As the venerable Strut label makes its way through the Indian Ocean, gathering vintage recordings form 70’s-era Reunion and Mauritius, it only makes sense that they would eventually set their sights on the massive, California-sized Island directly west. Madagascar, due to its having broken off of the Indian subcontinent some 88 million years, is well known for plants and animals not found anywhere else. The same might be said of its music, traditionally played on zither-like instruments, preserved from Indonesian origin, such as the marovany and valiha. Malagasy folk have simply managed to apply their own melodic and rhythmic concepts to anything they touch, be it the accordion, the guitar, or choral vocal music. Considering people have only been roaming this place for 1500 years or so, it simply goes to show what isolation can do for culture.
Not surprisingly, the electric guitar changed much once it was introduced on the island in the late 1950s. Pop bands, mixing indigenous grooves with sounds coming from South African radio soon followed, and this concoction serves as something of a foundation for the sometimes loping other times stuttering tracks that have been so smartly curated here. There’s the psychedelic organ-fueled wollop of Los Matadores’ “Andema Hanatarato,” and the nearly solo electric guitar-owned soukousity of Soymanga’s “Moramora Zoky.”
But the collection’s most outrageous track, as much for the lack of production as the infectious roar of the band, is the absolutely no-fi “BB Gasy” by the Los Pepitos et Leur Ensemble. Here the piano that introduces the theme quickly gives way to percussion and vocals before cranking into a nearly free sax and organ duet that threatens to skitter the track in various directions at once, before the piano returns. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to suggest this might be one of the rawest tracks to ever come from Africa.
Elsewhere, the 4/4 relentlessness of the slicker “Soaliza” from Terak Anosy wraps a spidery guitar curlicue around the kind of harmony vocals that are immediately identified with the island, even if the groove appears to be at least partially derived from Kenyan Benga. In fact, Soukous from the mainland, Sega from Mauritius, Jive from South Africa, and host of other dominant sounds found their way here. Yet, like any place with its own rhythms and melodies, the musicians here forged this stuff into salegy, bawedza, tsentsigat, and tasapika, depending on what part of the island musicians called home.
These tracks, rooted in an emerging international pop music world order, have themselves given way to styles borrowing from Afrobeats, dancehall, and other fleeting rhythms that come in and out of fashion. Yet the musicians featured here, latched onto pop trends while keeping one foot in folk, and made some truly bent records in the process. Check Jeannot Rabeson’s “Jazz Sega” for one example. With so much available and the threads of global influence wiping older identities away while creating new ones, it’s getting more and more difficult to claim “nothing else quite sounds like this;” however, those words are true of this collection, which likely won’t be topped in terms of downright jarring variety. The west is lucky to be able to hear it at all. - Bruce Miller