Malagasy musician revives tradition

When Rajery picks up his valiha, a long zither-like string instrument made of bamboo, he aims to teach the audience as much about the difficulties of getting dinner on the table in Madagascar as he wants to entertain them.

“I’m a teacher and an educator. It’s our role as musicians to have people understand what’s wrong, and what’s right, and what’s good,” he said.

It’s wrong, for instance, that cyclones regularly pound the northern part of the Indian Ocean nation, drenching the countryside, while a persistent drought makes growing food nearly impossible in the south.”

Thus the a cappella Vonjeo—his last album is an equal balance between instrumentals and songs with words—is simultaneously a call for help and an expression of hope that the fate of his country will soon change.

“I call upon God almighty to protect the country and to give the wisdom to the leaders to manage Madagascar better. It’s my way to ask that the people find a way to get out of their endless poverty, an SOS through song,” he said at the annual Musiques Metisses world music festival in this southwestern French town.

“Through music you can reach so many people,” the perpetually smiling musician said after a concert with his tightly-knit five-man group, among them a bassist, guitarist and percussionist.

His energetic playing certainly moved thousands of African music enthusiasts, who would have cheered him back on stage for a second encore if the roadies had not already been hovering in the wings readying for the next performer.

Rajery was 11 months old when he lost his right hand to a mysterious disease, after he was fed a piece of poisoned meat.
Days later, his fingers shriveled up and fell off.

But having only a stump on one arm did not keep him away from the valiha, a one metre long hollow piece of wood with anywhere from 17 to 21 strings, comparable in sound to the west African kora or the harp.

He was 15 before he could play more than one note, and his enthusiasm and virtuosity revived interest in the valiha, which had seemed destined for folklore museums—as well as the occasional tourist who took one home as a souvenir—rather than the clubs of the Malagasy capital Antananarivo or the world music festival circuit.

An unknown outside of Madagascar, Rajery came to Musiques Metisses in 1996, a performance which festival director Christian Mousset remembered as the highlight of that year’s concerts.

Three years later, the French record company Indigo, then headed by Mousset, released his first album, the largely instrumental Dorotanety (bush fire), followed in late 2001 by the more refined Fanamby (the challenge).

Today, Rajery works hard to keep the valiha and other traditional instruments going strong beyond the stage—he is a teacher through and through.

His Akombaliha association (echo of the valiha) has opened four schools so far in Madagascar, two in the capital and two in the countryside. There, poor five- to 14-year-old kids learn how to play the valiha, the Malagasy guitar the kabosy, or dabble for the first time with singing.

“I created a school so that I can give young people opportunities to discover other things, to get chances in life,” he said.

Donations, the United Nations and several non-governmental organisations fund the schools, while he plows most of his royalties into the education project.

His label may have crowned him the “Prince of the Valiha,” but Rajery remains down to earth about such superlatives.

“All I know is that I know how to make this instrument sing. I don’t care if people call me prince of the valiha or king of the valiha, all I know is I love music, and I love playing for people.

That’s all.” - Sapa-AFP

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