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  • UNESCO Collection Week 47: Uniform and Varied Music from Madagascar and Bahrain

    Madagascar: Land of the Betsimisraka features a diverse musical repertoire with Indian, Asian, Arabian, and European influences. The Betsimisraka are the second largest ethnic group in Madagascar, whose music reflects the close-knit nature of their communities. Conversely, Bahrian: Fidjeri: Songs of the Pearl Divers features the Men’s Choir from the Dar Jnah in the port city of Muhrraq and a more uniform music style.


    by Jasmine Thomasain

    The liner notes for Madagascar: Land of the Betsimisraka states that Betsimisaraka means “those who are many and united,” and I think that feeling is present throughout their music. This CD in particular demonstrates the varied quality of Betsimisraka music, with examples from multiple communities and of varied instrumentation. We can hear instruments as diverse as the bamboo flute, various percussion instruments, earth bow, gorodo (“castrated accordion”), and lute. And from liner notes we know that the lyrics discuss a broad range of topics, from child-stepmother relations to depression to the placation of tromba spirits. Some songs are lightly humorous (“Bakoly,” for instance), while others demonstrate disdain for certain social practices like child marriage (e.g. “Zaza bitiky manambady”). Part of the reason for Betsimisaraka music’s multiplicity is the group’s location on a transnational trade route; Betsimisaraka music has been influenced by Indian, Asian, Arabic, and European music styles.

    But there are also qualities that seem to bind all of the songs together as Betsimisraka music. One of these elements is the percussive rhythm that runs through many of the pieces. Whether the rhythm is kept with an earth bow (prominent throughout) or a shaker (that swishes along beneath a melody played on flute or sung), the groove is maintained continuously. And it’s contagious. Listening to these songs, it was difficult not to dance—or at least clap along.

    Bahrain: Fidjeri: Songs of the Pearl Divers has an entirely different feel. If the Betsimisraka music was fun and danceable, with clear harmonies, Fidjeri songs are nearly their opposite. Fidjeri music is generally slower, more somber or majestic, and full of rich timbral effects. While the Betsimisraka CD has music from multiple communities and with various structures, the music from Bahrain follows pretty similar structures and has been sung entirely by the Men’s Choir from Dar Jnah in Muharraq. Additionally, the Madagascar CD includes pieces sung by both women and men, while the Bahrain CD showcases only male voices.

    Most pieces begin with a single member of the choir singing or chanting (sometimes over the rest of the choir), followed by a homophonic section in which all members of the choir sing. Occasionally this structure is inverted or adjusted slightly, but in general the pieces all follow the same structure. Percussion is more rare in these pieces, and rather than an earth bow or shaker, drums and clapping make up much of the percussive elements of each piece.

    One really interesting aspect of the Fidjeri music is the use of throat singing. This technique is most prominent in “Khrab, Sidi, Meydaf, Jeeb.” Under the soloist there is a drone-like chant of very low pitches. These pitches are actually created using what we (in the new music Western vocal world) would call an “extended technique.” The technique: throat singing. Throat singing involves engaging our vocal folds in different ways from normal speaking or singing, and one effect can be the super-low pitches heard in the Bahrain choir. These pitches, which would be too low for any Western classical singer to produce, are easily created using “throat singing” techniques. We can also hear the very different timbre these super-low notes produce (they just sound different). Rather than hearing one note from each singer, we can often hear multiple notes above the super-low note each singer creates. These overtones add to the rich, dense sound of Fidjeri music.

    Jasmine Thomasian is a Williams College student of music and religion. Jasmine is an active singer, percussionist, composer and conductor at Williams, with special interest in new works that enhance an audience's engagement with space. Jasmine looks forward to graduate study in religion next year and hopes to someday teach.

    UNESCO Collection Week 47: Uniform and Varied Music from Madagascar and Bahrain | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings