Now it's the other way around. All the songs on my records--the marovany players in Tulear are taking my things and playing them. It's good. It's good."

"My new album will be coming out soon. 'Akata Meso.' That means 'green grass.' There are four instrumentals and the rest have singing. I am trying to mix things up a bit. Our rhythms, above all, the Bara rhythms. Because in the south of Madagascar, there are many ethnic groups, and each one has its own things. In the past, I've already done the rhythms of the south of Madagascar, but now, I'm doing something else. I keep the rhythms, but I mix in things from rock or even American music. But that's what we call the wrapping."

Afropop Weigh in on Afropop's digital future and download an exclusive concert from the archives—free!