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We are in Toliara (Tuléar in French), a harbour on the west coast of Madagascar in the Mozambique Channel, between 1980 and 1990. The town looks more like a very large village consisting of thousands of sheet huts, with a centre built of solid, single-storey buildings. It is as flat as the beach on which it has landed.
The atmosphere in Toliara is more that of a village than of a city. Upon meeting one other, one first wonders where one comes from, to which "ethnic group" one belongs, and the neighbourhoods look like community territories where people gather by family, by village, by origin.
People who come from the countryside maintain a strong bond with their village of origin, because it is a common life project for one to go back home after having made his/her life in the city. There is a permanent back and forth between Toliara and the most remote regional towns; bush taxis, overloaded with as much food and consumer goods as passengers, never stop going in and out of town. The regional culture, with music at the forefront, is very strongly marked by this exchange between the town and the countryside, two worlds with porous borders, which interpenetrate each other.
Roads and transport infrastructure are thus underdeveloped. Life is organised in a relatively small area, a characteristic that is found in the Tsapiky territory: it covers an area that extends up to 150km north, 250km east, 200km south, and can extend as far as Ihosy in the east and Morombé in the north. Toliara is the capital of the southwestern province, and the capital of Tsapiky.
The Pecto, ancestor of the Tsapiky
The Tsapiky arrived in the wake of the Pecto which from the 1970's to the mid 80's was the local music of Toliara.
With flared trousers, fans of rock as well as of the standards inherited from the colonial period and steeped in Malagasy culture, these musicians were urban, cultured, often affluent and comfortable with the diverse influences that crossed over in Toliara at that time.
They were also the only musicians in the region who recorded their songs in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, for the record company Discomad. Occasionally they performed concerts in the countryside around Toliara, where people flocked to see them, and several hits were produced in this period. At the same time, funeral wakes, healing and circumcision ceremonies were all important in the life of Malagasy people, and regional and traditional music were largely represented in these ceremonies, as they were seen as a way of "talking with the ancestors".
The Pecto, with its harmonies that are tinged with the latest influences, slightly elitist and often danced to at the balls, was evolving rapidly at that time, in contact with the regional traditional music and its imperative need for trance.
In the mid-1980s, music gear, which was until then a rather rare and uncommon thing, was now becoming more accessible and was arriving in the hands of new musicians who came out of the bush around Toliara. Born during the Malgachisation of the country set up by Didier Ratsiraka in the 70's, these musicians, often poorly educated and deeply rooted in the "traditional" Malagasy culture, were "cooking" with their own ingredients. In Toliara, the Tsapiky, alongside other genres like Soukous, Malagasy and international variations of evangelical music, was developing as quickly in the city as the countryside, closing the door somewhat to outside musical influences.
The Tsapiky had few means: cheap loudspeakers, 2nd hand amplifiers often assembled on the spot, drums made of barrels and zebu skin. A music of emergency, it seeked rather high tempos, in order to operate a return to traditional music and to rediscover the "taste of the bush". At the same time, it was becoming, alongside traditional instruments, one of the major parts of daily life and traditional ceremonies. A lot of things were combined and played a role in the construction of the Tsapiky : codes of the tromba music or bilo rituals, the marovany (zither on case), mandolins and accordion, polyphonies... in short, the "endemic" ingredients of music from the Toliara region were being put back at the centre of the game. The role of the bass was reinvented with the increasing development of melodic lines, and the guitar was becoming predominant. The playing was now completely centered on the guitar, so much so that guitarists like Boloko or Kaboto, the most famous of this pivotal period, didn't necessarily have singers.
As a child, Damily played in his village on a small three-stringed nylon guitar, and then on a local guitar made by his neighbours. Because of his rather short fingers, his little finger could hardly touch the low strings on the top of the neck.
Rather than removing the 6th string as some of the guitarists of that time did, he developed a special technique, in which the two bass strings (5th and 6th) were being played or released at the same time as the other fingers were hitting the high strings.
It doesn't sound like much but he soon realized that this way of playing added depth to the harmonies and so his newly invented technique was immediately taken up by other guitarists of the time. It is accepted today as a mark of Tsapiky guitar playing in general, and further accentuates Tsapiky's shift towards a much more aggressive and "biting" music.
At the end of the 1980s, the Pecto was already completely overtaken by his little brother with a fiery temperament that triggered a real fever throughout the region. The Tsapiky, its audio cassettes and ghetto blasters had just blown away the Pecto and its old-style 7''.
The mandriampototsy, a new and original type of concert
In the city, music venues could be counted on the fingers of one hand. The Tsapiky wasn’t very comfortable there : the "tsapikists" called these places "posh". The real playground of the Tsapiky was developing elsewhere, in these sessions organized at home by families, where one could witness several days and nights of uninterrupted music, organized according to traditional Malagasy rules, in the open air. This new type of entertainment was called the mandriampototsy.
If this "new music" was so successful, it was due to the fact that it responded to a strong societal demand : healings, circumcisions, burials and reversals, celebrations... traditional ceremonies that punctuate the life of Malagasy in the southwest, all ethnic groups combined. And if the organization of such an event was costly for families, it was nevertheless unavoidable for each of them, because it is part of the cult of ancestors, with all its codes and "taboos". In Madagascar, God, ancestors and the dead are one, and the living share everything with them: joys, sorrows, diseases, projects or great events of family life... the mandriampototsy were becoming omnipresent.
Communication with the ancestors was established during these ceremonies through music; musicians therefore had a special status and an important responsibility in the proper conduct of sacred rites.
The mandriampototsys were traditionally held from March to December, and during these 9 months, the orchestras rotated... for Damily, it was practically a non-stop thing, except for the months of January and February, the months of the "mpio lalitsy" ("swallowing flies"). Based in Toliara, he sometimes didn’t even have the time to come back between two contracts : moving from one ceremony to another, he squared the region by road (if such a thing existed), by dugout, zebu cart or on foot. Tsapiky's orchestras thus went to the remotest places to honour the ancestors. In town, they were hired to parade on tractor trays for political propaganda during election campaigns, because the Tsapiky had the power to bring together all generations.
Equipment and orchestras
A tsapiky orchestra is not a group of musicians, it's a group of musical equipment : an electric guitar and bass, drums, two amps, one or two speakers and one or two microphones for the voice(s). And of course the generator!
These groups with names all more catchy than the others ("tidal wave", "hurricane", "the blessed one", "who earns millions"...) have an owner, who is often not a musician, but a kind of "investor" who sells the performance of his entire orchestra, including the musicians.
It's mostly the guitarists who gave their full dedication to these bands. At the beginning of the 1990s, there weren’t many orchestras around because there wasn’t such a thing as importing gear. In Toliara there were about ten, and a few others in important villages of the region (Bezaha, Betioky, Ejeda, Sakaraha, Ampanihy...).
Owning equipment was something that happened as you got older. Instruments were unaffordable for musicians, and very few of them possessed their own. Thus, Damily bought his first guitar...in 2000! Before joining his first orchestra, as a teenager, he remembers playing on an amplification system that he had made from a radio set : the speaker of the radio was placed on the body of the guitar (itself made on the spot with plywood) to act as a microphone, connected (that is to say, he connected the wires with each other) then to the pre-amp / amp block recovered from the radio set to finally go out through a horn (speaker). The whole thing was powered by 6 volts batteries. The tsapiky's diffusion system was exactly the same, without any intermediary between the instruments and the loudspeakers : it saturated, and that's what gave the guitar its aggressiveness, all its stamp to the "Tsapiky sound". The bass also had its amp, and only the drums weren’t amplified. In the open air, the whole thing balanced naturally, and each instrument could be heard perfectly around the orchestra.
Toliara tsy miroro
In Toliara and in the region, people wanted tsapiky, and more tsapiky, non-stop. Locally, Damily's fame was huge, with cassettes selling thousands of copies in town and the local radio broadcasting the hits endlessly. The white plastic sandals were called "kapa liamboro nomaly" (in reference to his song "liamboro nomaly"), the gingham fabric "Ranomasony Damily" (Damily's tears) .
The main part of his musical activity took place in the countryside, and the opportunities to play in Tulear were rare, apart from the shows at the gym for the end of the year celebrations, and the few mandriampototsy organized by the families of the Vezo fishermen on the edge of the city.
From 1995, "balls" were organized in the peripheral districts of Toliara. At first the idea was for an individual to organise, someone who had a closed courtyard big enough to accommodate an orchestra and its public. These balls quickly became a regular appointment with Damily, until other promoters started contacting him: he began touring, from one weekend to another, between Betsingilo, Andakoro, Andabizy, Ampasikibo, Abetsinjaky, Ankilimarovahatse, neighbourhoods that took turns in hosting him. At that time, he was the most popular guitarist, who "filled the courtyard" and ensured an unbridled atmosphere. Damily and his band played on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, every week, from evening to morning, all-nighter after all-nighter, with everything needed on the spot to keep them going until morning: alcohol and coffee, cigarettes, peanuts and skewers…
In the middle of the night people met each other on the paths, going to or coming back from the ball. It was the Toliara of the "milamy" period, a period free of worries.
It was during these same years that the generator that powered the whole city was cut at midnight. All of a sudden, the purr of the big engine stopped and the sounds came back up: crickets, mosquitoes and other nocturnal animals emerged, sometimes the songs of wakefulness to the dead, the sea perhaps, according to the wind, and the loudspeakers of the Tsapiky in the distance, which spit out the guitars and the saturated voices.
The sound bounced off the sand or the flat earth to reach the ears of the whole town.
Depending on where the sound came from, one knew there was something going on towards Betsingilo, or towards Mahavatse, Anketa, Motombe… if you knew your way around like a Malagasy from Toliara at that time, when everyone was bathing in the tsapiky, you knew by ear who was singing here or there, and who was on the guitar.
From balls to mandriampototsy, the tsapiky was continuous, day and night, it was Toliara tsy miroro, the city that never sleeps.
Damily joined the Miriorio orchestra, from 1986 to 1990. Miriorio played loud from Bezaha to Ejeda, to Betioky, Benenetsy, and guitarists came from Tulear to compete with the band. Their compositions became hits, often brought to Toliara by other guitarists or singers. The adventure ended with the band leader's enlistment in the army. Then Damily played for Tsipirano in Toliara, Tsy mipaoky in Sakaraha, Commandos Group in Ejeda and Mahazo arivo in Toliara as a mercenary, Safodrano in Toliara, Masoandro in Andranovinaly... before going back to the status of free musician in 1997. He has since made 4 albums as recording artist Damily. Damily has been playing and composing non-stop for the last 8 years, and his repertoire was already very full when he started recording in the studio in 1994, at the age of 26.
releases April 18, 2020
Mastering from original cassettes by Tim Stollenwerk
Production & liner notes by Yvel Mbola
Artistic Supervision by Cyril Yeterian
Artwork & layout by Félix Vincent
Photos by Yvel Mbola & Salah Benacer
Vinyl Cut by Adi Flück at Centraldubs
Screen printed by Legno, Milano, Italie