You may remember the joyous sounds of the Children of Bevohazo that I featured in episode 2 of Cardboard Transmissions. The track was taken from Ranomafana Rhythms Vol 1, a compilation CD produced by my good friend Dylan Chapple, lead singer of the noise-folk band Swanifant. Rhythms is a musical documentation of Dylan's journey throughout Madagascar: the album captures and compiles the various regional flavors of Malagasy music with unspoiled authenticity, with tracks compiled from three different local musical groups. I sat down with Dylan to talk about his experience creating Ranomafana Rhythms, the personal and cultural significance of the project, and Malagasy music in general-
Adam: How did you come to start this project? Why did you decide to make this compilation?
Dylan: I first visited Madagascar as a student in the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments/ SUNY Stony Brook Study Abroad Program in 2005. The program takes place at Centre Val Bio, a research station close to both the town of Ranomafana and Ranomafana National Park. The park is home to a wealth of plants and animals not found outside of the country. Before the trip, I spent a lot of time listening to nature recordings that my friend Ryan Huber made during his time is Costa Rica, and I knew that I wanted to capture some of Madagascar's unique sounds. The idea of recording music there didn't occur to me until I got there and started seeing people with instruments walking along the roads. I asked around at the research station and people referred me to Dadalira, who at the time was said to be 100 years old. Watching him perform as I recorded was a powerful moment, and after hearing his music I knew I wanted to figure out some way for his music to reach people outside of his community and for him to benefit from this sharing.
My aunt, Dr. Patricia Wright, has been working in Madagascar since the 1980's, and was a major force behind the establishment of Ranomafana National Park. The park was established with a good deal of community involvement, and this model was a major inspiration for the compilation. After my trip, I discovered that much of the field recorded traditional music that I loved mostly cut the performers out of the revenue stream, which seemed unfair. I realized that having long standing family connections in the area made it possible to set up a system with people I trusted that would make sure the individuals and communities featured on the compilation could receive the money that was due to them. The staff of Centre Val Bio is in charge of sales to the tourist economy in Ranomafana and I'm in charge of the stateside sales. All profits past basic operation costs (which has only consisted of a few major CD mailings) is divided for each CD into 3 dollars for each band and one dollar for Centre Val Bio.
Adam: What equipment did you use to produce this project? Who else was involved?
Dylan: During my first trip in 2005 when I recorded Dadalira, I used an iRiver HP 120, which is an early iPod type device that happens to have decent preamps and an external mic input. During my second trip in 2007 when I recorded the Ambatolahy-Dimy band and the children of Bevohazo, I used a Zoom H4 hand-held recorder.
The mixing and mastering for the project was done for free by Aaron Emmert at Silent Planet Studios in Corralitos, California, and the package design and CD printing communication was done by Ryan Huber. Without the work of these guys and Christopher Chapple and Patricia Wright who helped raise the start-up costs, this project never would have gotten off the ground. I have been lucky to get a lot of help with the technical aspects of the music making process over the years, and a big motivation for this project has been paying this help forward.
The Ambatolahy-Dimy Band, also pictured at the top left
Adam: The description at the Rhythms store mentions the cabousy. (Pictured in the top left corner of the article.) How is a cabousy different than a guitar? Is it a common instrument in Madagascar folk music? What other instruments or ways of making sound are used?
Dylan: Most of the cabousys that I saw were somewhere between the size of a mandolin and a guitar. They are tuned in a major triad, and their fretboards are not uniform like a guitars. They are strategically placed to allow the chords found in a major scale to be played by simply placing one straight finger across the neck. To my ear, this allows for more rhythmic playing than a guitar. The cabousy is used by the Ambatolahy-Dimy band at the beginning of the compilation.
The children of Bevohazo employ voices, shakers, and bamboo shoots pounded on the ground to create drum-like tones. Their leader blows a whistle to direct the band. Dadalira plays an instrument that i have heard referred to as a valiha or marovany, depending on who I asked. His is a homemade instrument that is essentially a rectangular box with nine or ten strings on each side that produce banjo-like tones when plucked.
Dadalira with his homemade marovany
Adam: How is music a part of life in Madagascar? What role does it play? How is it different than music in the United States?
Dylan: Many of the Malagasy i talked to about it joke that they haven't met one American who can sing. In my experience, singing and music were a much more integral part of parties and gatherings in Madagascar than they are here. After the performances in Bevohazo found on the compilation, the group of American students I was with stayed up singing with some of the villagers and a team of guides from Centre Val Bio. Songs were pieced together through the memory of almost everyone involved; where someone forgot a verse, it seemed that there was always someone ready to jump in and lead the laughing group through it.
After about a half hour of Malagasy songs, they asked us to sing something, just one song. All we could muster as a group was a terrible version of Sitting on the Dock of the Bay, after which we quickly resumed the Malagasy songs. I think that our culture emphasizes the new and valorizes individuality to an extent that makes it hard for us to tap into a common source of music. The iPod seems to be a good metaphor for this; your own private musical history contained in the palm of your hand. Music in Madagascar seems to revolve much more around shared experience and a connection to those around you, and I think that our culture has a lot to learn from this.
The Children of Bevohazo
Learn more about and purchase Ranomafana Rhythms Volume 1: Traditional Music from Eastern Madagascar at the Ranomafana Store. (Scroll to the bottom of the page to buy.)