Berikely & Zama Elaela
Review by Andrew Cronshaw
The wildlife of Madagascar is special and very distinct from that of Africa, and so are its people and their music.
As are the instruments they play, prominent among which is a variety of stringed instruments including (a rough guide to the usual pronunciation in italics) the valiha (valee), marovany (márovan), jejy voatavo (dzedz votáv), lokanga (lokáng) and kabosy (kabóss). Nowadays, there are also very Malagasy approaches to the standard acoustic or electric guitar.
Malagasy singer and songwriter Berikely plays the kabosy, which is akin to a small guitar of varying body shape but often rectangular. Usually some of its frets don’t go all the way across the fingerboard, an arrangement that helps with making chord shapes, as the player’s fretting hand moves up and down the neck while the other creates an intricate, highly syncopated strum.
Characteristic of much of the big island’s variety of regional and tribal musical styles, the most prevalent being salegy (salég) and tsapiky (tsapík), is a joyful syncopated bounce that’s very dance-impelling but which, particularly with salegy, tends to confuse non-Malagasy trying to dance because it’s not immediately obvious which of its cross-rhythms the feet should follow.
Berikely (berikél, meaning ‘Little Beri’) is an established, indeed veteran, artist in Madagascar, who now lives in France. There, with the help of the group’s guitarist and arranger Erik Doboka, he has assembled an excellent band, Zama, that really grasps and masters the essence of Malagasy music. It comprises three Frenchmen - Doboka on guitar, bassist Thomas Boucherie, drummer Jean-Yves Boucherie - and Malagasy percussionist Bema Ratovondrahery.
Berikely is a skilful, snappy kabosy player, and vocally he has that distinctive Malagasy sound, wide in pitch range, light and softly melodious, moving to edgier at volume. The rest of the group respond with typical Malagasy harmony vocals.
The style, sound, rhythms and language are unmistakably Malagasy, with occasional hints of the members’ varied musical backgrounds. For example, “Havako” and the loping “Mahavamba” could be imagined as something early Santana or a salsa band might relate to, while Doboka’s electric guitar lines suggest flavours of a scampering Diblo Dibala Congolese soukous style (though that’s also exhibited by Malagasy electric guitarists).
“Fiova” has a choppy, rolling bounce, “Salama” (‘Hello’) has the typically urgent Malagasy ‘chikity-chikity’ fast triple-time pulse that when played on marovany or valiha is characteristically accompanied by a gravel-filled insecticide-tin rattle bounced between hand and thigh. No marovany or valiha here, but it’s definitely Malagasy music.