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Gitara Gasy

Ranaivo Betànana
Photo: Ian Anderson
Ranaivo Betànana
Clearly, a visit to Haja and Ny Ony's elderly grandfather was clearly on the agenda on the very next trip to Madagascar. After bumping down an impossibly rutted lane ('turn right at the dead doctor's house'), we're ushered into a typical neat one-room Malagasy home - a bed, table, four chairs and a sideboard all crammed into every available centimetre of floor space - and introduced to 87-year old Ranaivo Betànana ('Ranaivo Bighand'). He talks animatedly, demonstrating styles and snatches of songs on a completely decrepid steel-strung guitar with an action about a cm high, capoed way up the neck. I turn to Hanitra and whisper "Joseph Spence".

(I'm remembering how, when Tarika's predecessors were asked to contribute to Fledg'ling's Joseph Spence tribute album, they'd never heard of the Bahamas legend. But on being played his records Hanitra had remarked "There are old guitarists in Madagascar who sound just like this!" Reworking I Bid You Goodnight into a Malagasy piece presented few problems. But as usual, there are no immediate explanations for this similarity.)

What kind of guitar did you first play?

"I played gitara gasy [Malagasy guitar]!"

"My real name is Ranaivo Jean Baptiste. My brother played a concertina. It came from abroad. He bought it from the mpihira gasy [travelling musical/ street theatre entertainers]. He would learn for about a month, then he'd sell the instrument and buy another one again until he was satisfied."

"I first started playing guitar when I was 15. I heard somebody playing, nobody taught me. I first learned from the Makaka people. They are all dead now but I met up with them at La Haute Ville, near the Rova [the old royal palace, that was tragically burned down in 1995]. They only sang. Their songs were very easy, but that is what we saw so we learned their songs on our instruments. We figured out that the Makaka people's songs could be done with only three fingers. From that it developed further."

"We were all self-taught, just by looking at people. There were 10 of us. We had a group called Ramirandava [Mr Always Smiley]. We stopped because they are all dead now. We only played in Antananarivo, mostly for free. Every now and then we would get a little money but we never did it for the money. Afindrafindrao was really good to play because all Malagasy liked it so they would dance, then a waltz called Rasoanandrasana."

"People always complained about me borrowing their instruments. 'Leave my instrument alone', they'd say, 'Your hand is too big!' So I had to buy one. Our parents had all sorts of instruments: guitar, valiha, mandolin, accordeon... When we were children, we would queue up to see mom and dad and they would give us either valiha or accordeon and start playing. I also played a bit of valiha but never got very good at it. My father was a soldier, a shoe maker in the army, so he got some instruments. Otherwise, you had to go to the furniture maker and get one made because there were not any in shops."

This feature first appeared in fRoots 178, April 1998


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