Madagascar’s exquisite folk and pop music have never received the global acclaim they deserve. Some have speculated that this is because Madagascar’s idiosyncratic rhythms and melodies are a world apart from the West and Central African idioms that fed into the creation of American blues, jazz, rock, funk and hip-hop. Westerners understand West African music readily because it shares roots with these, the most popular pop styles ever created. So goes the anthro-historical discourse. Still, for some of us, the string picking, vocal harmonies and bracing grooves of Malagasy music took hold like a revelation on first hearing and have never let go. Yet album after album, tour after tour (when they happened at all), Malagasy acts have failed to achieve sufficient sales numbers, and today, it is rare to find an international release or touring group from this vast Indian Ocean island in North America.
Given that history, it is risky to predict that this is the album that will change the tide. And yet, I am ready to do just that. Toy Raha Toy by Toko Telo (Group of Three) is a collaboration between guitar virtuoso and songwriter D’Gary, accordionist and songwriter Regis Gizavo, and vocalist and songwriter Monika Njava—all veterans of music from in and around Tulear in southwest Madagascar. Their musical chemistry has the right blend of familiarity and otherness, of virtuosity and pop savvy, to be all but irresistible to nearly any listener.
Start with D’Gary’s finger-style guitar work—fleet, dizzying, instantly recognizable. On his own, D’Gary’s sonic webs can overwhelm you, and his vocals are as raw and raspy as the dusty cow towns where he grew up in the island’s wild, wild southwest. But in addition to being one of the most impressive African (or any) guitarists alive, D’Gary is a deeply soulful songwriter. Here, signature songs like, “Be Tepotepo (Fearful)” and “Mpiarakandro” (an evocation of the cattle herder coming home at sunset) get deluxe vocal treatment through the richly nuanced contralto voice of Monika Njava. Back in the 1990s, Njava sang lead in the legendary Tulear family band Njava, but she has since created a solo career, bridging folklore and jazz. (Afropop interviewed her about her work, including the unusual, panting vocal art of beko for the podcast “Beko ‘n Blues.”)
Njava adds muscular vocal power to all these tracks, including three of her own and two co-compositions with D’Gary. In one of those, the racing “Raha Fa Ela (Things Past),” Njava sings of her childhood fear of cattle rustlers and embarrassment at having legs thin as cornstalks, but still, “I miss my past life in the village.” Njava’s “Rapolany” charges ahead to the 4/4 romp of this region’s tsapiky pop music, with sudden, gentle pauses, as she sings about a woman out of control, veering up and down like an airplane, as the neighbors whisper. Sharp, spare poetry is tucked with the emotional juggernaut of the music.
Regis Gizavo on accordion is a sensitive accompanist who has played with an expansive array of artists, mostly in France and Madagascar. He can also let fly with bold swells and flourishes. Only an artist from the Tulear region could so skillfully interweave these idiosyncratic song structures and rhythms, often propelled by no percussion other than a small shaker—light as a feather, steady as a locomotive. Gizavo comes forth on a few of his own compositions, like his rollicking folk-pop number, “Relaza,” a word that indicates the eighth of 15 children, but also means “enemy.”
There is nothing rote or predictable about Toko Telo’s music. It exemplifies the absolute best of polished, acoustic, African roots music—completely of its place, but open to the whole wide world, if only it would listen.