Category: Madagascar

Association Folklorique de la Côte Est – Tia Ambady


Hello, hello – it’s been a while. The collecting hasn’t stopped and has continued apace, but I’ve been concentrating on some upcoming releases which I hope can see the light of day soon. That, coupled with a reticence to repeat myself endlessly across numerous posts, created a little delay. But, we are back. This one is still hot from the hands of the postal service. Maybe it’s still fresh to me. It’s back to the music of Madagascar after many years, for a style that barely made it to disc during the 78rpm era: accordion-based dance music.

The first substantial, commercial recordings of Malagasy music were made by the French divisions of the Columbia and Odeon labels, on site, in 1930. The Columbia session resulted in over 160 records. Primarily, Columbia featured groups accompanied by piano or harmonium, often examples of Malagasy operetta known as kalon’ny fahiny. There were also some performances with the classic valiha tube zither, mandolin, guitar, and sodina, the local flute. These records weren’t just for locals in Madagascar – they were also for the French who might be interested in “exotic” music of the colonies. “[In Madagascar] reigns a delightful atmosphere of musical fragrances, songs with languid and fresh melodies; all a sensuous and endearing poetry,” claimed the Columbia catalog that advertised those discs, which also deliberately noted how essential it is to the listening experience that the Malagasy music they recorded was substantially influenced by its connection to Europe. It could be that this was the reason for the inclusion of all the piano/harmonium music – however, kalon’ny fahiny music was extremely popular in Madagascar at that time. While many examples had an “uptown” operatic feel to it, much of it is inescapably in keeping with the melodies of Malagasy folk music, and the incredible nasal, vibrating soprano vocals.

It’s unclear if Odeon was recording at the same time, immediately before, or immediately after Columbia. They, too, issued a generous 125 records, at least. And again, their session yielded a large amount of music by elite theatrical troupes accompanied by piano (though violin, guitar, mandolin, and accordion performers also were recorded), their bandleaders finely coiffed and dressed in suits in their catalog. Odeon’s exclusive representative on the island was a massive distribution company founded in Réunion at the turn of the 20th century, Cie Marseillaise de Madagascar, but again, these discs were also distributed in France to intrigued locals. However, as historian Paul Vernon has pointed out, the initial pressing for these discs in this nascent market was scant: about 50-100 copies each. While they appear to have been occasionally re-pressed, virtually all of them are rare.

Today, if anyone at all is familiar with early Malagasy music, it’s due to an incredible selection of recordings made in 1931 in Paris, during the massive, years-in-the-making Paris Colonial Exposition, where Malagasy musicians (among many others) traveled to perform, staying for months. Most all of these discs have been compiled on influential and highly recommended CDs, namely The Music of Madagascar on Yazoo, and Madagascar: Musiques de la côte et des hauts plateaux on Fremeaux. They prominently featured stunning choirs accompanied by the valiha, whereas most all the several hundred Odeons and Columbias that had been released just prior, did not. The performances with valiha (pronounced “valee”), the tube zither that, when played, sounds like rain on a quiet lake, could have been out of fashion by 1931, perhaps increasing their importance in hindsight. During the Exposition, the French office of HMV issued twelve records’ worth of songs by the visiting musicians; Polydor also issued twelve discs, and Pathé issued seven. Some of the same tracks appear to have been recorded by both companies. Some of the Pathé/Polydor discs were re-pressed in limited amounts by the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, and some of the Polydor tracks were re-pressed after World War II, after the Philips label had the rights to the French Polydor/Polyphon material.

As beautiful as these recordings are, one style that was not featured was accordion-driven music for dance, a style that crops up regularly on more contemporary ethnographic LPs and CDs from Madagascar. A few 78s managed to squeak out, however. I reissued a side from the obscure Colombe label on Opika Pende, one of a cluster of at least three discs of field recordings featuring accordion shunted between piano and operatic releases, issued in the early 50s. And this piece, from the Discomad label, ca. 1959-60.

While the performer’s name might make this look like an ethnographic recording, it’s not – the name of band/group performing here is actually “Association Folklorique de la Côte Est,” and its musical directors were François Leboto and Patrice Petera. It’s a song of the Betsimisaraka, the second largest ethnic group in Madagascar who are generally concentrated along the east coast. “Betsimisaraka” has been translated to “The Many Who Will Not Be Sundered,” “The Many Inseparables,” and perhaps the most contemporary-sounding, “Those Who Are Many and United,” the name stemming from the early 18th century when several local clans were joined. I’m not sure if this is basesa music of the Betsimisaraka, which is a kind of ceremonial dance music with accordion that is played during tromba. Tromba is a loose term for rituals having to do with spirit possession, but that can feature dancing, music, and celebrating. Either way, it’s rare to find performances this alive, with shouts and hollers, and not have them be ethnographic and instead commercial releases. This and the Colombe discs are the only 78s I know that feature this style of music.

The label Discomad was founded in Antananarivo ca. 1959-60 by a man named Raoul de Comarmond (1908-1993). Born in Mauritius, Comarmond started working with record companies in Madagascar as early as 1937 when he helped to organize a Polydor recording session. By the early 1950s, he was recording for the French branch of Decca, his discs branded with “R. de Comarmond” on them. His business, Comarmond et Cie, a distribution company, was located on Avenue de l’Independence (then “Avenue de 18 Juin”). He founded a pressing plant to produce his new discs in 1960, as well as Discomad’s sister labels, Decco and Decophone. All told, he issued approximately 350 78s, certainly the the most successful Malagasy label outside of the major European concerns. Discomad was issuing 45s by 1962, though I am unsure what the crossover was between formats. For example, the Association Folklorique de la Côte Est issued at least two 45rpm EPs on Discomad, yet this piece does not appear on either. It could be this was its only issue. In any case, Discomad continued for decades, run by Comarmond’s son, Jean-François, and then his grandson, Stephane.

Association Folklorique de la Côte Est – Tia Ambady

Label: Discomad
Issue Number: 59.536
Matrix Number: COM 1175

Thanks to Thomas Henry and the works of Paul Vernon!

Jeannette, Hélène, and Rasamy Guitare – Mpanjakan’ny Ny Lisy

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 in 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.” Their lead singer was the very same Jeannette on this recording.  She is considered a national treasure. N Tropy Jeannette recorded for everyone, even touring France in 1929.

Jeannette, Hélène, and Rasamy Guitare – Mpanjakan’ny Ny Lisy

Technical Notes
Label: Decca
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.