Mixed-Up Island Style

By Valentine Cascarino, Mail and Guardian (Johannesburg), 9 March 2001

Johannesburg—Madagascar may be rated one of the poorest countries, but musically it's unarguably one of the richest. Salegy (pronounced Sa-leg), the new Madagascan rhythm currently sweeping the storm, is helping the red island address some of its socio-political issues.

This rhythm could be compared to Jamaican reggae, which was born out of a list of adverse conditions: poverty, misery, protest, resentment and perseverance. Salegy is a rich combination of different international rhythms produced for local consumption, a sort of therapy for taxi drivers and their passengers ó and farmers as well.

The powerful rhythms serving as the backbone of salegy are indigenously known as tuska, the fast beat originating from the south of the island, and bassessa, the slow beat originating from the east. The man who created salegy, and who is carrying it to all parts of the world, is Eusebe Jaojoby, as famous in his native Madagascar as Miriam Makeba is here at home. Jaojoby describes his own music as, the powerful voices of the shepherds who cry to be heard in the depths of the valleys, with guitars rich like Rakotozafy's playing of the valiha and keyboards imitating the accordion of the villages.

Jaojoby will perform in South Africa and Botswana for the first time as part of this year's celebration of la Journee mondiale de la Francophonie (International Francophone Day). According to Jean Bourdin, director of the Alliance Francaise in Pretoria, Jaojoby's music comes out of an extraordinary evolution and he has left an indelible mark all over Europe, North America and the tiny islands around Madagascar.

In praise of Jaojoby, Bourdin attests that, in a country like Madagascar, an artist has to work triple as hard as any of his counterparts in the world, in order to break through. Indeed the king of salegy began life as the son of a poverty-stricken farmer and later became a broadcast journalist before establishing himself in the world of music.

Born in Amboangibe in Madagascar, Jaojoby began his singing career as a vocalist for a church choir. At 15 he won a radio singing competition and soon began receiving invitations to perform at nightclubs and village festivals, singing mostly for foreign sailors. In 1975 he formed an outfit known as The Players, managed by a Chinese merchant. After the group split four years later he decided to go solo, building on the experience he had already gained in the field. In a creative twist he created his fusion of R&B, rock'n'roll and indigenous rhythms into salegy ó named after his ancestors, the Sakalava tribe who first occupied the island.

The acute poverty of Madagascar is reflected in the artist's struggle to record his music. Having been in the business for 30 years, Jaojoby has released just three albums, with the second, Velonom, bringing him the recognition he deserved. His third offering, E Tiako, was originally released in 1998 and enjoyed the luxury of being recorded in a technically advanced environment in France,the powerful Indigo/Label Bleu record company.

This month Gallo begins distributing the album, a bonus to local fans of the world-music scene.

As far as the lyrics of Jaojoby's 1998 offering go it tells the same old stories of life on the island, of love amidst the daily grind to overcome poverty and Madagascar's isolation from the rest of the world.

Despite his growing fame across the globe, Jaojoby says the main reason he favours Malagasy rhythms over other contemporary musical styles is the fear of cutting himself off from his roots. As Madagascar's best-known musician he also understands the need to use his art to address his country's plight. In the words of Bourdin: Jaojoby is a true music ambassador.