Live: Wake Up Madagascar Brings Serious Salegy To Bleecker Street


Jaojoby, Saramba, Razia Said, and Charles Kely
Le Poisson Rouge
Friday, July 20

Better than: “We Are the World”

“I know there’ve been some complaints about the lack of seating,” said MC Jamie Ambler as he primed the pump for Wake Up Madagascar, a traveling troupe of musicians raising awareness about the island nation’s environmental crisis. “But don’t worry,” he continued, “because we’re going to take you to heaven!” If your idea of paradise was a rare American appearance by the reigning king of salegy, Madagascar’s most popular style, paradise awaited you. Jaojoby’s hour-long set was a testament to the powerful juju embodied in the driving tikita-tikita rhythm that originated in the country’s northwestern corner.

Before Jaojoby hit the stage, though, singer-songwriters Charles Kely and Razia Said (the latter of whom conceived and bankrolled this production) displayed takes on Madagascar music that drew from both within and without the country. Kely’s fleet-fingered guitar style blends the piano-derived ba gasy style of Madagascar’s highlands with classical technique, jazz syncopation, and progressive-rock time shifts. He played the nostalgia card early, singing “Fahatsiarovana” (“A Souvenir”) in a gentle falsetto before being joined by singers Claudine Zafinera and Roseliane Jaojoby—the bandleader’s wife and daughter, respectively.

Although she now lives in Harlem, Razia Said’s deep concern for her homeland’s precarious environmental state has inspired songs like “Akory,” which laments the increasing power of cyclones no longer slowed by Madagascar’s diminishing rainforests. Congolese beats infected “Yoyoyo,” while the remorseful “Ny Alantsika” (“Nature’s Lament”) hinted at French chanson. Like Kely, she added a cosmopolitan element to Madagascan tradition, suggesting a refusal to allow the country to succumb to the corruption and environmental piracy that has historically plagued so many other African nations.

Or maybe that’s completely wrong. What if the old ways were best, and modernization, capitalism, and simple greed sparked the current crisis? In his traditional garb, singer Eusèbe Jaojoby suggested yet another rapprochement of old and new. Surrounded by his wife, daughter, and two guitarist sons, Jaojoby came off like a benevolent chief emitting vibrations positive enough to ward off even the most rapacious agriculture industrialists and cattle grazers—or so we might hope. A journalist while waiting for his career to take off, Jaojoby laid a solid plank in his potential platform with “Prezida” (“President”) from his excellent Mila Anao. “If I were president,” he sang in Malagasy, “I would send soldiers to fight the real enemies of my people: bush fire, drought, deforestation.”

Salegy is a type of high-energy trance music with room for virtuosity. Lead guitarist Elie Lucas Jaojoby was no slouch, but he had to get out of the way for Raledy Vink Bamouaz Tafara, who powered through one hyper-rhythmic solo after another on a Martin acoustic during the salegy instrumental breakdowns known as folaka, i.e. “broken.” Bassist Jackson Jaojoby, meanwhile, both ornamented and drove the show in sync with drummer Augustin Radaonandrasana’s deceptively simple 6/8 patterns. (His secret, according to a drummer pal who was intently comparing Radaonandrasana’s “authentic” salegy pattern to his own, is that there is no secret.)

Jaojoby hit the stage following a short yet brilliant set by Claudine Zafinera, AKA Saramba, whose painted face, jewelry, and feinting dance moves demonstrated the bill’s deepest roots of all. One of her intense salegy selections, “Niova” (“Change for the Worse”), cites mankind’s increasing disrespect for nature and the old ways. “They even sell the bones of dead people!” she wailed in Malagasy. Not even the all-cast bilingual anthem “Wake Up Madagascar” that arrived near the end of this long-distance alarm system could compete with that indictment.

Critical bias: My Madagascar musical mentor Henry Kaiser’s 1992 album A World Out of Time, recorded in-country with David Lindley and several great Madagascan musicians, still provides arguably the best introduction to the former French colony’s cultural treasures.

Random notebook dump: It’s official: iPads are the new cell phones, at least in terms of annoying audience appliances.

Jaojoby set list:
Tsy Akeo
Mila Anao
Allo Tsika Nde Hisoma
Manana Anao (Eliane)
Tsy Zanaka Mpanarivo
Come On

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