Rattles and shakes, trance states, the marovany and MONJA
If it were't for a blitz attempt at another Turnstiles record in May of 2015, I would not have stumbled upon the sounds of the wandarian mode. Record making involves some downtime during setup changes or when someone is trying to hone a part in. My favorite person to make records with is Charles Austin and to toss albums and artists back and forth is always a fruitful ear opening delight. The serendipity of these circumstances makes me wonder a bit deeper. The Turnstiles' second album remains shelved, sadly, but I am forever grateful for everything that went down.
He sent me packing with a playlist of about 150 songs, from a lot artists I could not pronounce. A lot of field recordings from Madagascar. Group vocal songs with only shakers or bone rattles for accompaniment, wooden flute pieces, a few guitar sounding songs. It was a new world to me, but deeply familiar. Up until then I was only ever aware of the music coming out of West Africa. The sounds from Madagascar are filled with wonder, joy and a rawness I have yet to hear anywhere else. A fascinating history developed in the world's largest island due to the influence from trade routes. Deeper in the playlist I came to a sound that I had never heard before in this flesh life a connection I felt instantly and a fascination that still pours inspiration over me and into what I am reaching for with the guitar. I knew it wasn't a fretted instrument, I didn't even believe these sounds were coming from one person.
The marovany is a hand made parallelipipedal hollow wooden box with openings at each end. Each musician constructs to their own needs, using whatever supplies are at hand. Two courses of strings on each side of the box sit atop individual wooden bridges, maneuvered for tuning. The metal strings are old brake cables unwound from bicycles or clutch cables from motorbikes. I am not certain how they are fashioned to the box or how they get up to tension. There is not a single widespread tuning, it is up to the individual and depends on which area they live. A lot of mystery lies in this music. The instrument and its music is used as a connecting link between the world of the living and the world of the dead.
Using the thumb and index fingers of each hand is how the kora is played in West Africa. The marovany player uses this same basic idea but can throw in additional fingers for chording and otherwise. The music that comes from these highly stylized players is awe inspiring, trance inducing and unlocks the body to move and dance as the mind is freed to connect with natural states. Used in ceremony, gatherings and everyday life I fell in love with this music.
Like many cultures around the globe, there is a sacred side and a secular side. The traditional music of Madagascar formed its identity with influences from various horizons: the Austronesian peoples on the one hand, and African, Arab and European migratory populations on the other. There are over 18 ethnic groups in Madagascar. I personally am drawn to the rustic traditional sounds from solo performers and smaller groups ensembles.
Out of these traditions is Monja. Mahafay Gege Monja, born in 1970 in Ambovombe Androy. He inherited his gifts as a musician and healer from his mother who took him to "tromba" - gatherings devoted to divination, healing the sick and exorcism. I tracked down this album made of solo marovany instrumentals performed by Monja. I do not know how or why, but instantly in the first few seconds I was immediately captivated. I still am. He is regarded highly in his country and in the last few months I recently learned he has other sides along to his mastery of this traditional instrument. He also leads and sings in a Malagasy pop band, complete with auto-tuned vocals and music videos. He seems to go by a few different names, he is an enigma.
The album I have is from 2001, recorded in Tananarive. There sounds to me to be ultimate freedom in his playing, similar to a lot of the kora music I love but a bit more reckless sounding. That is something I have been seeking my entire life on the guitar. Initially the performances sound wild, raw, unexpected twits and rhythmic turns with dizzying melodies cycling around and back again. Improvisation is there I imagine but so are defined "tunes." Where those lines are I am not certain. I don't like the term virtuoso as it implies a show-off-y flamboyance in Western society, but Monja certainly has a deep grasp of the instrument and the development he has undergone is even more impressive.
Two more recent videos from Small Island, Big Song available on youtube show Monja comfortably sitting in a courtyard, children up on balconies overlooking and a woman dancing in her chair next to Monja sitting on the ground. Maybe 13-14 years after the album his playing is graceful, elegant but without losing any of the excitement and flurries of the earlier work. There is gentle harmonic development that is not found in his earlier work, and space that is so beautiful. He then starts singing of the 200 or so views these videos received I reckon at least half of them are mine, the other Charles.
I by no means can play marovany music on the guitar, (check out D’Gary for that) but I am inspired and have found this two handed approach to be in the realm of what I am experimenting with.