Madagascar: Land of the Betsimisaraka

COMPOSERS: Various
LABELS: Auvidis Unesco Collection
PERFORMER: Various performers
CATALOGUE NO: D 8275

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When it comes to dissolving the difference between performers and spectators, African country people know the score. Music may be the province of experts, but it can hardly exist without a context. The latest of Auvidis’s from-the-field releases focuses on one ethnic group from Madagascar, whose songs are about awkward relationships involving stepchildren or in-laws or very young brides, full of social comment and rude jokes.

Upbeat and insistent, they are sung to flutes or pulsing percussion, with occasional accordion, and share space with simple but wittily inflected pieces for earth-bow (actually a plucked string). The disc culminates in a possession ritual, summoning six spirits with insistent calls to the accompaniment of a zither. Nothing here is dressed up for the studio, but inevitably it is shaped to the demands of the medium. It does not do to get too romantic about village life. Every place has its comings and goings from the cities.

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One creative outcome of them features in another Madagascar CD, led by Eusèbe Jaojoby, which shows the urban side of the coin. Hear it after the village music and it still sounds rooted. Similar pulse, similar chorusing voices, but the accordion has become a keyboard and the strings are guitar and bass. Life circumstances move on. Jaojoby’s songs are about love, death and recovery, leaving home and returning, the old heartaches in new settings.