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The Man From Madagascar 

Rajery, master of Madagascar's valiha, comes to Festival International de Louisiane and gets jazzy at UNO's Sandbar and Snug Harbor this week.

The story of Rajery, the Madagascan musician who appears this week in New Orleans and Lafayette, reads as clearly as the tales of his country's still vibrant mythology. Impaired since childhood by the loss of the fingers of his right hand, he not only mastered the island's most famous instrument, the valiha, but utterly transformed it, rejuvenating national interest in the country's indigenous music in the process. While Madagascar's music largely remains a well-kept secret, Rajery has infused it with international strains of jazz and pop and is helping it win an increasingly larger role on the stage of world music.

Rajery (pronounced "rah-JEHR") was unavailable for interview due to the current civil strife that has left his hometown without electricity or water, but his story speaks for itself. Born in 1965 into a musical family in Vakodrazana, the mountainous northern part of Madagascar, Rajery was immersed in the region's tightly interwoven religious music and traditional folk music. The valiha instrument is central to the area's religious ceremonies, and the word valiha is a descendant of the Sanskrit term vadhya, which means "instrument of sacred music." A hollowed piece of bamboo, often strung up these days with bicycle brake cables and plucked with both hands, the valiha is to Madagascar what the accordion and fiddle are to Cajun Louisiana.

Rajery's ascendance to the most famous valiha player in Madagascar is an unlikely tale. As a child, he was given a piece of poisoned meat by a woman who hated his family. He almost choked and the fingers on his right hand became swollen. His father applied a tourniquet to keep the poison from spreading, but a few days later, his older sister came into his room to find that the fingers of his hand had fallen off, leaving only a nub.

Despite his handicap, Rajery strove with Django-esque tenacity as a teenager to play his father's valiha. Some of his peers mocked the efforts of the crippled youth to play the hallowed instrument and, as a student in the capital city of Antananarivo, he practiced in secret. Though the valiha usually calls for the extensive use of both hands, Rajery was gradually able to pluck with his nub. The plucking initially only caused his crippled hand to bleed, but with continued practice, he managed to toughen the skin to a point that allowed him to coax sound out of the instrument. The handicap also led him to take a different approach to the instrument, using his nub to strum and playing swift, delicate melodies with his other hand.

"Rajery had a really traumatic youth," says Banning Eyre, a writer and editor of the Web site www.afropop.org who visited Rajery in Madagascar. "As a one-handed child, he was an object of derision. He really knows what it feels like to be on the outs in his society. It takes a special person to start in that position and imagine being a musician, a success, a person who can get things done."

Upon graduating from school, Rajery decided to devote his energies not only to playing the valiha, but to teaching and writing about it. Formal instruction in the instrument didn't really exist, and one of Rajery's first major accomplishments was to write the book The Secret of the Valiha. Besides being the first serious manual on how to play the instrument, it also included a new system of tablature, or self-explanatory musical notation, that was invaluable to young valiha players learning their craft.

"Although the valiha has always been the Madagascan instrument," said Rajery in a recent interview for the French magazine Les Inrockuptibles, "at that time it had become such an institution, just as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, so that no one paid attention to it anymore, except tourists."

He formed a band called Akombaliha ("The Echo of the Valiha") that featured guitar, kabosy (the Malagasy mandolin), percussion and as many as 10 valihas. Gradually the group grew to include as many as 23 musicians, mostly playing the valiha. Although the valiha orchestras had been popular in the past, they had been out of style since the 1930s.

He also formed a popular quartet that focused on taking the music in new directions, incorporating elements of jazz and other world music. As his fame within Madagascar grew, his music began to attract international interest. With the success of his first two major recordings, Dorotanety (Indigo, Label Bleu, 1999) and Fanamby (Indigo, Label Bleu, 2001), Rajery has become not only a player and teacher, but a leading ambassador of his country's culture. His Snug Harbor performance with a small ensemble will emphasize the jazzy possibility of Malagasy music.

"Rajery is definitely an innovator," explains Eyre. "He's listened to jazz and pop music from all over, so he brings a big stylistic vocabulary to his instrument. He's not at all limited to its pre-existing traditions. Maybe the fact of overcoming his own handicap gives him a greater sense of possibilities than other players have."

click to enlarge Rajery overcame a traumatic childhood incident and handicap to become an ambassador for Madagascan music. - DOMINIQUE LAGNOUS
  • Dominique Lagnous
  • Rajery overcame a traumatic childhood incident and handicap to become an ambassador for Madagascan music.
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