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Written in fRoots issue 197, 1999

Big Red

Nascente NSCD 053 (1999)

Flute Master Of Madagascar

Globestyle CDORBD 027 (1999)

On the big red-earthed island of Madagascar CD players are a rare rich personís commodity, so the radio and cassette remain the main electronic media, but CDs released by foreign labels and touring abroad have made some Malagasy musicians and bands well known on the world music circuit.
      International success for the more rooted aspects, rather than for the bland global-pop derivativeness toward which Malagasy radio and cassette music was drifting, has over the past few years aided a re-energising of the islandís commercial pop by some degree of reconnection with the unusually varied and characteristically lively, jubilant music most Malagasy have known and participated in all their lives, at home and at social events such as the famadihana re-burial ceremony or the remarkable, crowd-stirring performances by hira gasy troupes.
      Big Red, compiled for the mid-price Nascente label by Ian Anderson, is an attractive, timely introduction to the varied riches of Malagasy music already available on the world market, drawing on eighteen of the hundred or so extant CD releases. Itís not label-tied; the tracks are from a number of foreign labels (though, as usual with compilations, the occasional transnational wouldnít release a desired track) and from Madagascarís Mars label.
      Here are many of the most creative performers, commercial bands to brilliant soloists and legendary players, international tourers or not, from around the island, with key instruments such as valiha, marovany, guitar, kabosy, accordion, harmonica, sodina, fiddle, snickety hand percussion and drums, and intricately syncopated dance rhythms such as salegy and tsapika. Throughout thereís the exuberantly melodious, tightly harmonising Malagasy singing.
      The distinctive playing styles are often personal rather than simply regional or tribal; the most talented musicians evolve new approaches, such as accordionist Regis Gizavo with his dazzling right-hand syncopation over big, rolling left-hand chordal grooves, or Solomiralís Haja, who has installed extra transducers in his electric guitar to give it an unusual dry plucked sound which connects with the music of valiha and marovany (the Madagascan tube and box zithers, heard here in the hands, among others, of Justin Vali, Rakotozafy and Madame Masy).

      Of course, there are fine musicians and bands who havenít recorded, even for cassette. Way back in 1985, when the outside world was fairly familiar with televised lemurs and chameleons but very little was heard of the Malagasy people or their music, Ben Mandelson and Roger Armstrong went in search, and recorded material for Globestyleís Madagasikara series of LPs.
      Volume 3, now released on CD with an extra track and new booklet notes, is devoted to Rakoto Frah, the most famous player of the breathy, end-blown flute, the sodina, with a dancing, syncopating style. Heís been a prolific maker of tunes and songs, leading both hira gasy and famadihana groups, with their different requirements and musical styles, and both aspects are featured on Flute Master Of Madagascar, in which he plays with a group comprising two other sodina players, thrumming kabosy, ambio (claves), military-style rope-tensioned snare and bass drums, and the voices of two of his young grand-daughters. For a taste, thereís a track on Big Red.

© 1999 Andrew Cronshaw

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