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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Troubadour of Madagascar

by David Hsieh

Madagascar Slim. Photo: Jason Dickinson
Malagasy blues singer and guitarist Madagascar Slim has not played much in the US, but he is known in Canada, where his Malagasy-style blues has earned him three Juno (Canada’s Grammy) awards since 2000. He will perform at this year’s DanceAfrica opening celebration on May 18 at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House. Although he was sent to Canada in his late teens with the expectation that he would become an accountant, the B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix-worshipping teen was never happier when playing his guitar. Madagascar Slim eventually emerged and started to play in various clubs and venues. But as fate would have it, Canada not only gave him the chance to become a professional musician, it also helped him recover his musical roots. As he tells it:
This is how it happened. One day my uncle called me and said excitedly, “Hey Ben, there is a Malagasy band coming to Toronto and they're gonna be at Harbourfront this weekend; let's go check it out!” Well if there was anybody hungrier than me for Malagasy things at that time it had to be my uncle. We went and it was a shock. The band Tarika spearheaded by Hanitra Rasoanaivo was performing and we just sat there stunned! They were playing these traditional Malagasy instruments such as the Valiha, Jejy Voatavo, and marovany and yet they were just as loud and as good! I was looking at my uncle and tears were flowing down his cheeks. I was pretty choked up myself too. You see, I was so immersed into the blues and guitar dueling in just about all the venues here in Toronto that I forgot all the pent-up Malagasy music in me. Song after song Tarika just seems to be pulling right out of my very soul. After the show I went to talk to Hanitra and she introduced me to Derek Andrews, the artistic director of Harbourfront Center at that time. He asked me if I play Malagasy music so I invited him to my next gig and promised him to do a number or two. I guess he liked for he became my friend and manager after that.
Slim was so taken by this recovery that he even went back to Madagascar to study valiha, seen in this documentary. Slim describes a valiha:
Valiha is a bamboo zither with strings all around it. You pluck it the way you do a harp and it produces a very delicate and tiny sound. I was told that it might have its origin in Indonesia where they have a similar instrument called Vadia. On one trip to Madagascar I took some lessons from the late Valiha master Sylvestre Randafison.
This year, in order to source talent, the peripatetic DanceAfrica team went to Madagascar, an island republican just off the African mainland. Slim will be sharing the stage with Malagasy music and dance star Mariette Rasoarinala and her troupe Groupe Bakomanga. Apart from the popularity of the animated films of the same title, Madagascar is not a place we hear about often. Because of its separation from the continent, Madagascar has had its own distinct topography, flora and fauna, history, and tradition. But it also assimilated the many cultures that have come to the island over the centuries: African, Asian, French. Musically, Slim says it’s the rhythm that separates Malagasy music from the others:
What makes the Malagasy music different is that it follows the cadence of the language. For instance, the 6/8 Malagasy style sounds like this: “ity ny parakin’ity,” which means “here is you chewing tobacco.” If you loop that phrase it will give you one Malagasy groove. I could emulate a snare, tom tom, and a bass drum with my mouth and that’s what a Westerner would hear but for a Malagasy person, what I say sounds like a very dirty and obscene phrase because the rhythm follow the language! In another band I play with called the African Guitar Summit, they’ve noticed the same thing and these are guys from different parts of Africa. Melody-wise, depending on which part of the island we’re talking about, it can be simple or sometimes with some influences from the French or English colonization era.
Slim’s own music reveals those complex influences. But he said the essence remains from Madagascar.

Malagasy music is my first love. Even before Hendrix, B.B. King, Freddie King, Santana, Deep Purple etc., the two LPs playing on my turntable in Madagascar were Ny Antsaly (the most well-know traditional group at that time) and Harry Belafonte. But it was not cool for the youth at that time to listen to traditional music so I hid my love for it but even before the rock and blues I cut my musical teeth on the salegy of Freddy Ranarison. I now compose mostly in Malagasy with English and French interspersed in there now and then. I guess it’s because despite being away for so long from the island my body and soul have remained totally and unequivocally Malagasy.
Like many of the countries DanceAfrica has tapped, Madagascar is full of music everywhere, just not necessarily in concert halls and stadium. On its music scene, Slim says:
During my passage there I was invited to different places, bars, or restaurants to jam with the locals. I met Teta, a phenomenal guitar player in one of them. As far as festivals, the one I keep hearing about is the Madajazzcar which brings in some serious internationally acclaimed performers but I don’t go visit there often enough to talk about the global music scene. On the other hand I am aware of a resurgence of the traditional music which is boosted by the Internet, including YouTube.

DanceAfrica 2014: Celebrating Africa’s Bantaba starts on May 17 with a weekend of opening festivities and continues May 23 through 26 with dance, music, film, art, and the popular bazaar.

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