Sunday, 14 December 2014

Quick Trip to Madagascar

Deux chevaux rounds a corner in 'Tana
Last week, I had the opportunity to spend a few days in one of the world’s less-visited backwaters, Madagascar − probably better known for the eponymous cartoons than for anything going on there these days. The Red Island is a quiet throwback to 1962. Antananarivo, the hilly capital, is one of the last remaining outposts of colonial France, evidenced by the ubiquitous presence of bald-headed, board-shorts-wearing 80-year-old Frenchmen sporting desperate local nieces in every hotel lobby. The city has a grungy charm despite obvious deep poverty. The taxis are mostly deux chevaux that have long seen better days, now kept alive with wire and duct tape, usually started with a push. Unfortunately, visitors to ‘Tana have no chance to see Madagascar’s iconic lemurs and baobabs in their natural habitat, as those few that remain on the largely deforested 21st century island are far from the city.

Two popular modes of transport in Madagascar
Happily, Madagascar does have some jazz, unlike much of nearby East Africa; there is even a jazz radio station in ‘Tana (granted, playing mostly tinkling lounge music and doobie-doo vocals). The popular outdoor restaurant Buffet du Jardin in Place de l´Independance posted handbills for an upcoming live “Madajazz” event which featured photos of a local altoist. I can only hope he’s advanced his listening beyond 1980’s David Sanborn since I had to leave before I heard the show. A lively venue, although every time I visited the police stopped me and shook me down for ‘tea money’ upon departure. On the positive side, one beneficial legacy of French colonialism is that great food is everywhere.

The trademark instrument of Madagascar is the valiha, a stringed instrument belonging to the zither family, constructed from a large bamboo tube with strings of various lengths from end-to-end around the circumference. Valihas of various sizes are available in local markets for around $10; I am certain that more are sold to tourists to hang on the wall than are actually played by locals these days. As in most of today’s Africa, rappers with big sunglasses dominate the local music scene, with nary an instrument to be heard beyond guitar, electronic keyboard or drum machine when you turn on the TV or radio. Nonetheless, last summer I picked up bootleg DVDs of Dexter, Hawk and Rahsaan as I strolled through the park near Place de l´Independence. Somebody in Madagascar knows the good stuff.

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