We’ve flown to Diego Suarez (Antsiranana) near the northern tip of the island. Diego has the deepest harbor in the region with a narrow opening that made it easy to defend, and hence the key to controlling the Indian Ocean in earlier centuries. A fierce battle for this port took the lives of hundreds of French, British, Malagasy, Senegalese and other sailors and soldiers in 1942, when Diego became the unlikely scene of a fierce World War II battle, which, in a still more unlikely twist, helped to give salegy music its name. But we’ll save that story for the air…
We’re here in search of the roots of this melodious, 6/8 popular music style, and finding plenty. You may recall that Jaojoby, “the king of salegy,” comes from this region. In Antananarivo, he among others told us that in Diego, we had to look up Professor Zana Bahoaka, poet, composer, mathematician and the now-retired co-founder of the Zomare music school. Within an hour of checking in to the Hotel Imperial, this delightful 79-year-old gentleman found us and began to tell us stories—including how he himself had been badly wounded at age 6 in the bloody 1942 Battle of Diego Suarez. Seven decades on, he proudly displayed the scar.
Our visit to Zomare the next day was a delight. The school borrows the facilities of a Catholic school, and is in session only on Saturdays from 7 a.m. to noon. The school is rare for its commitment to teaching both Western and Malagasy music. Zomare survives on a shoestring, largely with support from neighboring Isle Reunion, but the work going on here is inspiring. We dropped in on a guitar class where about 20 students, ages 10 to 25, took turns on about 10 nylon-stringed guitars. Banning was enlisted to play some songs from his pan-African repertoire. The kids were totally attentive.
Next door was the accordion class. Here Hervé, a Zomare alumnus, was teaching three kids, alternating between French songs transcribed in a method book and traditional Malagasy songs learned by ear. All the professors gathered to perform for the Afropop microphones playing accordion, marovany, guitar and djembe, with everyone singing and clapping. Beautiful music, much of it intertwined with the fascinating history of salegy, now unfolding before our eyes.
One stand-out accordion student was 17-year-old Candela—as it turned out, a member of a musical family in town. Professor Bahoaka arranged for us to visit the family home and hear a rootsy salegy set performed by Candela and peers, with his mother singing and dancing. This soulful session was one of our favorites in Madagascar so far—sure to be a sweet moment on the Afropop airwaves.
Another high point of the weekend was meeting a young pop salegy singer, Jac’s, and catching his hot salegy gouma band in action at the Vahinée club. Jac’s is the cousin of Wawa, one of the current top salegy stars, and he hopes to follow in those footsteps. On stage, Jac’s band moved seamlessly through a tropical mix of salegy, zouk, reggae, rap and other styles—no stopping allowed! He’s got it.
Artists here struggle to make ends meet. They make little at gigs, pay dearly for equipment, and then dearly again for radio play. Payola is right out on the open here. But for all that, it is clear that salegy lives, in the classroom, on the airwaves, in private homes, and in nightclubs. And thank God for that. In all its many manifestations, salegy is a joy to hear!