October 27, 2010
Some readers of Excavated Shellac are undoubtedly familiar with the CDs “The Music of Madagascar” on Yazoo, and “Madagascar: Musique de la côte et des hauts plateaux” on Fremeaux. Both contain a wealth of utterly stunning historic recordings made from ca. 1929 to the late 1930s*. Many of the performances on these CDs contain the unforgettable sound of the valiha, the traditional Malagasy plucked tube zither (and pronounced vahLEE). I highly recommend them both.
What’s also interesting about those CDs – which represent the only full CD-length collections of 78s from Madagascar – is that the bulk of those recordings were made in Paris for the Colonial Exposition of 1931, and not in Madagascar. For these Parisian recordings, some of which were issued by HMV and Pathé, it seems that a clear effort was made to primarily record a varied collection of music featuring the valiha, and similar vocal troupes with fiddle and accordion. The Musée de l’Homme was involved in these recordings as well, cutting their own versions of dozens of songs, while the groups were in town. The primary troupes which recorded in Paris were Hiran’ny Tanoran’ny Ntao Lo (called “Mpililao de Fenoarivo” by Fremeaux, and written as such under the Hiran’ny name on their 78s), Hiran-d Razafimahefa (called “Troupe Razafimahefa” by Fremeaux) and a group called the Choeur Malagache, which is most likely one of the two groups, or a combination of the two, under a generic pseudonym. (Hiran-d Razafimahefa leader, named Razafimahefa, was also a member of Hiran’ny Tanoran’ny Ntao Lo.)
Yet, there were recordings being made in the country of Madagascar at approximately the same time – in 1931, by Odeon, on site. While their catalog was diverse, the Malagasy Odeon series contains numerous examples of a style of music that was quite prevalent by 1931, and which virtually overtook the Malagasy 78rpm market from the 1930s onward. It’s called kalon’ny fahiny, or “songs of the past” – and is a song type deriving from theatrical Malagasy operetta.
Malagasy music varies across the island nation, and has been influenced from so many sources – East Africa, Europe, Indonesia, and even Yemen. Compared to other traditional music from Africa, it is often described as more melodic, or “lyrical,” because of some of these influences. Kalon’ny fahiny songs certainly fit that description. The style is primarily from the high plains of the country, and the theatrical tradition is still practiced today in major cities of Madagascar. Some have said that, during the mid-20th century, 78s themselves were seen as symbols of modernity in Madagascar, and helped to encourage a marginalization of traditional representations on record. However, that’s not to say that the kalon’ny fahiny songs were not unique in their own way. While the style was clearly influenced by western sources, it still retained the unique Malagasy singing (called angola). It featured piano, yet the piano playing was often sharp and staccato, sometimes sounding like an imitation of the valiha.
The 78rpm industry in Madagascar blossomed after those initial Parisian recordings in the 1930s, which, I believe, were marketed mainly to the French. Besides Odeon, the Polyphon label also recorded traditional groups in Madagascar. HMV soon began again, recording on-site, as did Decca – and from what I can tell, those two held a large share of the market and mainly recorded kalon’ny fahiny tunes. Soon, there were independent labels in Madagascar, such as Decco, Decaphone, Tiana, Discomad, Rova, Ossian, Colombe, and others. 78s were still being pressed in the 60s on Madagascar – Discomad, for instance, was launched as late as 1959, in the run-up to the country’s independence.
One of the most popular early theatrical groups was N Tropy Jeannette, or “Troupe Jeannette.” There was also a Mme Jeannette, of the Troupe Jeannette. I am not sure if this is the same Jeannette that appears on this track, though I suspect the chances are high – she is considered a national treasure. N Tropy Jeannette recorded for everyone, even touring France in 1929.
Issue Number: 155043
Matrix Number: MAD 119-2
* Fremeaux’s collection lists 1929-1931 as recording dates, although the discs contain 6 tracks from the Clérisse expedition. Fremeaux states this expedition was in 1930, although I believe this is in error, and the expedition was in fact in 1938 or 1939 (one of my sources states 1939, while two others list 1938 as the date). At any rate, those Clérisse recordings were not issued on shellac until 1946, and apparently only in a run of 50 copies. Yazoo’s collection does not contain exact dates for the tracks, but from what I can tell they were from HMV, Pathé, and Polydor recordings (and possibly more), dating from ca. 1931 to the mid- to late 1930s.