ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Guitar band music from the southwest of Madagascar sounds like a party but it's played at what we may think of as solemn affairs. The music is called tsapiky. That's spelled T S A P I KY. Music reviewer Banning Eyre recently returned from a research trip to Madagascar and he has this story of a sound deeply connected to life and death.
BANNING EYRE, BYLINE: Giddy guitar playing, galloping dance rhythms, exuberant cries and a generally joyous atmosphere - nothing about tsapiky music would tell you that it's mostly played at traditional ceremonies, especially funerals. That is unless you come from the coastal city of Tulear in southern Madagascar.
JULIEN MALLET: (Speaking French) It's like a flag of Tulear.
EYRE: That's French ethnomusicologist Julien Mallet, now based in Tulear, the biggest town in this huge, dry rural region. The area is sparsely populated with cattle farms and sapphire mines, where locals labor but rarely profit. Tsapiky music is one way a kid from a village might get work.
MALLET: The musicians, who come from the countryside, join the band in the city. When the band has acquired a certain level of fame, the band is asked by the rural communities to play at ceremonies such as burial or circumcisions.
EYRE: Well, these ceremonies are a big deal. Families come from far and wide, bearing gifts, ready to eat, drink and dance. And this can go on for...
MALLET: (Speaking French) (Laughter) Two days.
EYRE: Two days. And possibly as long as a week, says veteran tsapiky guitarist Pascal. And the tsapiky music never stops except for the musicians to eat. Maybe that's one reason these guitarists have such remarkable fingerstyle technique. Listen to Pascal on acoustic guitar.
EYRE: Tsapiky is a fusion of South African pop music and local Madagascar traditions. It's a young style that began in the 1970s. It's not limited to any one ethnic tradition and that means everyone can feel connected to it.
FRANCOISE BALAFOMANGA: Especially in the south and here. You don't just do music for performing. It's a performance but it's really part of life. It has meaning and everybody knows the codes. It really has an important place in the society.
EYRE: That's French born tsapiky producer Francoise Balafomanga, who's lived in Madagascar for 25 years. But there's a problem. These days, armed and organized cattle rustlers have invaded the countryside around Tulear and government forces have responded ruthlessly - attacking in force, even burning villages.
MALLET: (Speaking French).
EYRE: Julien Mallet says it's a complicated scenario. But the arrival of this cattle rustling mafia has created an atmosphere of fear. And that means bands that once played three or four ceremonies a month will be lucky to play one. Despite all this, Francois Balafomanga says tsapiky music has lost none of its hold on people's imaginations, even the cattle rustlers themselves.
BALAFOMANGA: Even the Haalu, people who steal the beef, they call the tsapiky players to come because this is the spiritual thing. Music is medicine. Even in sorrow music helps to calm the strong feeling that can destroy you.
EYRE: One of the top veteran tsapiky artists, Damily, has lived in France for the past 14 years. During our visit, Damily was back in Tulear to play his first public concert there in all that time.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DAMILY: (Foreign language spoken).
EYRE: A crowd of thousands, young and old, male and female, gathered by the bay to sing and dance for hours into the night.
DAMILY: (Foreign language spoken).
EYRE: This was no three-day ceremony but it was a welcome chance to remember better times in Tulear, and to waive the region's tsapiky flag with pride. For NPR News, I'm Banning Eyre.
SIEGEL: Banning Eyre is senior editor at Afropop.org. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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