The Truth (Ny Marina)

The Justin Vali Trio

Released 13 January 1995

  1. Malagasy Intro
  2. Ny Marina (The Truth)
  3. Sova (Malagasy Rap)
  4. Sariaka (Joy)
  5. Rambala (The Wanderer)
  6. Tsondrao (Benediction)
  7. Tsingy (The Sacred Mountain)
  8. Bilo (Malagasy Voodoo)
  9. Relahy
  10. Ray Sy Reny (Mum & Dad)
  11. Manga-Ny-Lanitr'i Gasikara (The Blue Skies Of Madagascar)
  12. Kintana (The Open Roof)
  13. Vato Malaza (The Ancestral Rock)
  14. Sova (Repeat)
  15. Bongo Lava (The Broad Mountain Range)
  16. Malagasy Folk Dance Medley

Liner notes

What a distance Justin Rakotondrasoa has travelled, coming from his tiny home village of 200 souls to perform at Woodstock ’94 in front of thousands. But perhaps the journey was inevitable, a matter of destiny.

Justin, who acquired his stage name, Vali, from the main instrument he plays (the Valiha), is the youngest son of a large family from Fierenana, 70km from the capital of Madagascar. The hamlet’s name itself means “up there, where all is peaceful”, but the main attraction there is the beautiful noise created by the musicians who number virtually the entire village. The local instrument-makers, infact, are renowned for providing regional instruments for the whole of the central plains area.

Justin’s family was an important part of that musical tradition. Encouraged by the ancestral songbook of his father and grandfather, the young boy soon developed his own style. While voraciously consuming his island’s rich musical heritage, he sold instruments with his brothers in markets or picked up odd jobs on the side.

In 1982, at the age of eighteen, Justin left Madagascar to tour Europe with a Malagasy folkloric group. The thought probably never crossed his mind that he would stay abroad, let alone become an ambassador for his island’s music. But Paris has been his home ever since, and the two albums he has released to date, Rambala and Bilo (as well as his collaboration on a release by the Malagasy all-star band, Malgache Connexion), both originated in the city on the Seine.

New opportunities arose with time. He sang and played on Kate Bush’s acclaimed The Red Shoes record (and its single Eat the Music) and the worldwide exposure ensured a busy roster of important concerts, including the Woodstock ’94 jaunt and playing in tuxedos for Nelson Mandela at the French Embassy.

Key to Justin’s success has been his skill on the valiha (pronounced ‘vah-lee’). It’s the national instrument of Madagascar, but pretty much unknown outside. Just as the island’s history has been moulded by history’s trade winds, and its separation from the East African coast by the Mozambique canal, so the very presence of the valiha reflects the cultural blends and crossovers of this mystical island-continent.

The instrument was originally imported by the first ‘official’ immigrants, from Indonesia and South-East Asia, but now represents a rare cultural link between all the disparate inhabitants, including descendants of the many migrants since.

The valiha is basically a bamboo harp with strings stretched across the length of the cylindrical body and tethered to gourds at either end. The instrument is tuned by adjusting the gourds. In the north and south of Madagascar, where there is no bamboo, valihas are made from either wooden or metal cases. Across the island, the instruments have different shapes, sizes and names (southerners call them ‘marovany’), and even different functions, but they all are valihas. The word literally means ‘musical instruments’. They have a ritual duty as well, as a mediator between ancestors and the living.

The instrument evolved through widespread use in Madagascar into a melodic and richly harmonic tool (in the Far East, its use is restricted to percussion). After the Europeans arrived, new metal strings —often just the transformed brake cables from bikes— further enhanced the harmonic repertoire. In the royal courts of the eighteenth century, the valiha’s sound resembled that of an aggressive harpsichord.

The way the instrument has been played up to now though, has worked against its international exposure. On the high plains it was played too soft for most Western ears (the way the ancestors prefer it), and on the coast to rough.

Justin Vali’s technique is crucially different to other players throughout history. He plays with his fingernails, and not his fingertips and this is not just a minor detail. It means that the instrument is not smoothly caressed in the traditional manner, but is plucked with hard nails, flavouring the dynamics and changing the character of the valihs entirely. Justin’s speciality on any of his valiha’s is a clear, punchy sound and delightful swing. He transforms a simple diatonic tool into a multi-faceted solo instrument that maintains melody, harmony and rhythm simultaneously. His speed of finger work sometimes —and on ‘Tsingy’ in particular— leads the listener to question whether this is the product of a single valiha…or three.

This is a technique that was born in Madagascar, bur raised and matured in Paris. In the French capital, Justin created a blend of modern and ancient sounds; the nostalgia for memories of home combined with every new experience of his new urban life. The result is a dazzling mixture of rhythms, time signatures, moods and textures, in an acoustic setting that avoids the clichés of contemporary African pop music. It is a disco-beat-free diet of Malagasy music that is more complex that an initial listen suggests. With his unplugged trio, Justin has dressed his forefather’s music in the fineries of the twentieth century, but without the acid of a single ampere.

L-R: Clemrass, Justin & Doudou. Photo credit: Stephen Lovell-Davis

Doudou (Romeo Tovoarimino) is a singer-songwriter and guitarist from the north-western coastal state of Majunga. He has been Justin’s right-hand man since they both found themselves in Paris, and plays acoustic guitar accompaniment in a typical Malagasy fashion. The unusual juxtaposition of strings and unique tuning, though, throw out rich and quirky basslines apparently independent of the guitar’s high and middle range. This is particularly marked on ‘Sova’ and’Bilo’.

Clemrass (Clément Randrianantoandro) is a singer and multi-instrumentalist from the ancient port of Tulear. He keeps the rhythm on the kabossy (pronounced ‘kah-boss’) and handles the low-end vocals. The six-stringed kabossy is an instrument traditional to the herders of Madagascar’s zebu (large humped oxen). Its frets are oddly spaced and, as it is more hit than strummed, its role is mostly a rhythmic one. Individual players develop their own way of hitting the strings. Clemrass hits it upwards (as in ‘Bongo Lava’) while Justin rolls it downward (‘Sova’). Clemrass is also a percussionist, shaking the hell out of Malagasy maracas made from bamboo or tomato cans.

Carol Rizzo, a southern Italian master of the tambourine and frame drums, joined the trio for the Real World session. His distinctive and personal style draws on Sicilian, Persian and Indian traditions. When the traditional frame drums have proved inadequate, he has invented new instruments and techniques to express himself. His ‘poly-timbral’ tambourine, for example, is an incredibly sophisticated upgrading of an ancient, even mundance, idea. It sounds like a whole kit drum plus Latin percussion section when Carlo is in full flight, as on ‘Relahy’ or ‘Manga-Ny-Lanitr’I Gasikara’.

Notes by Sir Ali, Paris 1994

Reviews

  • Shimmering Madagascan folk music...highly listenable. The Observer (UK)
  • Recall Hendrix’'s ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ and you’ll have some idea of how Vali has reinterpreted this previously restrained, sacred stringed instrument. Vox (UK)
  • If you’'ve been enchanted by the sweeter side of Malagasy music, this one comes very highly recommended. Folk Roots (UK)

Credits

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