Living in France, the Malagasy is the ambassador of trance music, where electric guitars meet zebu skin percussion. Sleep is not an option!
Located on the banks of the Mozambique Channel, in southwest Madagascar, Toliara languishes in the heat. But its torpor is deceptive. The motto “Toliara tsy miroro” indicates that Toliara never sleeps. The reason: Bouyer loudspeakers, which spit out tsapiky’s electric guitar riffs night and day, the soundtrack to ritual ceremonies.
Damily now lives in a quiet environment in Angers, where he has been living for seventeen years with his French wife. But tsapiky still flows in his veins. “It’s my culture,” he says. “I left Madagascar at the age of 30 and, although I rarely return home, I continue to uphold this unique music.” He was born in 1968 in Tonbogory, a village south of Toliara by the Onilahy River, where men have three prospects: to be a farmer, fisherman, or musician. For Damily, the question never needed answering. His mother made him a three-string guitar carved with wood from the surrounding forest when he was still a young child, along with his brother Rapako (who is the bass player in his band to this day). “That’s how we spent our time while my mother was fishing. We sang our own lullabies.” At this point in time — the era of Malagasy, when he did not yet speak French — the young man considered the guitar a hobby, until his obvious dexterity opened up new possibilities. Soon, his reputation would spread into the bush, and people would begin to solicit his talents.
The tsapiky style, which emerged in the late 1970s, brings together regional traditions and the influence of radio stations that broadcasted the ongoing electric revolutions in South African townships and West African capitals. Amplified by loudspeakers, the guitars (whose strings were once made of fishing lines) rolled out heady motifs, while the percussion (zebu skins stretched over barrels) established sustained rhythms, rumbling underneath vocals set in the treble register. Conducive to trance, this music became the favorite of both dusty dancefloors and nightclubs, while accompanying ritual ceremonies including circumcisions, burials, or famadihanas – a custom of exhuming the bodies of ancestors to clean their bones before redressing them and placing them back in the ground. In local cases of depression, where medication had no effect, it also became customary to play tsapiky for three days and three nights, until the patient became healed, falling from the exhaustion, drunk on the music, the heat, and the local rum where tamarind is added to cane syrup. When these ceremonies follow one another throughout the city, we can see why Toliara “never sleeps”, even if the practice has become more strictly controlled in recent years.
A festive four-beat music genre, tsapiky is organized in three phases: a sung introduction, a fast cadence to unshackle and energize the dancers (alone or in pairs), then a slow section to allow them to catch their breath. Phases two and three can then be repeated as often as desired. Even if Damily innovated the style by releasing acoustic albums and even if he now plays on a Telecaster rather than a homemade guitar, he remains deeply rooted in this tradition, so much so that he strives to restore in its original form. In the studio where he works, he reproduces saturated sounds using his original set of speakers. His twelfth album, Valimbilo, was recorded on analog by David Odlum, the sound engineer for Tinariwen, among others, whose precise production retains the rustic character of the instrumentation. It includes eight magnificent tracks, which tell how grigris intervene in neighborhood quarrels, how a man lost his mind after the theft of his zebus, and how misery is the mother of violence. “Poverty affects 90% of the Malagasy population,” says Damily, referring to the Big Island, whose main asset is its culture. “As long as there are ceremonies, there will be tsapiky,” the guitarist asserts.”More and more young musicians practice it, because it is a way to earn a living, and it is not uncommon to come across several bands in the same village.”
Damily now dreams of introducing Valimbilo at home, to the people of Madagascar, while he willingly assumes the role of tsapiky’s international ambassador. Whether it’s to heal or to celebrate, he is the man for the job.
Damily, Valimbilo (Bongo Joe)
- 11.9.2018 – Le Chabada, Angers, France
- 11.22.2018 – La Bobine, Grenoble, France
- 11.23.2018 – Festival Plumes d’Afrique/Temps machine, Tours, France
- 11.30.2018 – Festival Face Z, Genève, Switzerland
- 12.01.2018 – Folkwelt, Chambéry, France