Throughout the recent glut of reissues and compilations that have focussed on African music from the 70’s and 80’s the country of Madagascar has been strangely absent. Strut Records finally set that right with Alefa Madagascar, a deluxe set that focuses on the salegy, soukous and soul sounds of the island nation. With radio bringing music from neighbouring nations like South Africa and Kenya, and the Discomad label championing the best local talent, the result was a musical style that has the propulsive grooves of other sub-Saharan pop styles while also adding in curious rhythmic and textural flourishes.
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In the browser game Pandemic, in which you play a disease trying to infect everyone on the planet, your success lives and dies by Madagascar. Madagascar is an island off the east coast of Africa and, in the game at least, has a rightfully cautious head of state willing to quarantine their people at the faintest whiff of danger.
Very gladly, music is free to move across Madagascar’s border, unlike diseases in a video game. ‘Alefa Madagascar’ is a compilation from Strut which collects salegy, soukous and soul released between 1974 and 1984. Salegy is a style that originates from Madagascar, and features a call and response as heard on the jubilant ‘Ngôma Hoe’ by Papa James. A single male voice opens the song with a short phrase, and before you’ve realised what you’ve heard, an enormous choir kicks in with a much longer phrase. The effect is overwhelming and beautiful.
The general palette on show here is pleasingly AM-y. There’s a lot of small guitars and chunky organs that bring to mind the Modern Lovers more than anything else; Charles Maurin Poty’s ‘Amboliako Fary’ features an organ solo not unlike that on ‘Roadrunner'. It’s also mostly dance music, with tight bass grooves that leave space for wonderful singers like Jean Kely (not that one), whose pained vocals make ‘Andosy Mora’ as heart wrenching as it is danceable.
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