The nation of Madagascar lies off the east coast of southern Africa and at the far west end of the Indian Ocean, a geographical location that is important to note in understanding Malagasy culture. Throughout its spatial history, the islands of modern Madagascar have housed settlements of Austronesian and Bantu groups alike, rooting the Malagasy people in Indonesia, India, Mozambique, and their semi-isolated land.
Strut Records compilation Alefa Madagascar! showcases a range of the nation’s popular music styles from 1974 to 1984. In doing so, Strut puts on brilliant display a diverse lineage of cultural flows impacting the island at the time and contributing to distinctly local sonic profiles; salegy music from the northwestern coast and soukous from the Congo are touted in the subtitle Salegy, Soukous and Soul. While those are all major points on Alefa‘s spectrum, though, they only scratch the surface of what is to be found.
When Jean Kely kicks off the album with “Andosy Mora”, he does so with a playful, escalating introduction on Hammond organ, leading into a dance-ready frenzy. The organ is prominent throughout, rollicking on Los Matadores’ “Andeha Hanarato” and jubilant on Roger Georges’ “Mama”. Sounding like South African township jazz are Los Pépitos et Leur Ensemble on “B.B. Gasy”, where organ provides background texture as the group transitions from smooth piano to a bold mix of chorus and percussion.
As elsewhere in Africa and around the world, the early 1970s saw protests throughout a newly independent Madagascar, layered with issues of foreign economic power, and ethnic inequities. From student- and farmer-led protests came the band Mahaleo, whose track “Izahay Mpamita” is a particular standout on Alefa. With its acoustic blend of cool guitars and folk flutes, it strikes an unexpectedly earthy chord – and it’s interesting to note that the group is still relatively active in Madagascar.
In other tracks, dizzying funk reigns just as it did elsewhere in 1970s sub-Saharan Africa. “Ngôma Hoe” by Papa James and “Ôdy Ôdy” by Saka Dit the King are two of this compilation’s most stellar examples. Kaiamba Orchestra’s “Tokatoka” bears a resemblance to Mauritian sega, with quick percussion and a seafaring lightness. Jeannot Rabeson alludes more directly to the same genre in similarly light-handed “Jazz Sega”, which brings more hefty brass into the equation. Atrefy Andriana closes the album with call-and-response vocals in “Zaka Tiako Mamolaka Keriko”, a track densely packed with vocal melodies and resonant percussion that ends the double LP set on solid footing.
For Strut, a label that has long specialized to some extent in music from Africa and its diaspora, Alefa Madagascar! is both a perfect fit with its existing catalog and something very new. Compilations of Malagasy popular music are few and far between in the globally-focused music market in general, and this is bound to appeal to internationally-oriented vinyl collectors in particular. The palette here is one with incomparable breadth, and those who partake in it can only hope for more to come to deepen a sense of Malagasy musical history on future releases.