Reviving Malagasy's fading soundBy RIVONALA RAZAFISON in Antananarivo | Tuesday, February 1 2011 at 11:42
If there is a cultural icon of the Malagasy, it has to be Valiha. The traditional instrument made of hollow bamboo and some strings is usually plucked to produce the distinct sound featured in the film Like a God When He Plays. No wonder it is the country's national instrument, just like Kora is to some West African countries.
To keep the sounds alive, a group of Malagasy musicians gathered at the Alliance Française in Antananarivo where the sound met a contemporary feel to produce a memorable concert. According to the event organisers, the evening performance was aimed at reviving the national pride in valiha (cithara).
“Valiha has symbolised national unity. In the past, it created social harmony, preached great wisdom and communicated secret messages,” says Doné Andriambaliha, chair of the Traditional Institute of Valiha arts. The cultural body pushing for the instrument's popularity is made up of thirty professional valiha players from different regions and ethnic groups of Madagascar.
According to historians, Valiha has been played in Madagascar since the 5th century and is usually accompanied by special costumes which are considered the legitimate wives of the stringed instrument that comes in different shapes and sounds.
Philippe Andrianantoanina, a traditionalist musician, says that there are six variants of valiha in the African island that are very different from those found in Asian countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Java, Makassar -- where, historically speaking, earlier immigrants settling the island were from. “Obviously, remote travellers brought with them traditional tools but they invented their own models once they arrived here," says the scholar.
Even though the instrument has played a major role in the country's social lives, the impact of colonisation changed the way it related with it's fans. “Colonial practices favoured foreign culture,” notes Andriambaliha on the impact of the French administration in Madagascar on the instrument today.
For years, foreign culture dominated the Malagasy life after the Gallieni (old French resident governor) policy overturning the Malagasy culture. The governor advised TV and radio stations to ignore traditional music. That way, the instrument Valiha and other traditional Malagasy instruments were silenced.
But it was to re-emerge around the mid-70s. Today, visitors to the island increasingly enjoy a dose of valiha sounds which they find exotic, creating a lucrative business around it- both at home and abroad.
And all is not plain traditional; there is some modernity to flavour the traditional beat.
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