The Malagasy Underground
A great musician passed through New York this spring but, as with many artists in this spoiled city, he didn’t draw as much attention as he deserved. Most New Yorkers have never heard of Mika, a guitarist popular in Madagascar, but a small community of Malagasy locals eagerly awaited his arrival. They gathered in a Corona, Queens basement for a private show.
Before the music began, people had questions. Mika smiled widely, opening himself to the audience, a true representative of his country. Many of the thirty or so present hadn’t been back to Madagascar in years, so they asked Mika, perched on a stool, guitar by his side, for the latest news. Did he have hope for the future of the country? Yes, always. Everybody seemed to have a phone or video camera running.
The basement felt like an old speakeasy with a few modern flourishes. Little American and Malagasy flags rested atop a fridge in the corner. Couches surrounded the makeshift stage; in the back, glass high-top tables sat under a strobe light, refracting bright colors across the room. After a few songs, the furniture was pushed aside for casual dancing.
Mika fuses Malagasy folk with indie rock—his dreads and his mellow vibe might bring to mind the Wailers, but his tight guitar hooks sound more like the Shins. Except for a couple of men who’d been in the U.S. too long, everyone sang along to hits like “Ampindramo ahy,” a simple ballad in which he begs to “borrow” a woman’s love, or at least an arm to rest on. The audience relaxed, briefly insulated from American ignorance. In this basement speakeasy, no one confused their home country for an animated film from DreamWorks.
Playing bass alongside Mika was not his usual bandmate, Davis, who couldn’t make the trip from Madagascar, but another young Malagasy man with long dreads, David Rajaonary, who’s been in the States since 2000. It’s David who taught Mino Razafimpamonjy about music, and it’s Mino who turned the basement of his house in Corona into a speakeasy, creating a sort of cultural microwave, where, for those hungry for a reminder of home, traditions can be reheated on demand.
When Mino arrived in America in early 2009, the day after a coup d’état in Madagascar, he didn’t know a single person here. He slept at JFK the first night, then went to the Malagasy consulate, looking for friends. They helped him find a basement apartment in Jamaica Heights. It was a horrible place, infested with bed bugs and cockroaches, but it’s where Mino met David, the bassist, who moved in from New Jersey. Mino got a job as a dishwasher. The dishwashing was okay, but he hated cleaning the bathrooms. Saturday nights were the worst. He’d sing Lionel Richie’s “Easy Like Sunday Morning” to get through it.
At home, David taught him about music. In Madagascar, people respect the jack-of-all-trades, in life and in music. “We don’t learn one instrument, we learn all the instruments,” Mino says. “That’s the Malagasy style.”
But the instrument dearest to Mino was a Malagasy icon, a bamboo zither called the valiha that he’d always wanted to learn as a kid in Madagascar. (He eventually named the speakeasy NY Valiha. The “NY” has double meaning, since “ny” is Malagasy for “the”). A valiha has twenty or so strings attached up a tube of bamboo about two to four feet long, and the instrument is played seated, with the tube tucked between the legs, or between the arm and rib cage. Traditionally, the strings are themselves made from bamboo fibers, but most craftsmen now use bicycle brake wire or, better yet, steel guitar strings.
The originalbamboo zither instruments came from Indonesia, like many of the people who settled Madagascar 1000 to 2000 years ago—relatively recently. When Europeans arrived 500 years ago, they were surprised to notice similarities between the Malagasy language and those spoken on Borneo, Java, and Sumatra. Language and culture had, as it turned out, migrated across the vast Indian Ocean on sailing vessels. The early Indonesians knew how to take advantage of the trade winds.
Mino clearly still has the winds at his back—he wouldn’t be here otherwise. Only with a great many resources, or a lot of gumption, can someone migrate from Madagascar. The island, home to thirty million people, is remarkably isolated.
Madagascar was a French colony, and some educated Malagasy speak French; most who emigrate go to nearby French-speaking islands, to Quebec, or to France itself. Others, resentful of the way the French treat people from their former colonies, wouldn’t hop a flight to Paris even if they had the means. “America is closer to what Malagasy people are looking for,” explains Bruno Razafindrakoto, a leader among the local Malagasy. “Here, if you are willing to struggle to improve your life, you can do it.”
But there are barriers to getting to the U.S., not least the English language, which few Malagasy speak. Mino claims that Malagasy people form the smallest immigrant community in America.
Their shared culture keeps them close. Mino and Bruno both grew up in the capital, Antananarivo, in the country’s central highlands, home to the historically dominant Merina tribe; they didn’t know each other there, but they became fast friends in New York, despite differences in age. Mino, young and eager, dresses in elite Merina fashion, with a scarf of thick Malagasy silk (which looks like cotton) draped carefully to his waist. His sharp features and shiny waves of Indonesian hair give him the look of a young politician. Bruno jokes that he looks like Andry Rajoelina, the dapper ex-president of Madagascar.
But despite his dress and his well-stocked bar, it’s taken time for Mino to settle into American life and establish himself as a musician. When David was teaching him to play the valiha, it was trial by fire. David’s bands played in bars around New York City, and he would insist that Mino play at the shows. At first, Mino’s fingers would tremble with nerves. He was more of a businessman in Madagascar than a musician. His main familiarity with the valiha was selling it to tourists, not playing it. But here, he played and played until he developed calluses on his fingertips. David taught him the sounds, and the way to play with a band, and Bruno taught him to read music. When his ear improved, and his hands steadied, Bruno invited him to join the Yellow Black and White Project, a multiethnic jazz quintet led by Yoshiki Miura, a Brooklyn-based guitarist and Berklee College of Music graduate. The YBW Project is just what the name suggests: an attempt to promote multiculturalism and togetherness through music. The band plays gigs at places like Silvana, a hip bistro in South Harlem.
Traditional Malagasy music goes well with jazz because it’s based on improvisation. Many of even the most seasoned musicians in Madagascar can’t read music. “They don’t know exactly what’s ‘do’ and what’s ‘re’,” says Mino. Instead, they are guided by lova-tsofina: the heritage of the ear. The sounds have a fluidity that can’t be defined by European standards, and aren’t meant to be heard in isolation, anyway—Malagasy music, often full of clapping, is designed to accompany dancing at cultural events like weddings, circumcisions, and famadihana, in which buried ancestors are exhumed and rewrapped in shrouds of fresh silk.
Back in Madagascar, Mino’s friends and family assume life in New York is easy. “My son is overseas,” his mom half-jokingly sings into the phone, as if this means everything. It’s difficult for him to explain otherwise. “They think you just take money from a tree over here,” he says, clasping his fingers together on a fake branch of money in the air. Still, he feels compelled to send whatever he has. His brother is into music production, so he’s sent him microphones, hard drives, even an iPad.
These days, Mino works the night shift at a luxury hotel in Manhattan, but he has bigger ambitions. He and Bruno would like to establish bars like NY Valiha all over the U.S., filled with great music of all kinds. They’d like to travel across the country doing music and dancing exhibitions, as a way of introducing Malagasy culture to Americans. And they’d like to do for the valiha what early 20th-century musicians and entrepreneurs did for the ukulele, a once-obscure Portuguese-Hawaiian guitar that by the 1920s was considered bona fide American, and is now a symbol of the Jazz Age.
There’s no bamboo in New York, but they plan to make valiha out of other materials. They have a black PVC pipe picked out for the first experiment. One day, they hope, you might hear the instrument in a symphony or a hip-hop remix.
After Mika left town, a few Malagasy locals gathered at NY Valiha to practice with another musician who’d just arrived from Madagascar, Fanja Andriamanantena, since the 1960s a revered jazz composer in Antananarivo. It turns out she actually wrote a few of Mika & Davis’s slower songs, including “Ampindramo ahy.” After she rehearsed with David’s band, the same backup group that played with Mika, we went upstairs into Mino’s living area, a cozy cube full of laptops and music equipment. A piano tucked beside the couch was covered with straw raffia hats and other trinkets from Madagascar.
Mino gestured at David and Bruno, by then bent over bowls of rice, the Malagasy staple food. “Thanks be to them,” he said, tweaking an English expression he’d heard at church, “when I needed help, when I didn’t have a job, they helped me get through. They are family. More than family.”
Everyone in the room piped up in agreement. That’s the Malagasy mentality, they said. The music is just a way to bring everyone together.
“Look at the things I get to see here,” Mino went on, pointing deferentially at Fanja, the aging star. “I would never have met her in Madagascar.”
“Mozika mahavita azy [It’s music that makes that happen],” she said, understanding Mino’s English but replying in Malagasy.
The conversation turned to the valiha tenany mounted on the wall, the traditional kind with fibers from the heart of bamboo as strings. Mino and Bruno stood up to show me the finer points of craftsmanship. This was a collector’s item, almost too precious to play.
Suddenly, we heard a high note from the piano, and the men went silent. Mino turned toward Fanja and cupped his hands together like a video camera, sticking out his bottom lip as if to cry: he couldn’t believe no one was recording this. “She’s the best, just the best,” he whispered. As Fanja’s voice rang out, the 7 train went by and swallowed it up, as if to say, she ain’t nothing, here.