A message of cultural unity and care for the environment - can a supergroup of Madagascar's biggest stars get it across?
The concept of the musical supergroup is one that, in the West, is fondly held in principle but is rarely met with much critical acclaim in practice. Whilst there have been some immensely successfully charity singles released by supergroups such as Band Aid (or for avid world music fans reading you might be familiar with Africa Stop Ebola featuring Salif Keita, Amadou & Mariam, Oumou Sangaré and many other greats), and other breakthrough successes, such as The Three Tenors or 60s rockers Cream, most of the time inflated egos, competitiveness and lack of a shared vision mean that these theoretical ideas never materialise into something truly special. Yet, in the Indian Ocean the world’s fourth biggest island Madagascar, saw some of its biggest stars come together with a shared goal forming a truly fantastic supergroup.
“This holistic view and understanding that the Malagasy history is a truly global one is what allows these six legends to come together in unison to make excellent music.”
Though little is written about Madagascar All Stars, a 2016 documentary film, Songs For Madagascar, tells the story of six of the most famous Malagasy music stars uniting to create their self-titled album, Madagascar All Stars, which addresses many issues, most notably the importance of protecting their environment. Though this is not a review of the Brazilian director Cesar Paes’ work, it must be noted that his film is worth watching purely because it contains many highly endearing moments, perhaps at its peak when singer-songwriter Dama Mahaleo teaches a German audience some Malagasy vocabulary. Mahaleo speaks of the concept of ‘valim babena’ (translated to English as ‘handing back’), emphasising that when one comes from a nation of like Madagascar that feeds its citizens with its immense natural resources, there is a duty to feed it back in return.
In a rather poetic way, though Mahaleo is referring more specifically about taking care of their environment and the nation’s extraordinary biodiversity within that message of ‘valim babena’, he and his fellow band members give back in spades, not only by bringing attention to such important issues, but also simply through the love and joy the music spreads across the people of their nation. The potential of Madagascar, due to its incredible flora and fauna, is one that has lasted for centuries with it once being a utopian hideout for pirates known as Libertalia. To this day, Madagascar is emblematic for its nature and wildlife, with 80% of the world’s vanilla coming from there, and being the home of the lemur (once famously voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen in an animated film series).
Yet, the country has seen much environmental suffering, both historically and in modern times. Songs on this album, are explicitly about the nature the country has, such as the opening track Masoala - Œil-forêt about the riches within the huge Masoala National Park. The group reference how its citizens sometimes undervalue the true worth of their environment, selling it off to foreign importers, and yet still finding much of the country ravaged with poverty. The band also sing about some of the environmental issues facing the country today such as forest fires on Tsy miraharaha – On s’en fiche!
Nevertheless, the album is not simply about unifying to save the environment but is also important in unifying its ethnically wide-ranging population. As a relatively newly inhabited nation, Madagascar has a unique demographic, due to the fact that the Austronesians moved in first and then Bantu people. This makes them as a whole genetically more similar to Polynesian or South-East Asian populations, however, these kind of broad strokes generalisations about its population are somewhat irrelevant when one considers that there are 18 distinct tribes within the nation, making them far from having a homogenous culture. Add into that mixture a history of French and Portuguese colonisation and the fact that Christian and lots of traditional folk religions are practiced to get an understanding of how diverse its peoples are. The six stars coming together from North, South, East, and West of the country, some of whom have a different skin tones and heritage to the others, acts as an olive branch to its countryfolk who sometimes are divided by these differences rather than celebrating them.
In the film, guitarist Erik Manana speaks fondly of his time spent in France connecting to other cultures, and cites the late Cameroonian saxophonist, Manu Dibango, who once said that ‘music is my nationality’. This holistic view and understanding that the Malagasy history is a truly global one is what allows these six legends to come together in unison to make excellent music. For me whilst I am impressed by all of the musicians’ talents, it is Régis Gizavo who really stands out from the rest. His powerful voice is sublime, but more so than that the accordionist adds a level of depth to the percussive Salegy style that characterises a lot of Malagasy music. Thanks to the way in which the musicians complement one another, songs like Handeha isika hody e - Rentrons à la maison are made incredibly uplifting and catchy. Overall, this album demonstrates the rich potentials of big names coming together so long as they are authentically focused on a common cause, a deep message, and a humble love of music.