The truth about Madagascar

Issue 

The Truth (Ny Marina)
The Justin Vali Trio
Realworld through Larrikin Entertainment
Reviewed by Norm Dixon

By most accounts, the Justin Vali Trio were the surprise hit of the recent Womadelaide festival. Their new album tells you why. This small acoustic outfit, hailing from Madagascar sums up why many people have become fascinated with "world" music.

It is very exciting to put on a record by a group from Madagascar (or Tibet, or Thailand, or Tuvalu) not knowing what to expect and then be blown away by the beauty of unique and unusual instruments and voices, rhythms and harmonies that you never knew existed.

Accustomed as we are to production-line pop and its corporate formula-driven, profit-guided pointlessness, the fresh and vibrant sounds originating in societies where music is still part of the social fabric can be astounding.

To "discover" that musics and instruments of the majority of the people of the world may have predated — and deeply influenced — those of Europeans, can encourage tolerance and respect for other societies and cultures. It undermines the Eurocentric cultural elitism that contributes to racism. Mapping how peoples have culturally influenced each other through history underlines that we are all one race. We share a single planet; our fates are interconnected.

At first listening, the Justin Vali Trio's music reminds you of the dance music of Chile or Ecuador blended with beats clearly originating in Africa, combined with an unmistakable hint of south-east Asia. In one album, you get a taste of the brilliant cultural soup that has evolved on the far edge of the Indian Ocean, on Africa's doorstep. Madagascar is where the cultures of Asia and Africa meet, and the Justin Vali Trio's impulsive music is the proof.

About 2000 years ago, Malay, Indonesian and perhaps even Polynesian navigators made long voyages hugging the coasts of the Indian Ocean until they landed on the then-uninhabited island of Madagascar, 400 kilometres from the coast of modern day Mozambique, and settled there. Evidence suggests these voyages continued until the fifth century. People from the African mainland and Arab traders began arriving around the seventh century.

The Portuguese, in search of gold, ivory and spices, sacked the island's ports in the north at the start of the 1500s. Around this time too, European and Arab traders brought over enslaved Africans to work, who mixed with the island's earlier inhabitants. Throughout the 16th century, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the French competed to colonise the island. In the end the French won out, and ruled Madagascar until 1960, brutally putting down at least four separate uprisings.

The heart and soul of the music of Madagascar is the valiha, a long bamboo tube with strings attached to it lengthwise. They come in all sizes. Justin Vali is a virtuoso on this beautiful instrument. The sound it produces is something like a cross between the African thumb piano and a harpsichord, and in some cases as pure as a harp. It can be as insistent as the electric guitars of a Zimbabwean township band or as lilting as a mandolin solo. The valiha is a traditional Madagascan instrument which musicologists have traced to similar instruments in Indonesia.

With a range of valihas, guitars, the kabossy — a square six-stringed guitar-like instrument — and traditional Malagasy maracas, Justin Rakotondrasoa (Vali), Doudou (Romeo Tovoarimino) and Clemrass (Clement Randrianantoandra), create music that should not be left to people of Madagascar alone to enjoy.

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