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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

DanceAfrica—Scouting Madagascar

by Nick Schwartz-Hall

Unicef performance, Centre Valbio, Ranomafana. Photo: ZOU

Last August Baba Chuck Davis and I flew 20 hours from JFK to Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, in search of a traditional Malagasy dance troupe to invite to DanceAfrica this May. Neither of us had been to Madagascar, and DanceAfrica has never had a Malagasy dance troupe. We were looking forward to new approaches to African dance, with, as Chuck put it, not a djembe in sight.

Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world, a self-contained republic off the east coast of Africa, drawing its heritage from early migrations from Asia and East Africa, with an overlay of English and French colonialism in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of us know of it as the home of the lemur species and rainforests. About 90% of the plants and animals of Madagascar are found nowhere else.

Our visit was enthusiastically supported by the staff of the US Embassy in Antananarivo, in particular Brett Bruen, Erik Atkins, and David Andriessen. They introduced us to amazing cultural advisors including the former Minister of Culture Mireille Rakotomalala and Hanitrarivo Rasoanaivo, leader of the renowned world music group Tarika Be.

The morning after our arrival, the embassy arranged a press conference to announce our arrival and give journalists the chance to ask questions about our intentions. With their partners at Vision Madagascar and journalist Francoise Eid, the embassy got the word out in Madagascar about our visit and search for a troupe for DanceAfrica. The press conference was well attended, and we received quite a bit of coverage.
After a drive from our hotel through the cobblestone streets and clustered wood houses lining the hillsides and lakes of Antananarivo (with not a traffic light in sight), we arrived at Hanitra’s ANTSHOW facility for the press conference. True to form, Baba Chuck began the conference, somewhat informal anyway, by having everyone present—journalists, dignitaries, artists, embassy personnel—work through some dance steps in a circle while introducing themselves, followed by a round of hugs.

More importantly, with the help of the exposure and efforts of our partners, we auditioned half a dozen dance companies at the studios of the national TV and radio broadcasting company, RTI Dome. All companies featured dancers and musicians together, usually singing while they danced, at different levels of preparedness. The music featured percussion (some resembling French military drums; others clearly handmade and indigenous), accordion, and a stringed instrument, called a valiha—a bamboo tube with metal strings running its length, plucked by hand.

Groupe Bakomango. Photo: ZOU
Most companies focused on the fast footwork and flickering hand gestures typical of the dances of the Merina people. (Malagasy people share a common language, but there are several distinct ethnicities, usually regionally based). Some had gathered dances from different cultural groups; Hanitra told us that some dances—especially one from a rainforest people—were unusual to see performed in public. One company, Groupe Bakomanga, caught our eye, not only from the range of dances they could present, but also by the effort and enthusiasm they put into rehearsing with Baba Chuck.

The final decision would not be revealed until the “finals.” On the third evening, some of the companies, with musicians, performed for a live studio audience while being videotaped for future broadcast. Eric Wong, the US chargĂ© d’affairs, attended with his wife; Mereille sat with Baba Chuck as a judge. Hanitra, a national star, helped Baba onstage with translating. The emcee ably presided over the evening speaking Malagasy, French, and English. At the end of the evening, Baba Chuck announced Bakomanga as the winners, and they burst out of the audience, leaping and cheering.

Groupe Bakomanga is well established in Madagascar, but as with most performing arts there, entirely self-supporting in a depressed economy. Founded several years ago by the Malagasy singing star Mariette Razonakoto, the company comprises women and men of varying ages living outside of Antananarivo. They specialize in gathering the dances and music of different regions of Madagascar. As Hanitra told us, currently in Madagascar traditional arts have little popular following, so choosing Bakomanga to perform in the US is significant.

The next morning, with Bakomanga’s members and embassy staff, we took a 10-hour drive through the high plateau of central Madagascar to the Centre Valbio in Ranomafana, a rainforest and preserve for the Golden Bamboo Lemur. The Centre was founded by Dr. Patricia Wright as a study and cultural center devoted to biodiversity and working with the local ecology and economy to sustain the rainforest and its people. They graciously provided their facilities to house us and Bakomanga, and space to rehearse with Baba Chuck.

Our transport was arranged by the US Embassy, and their staff accompanied us. We drove along the narrow, two-lane national highway through valley after valley terraced with rice paddies, and dotted with villages of two-story, reddish-brown mud houses, with thatched or wooden roofs, and painted shutters over glassless windows. Few had electricity; we frequently saw cooking fires. Occasionally, in a small town, people crowded both sides of the highway; small wooden stands and shops displayed produce, meat, drinks, and household goods. A few colonial-style administrative buildings stood off the road.

Groupe Bakomanga. Photo: ZOU
We visited during dry season when most of the fields are sere stubble dotted with cattle, but occasionally a paddy appeared as a brilliant green burst—an idea of how beautiful and overwhelmingly verdant the area must be in the growing seasons, and masking that the hills and valleys were stripped of indigenous rainforest to make way for agriculture and rice farms.

Bakomanga rehearsed intensively for two-and-a-half days in Ranomafana, leaving barely any time to wander in the surrounding rainforest. I managed to slip out one evening, and with the help of a guide, saw various chameleons, amphibians, large spiders, and mouse lemurs after a two-kilometer walk from the Centre, on the edges of an abandoned banana plantation.

On our second morning there, the group was invited to perform for a UNICEF gathering of 300 children from the area and to meet the village elders. It was a brilliant, clear, sunny day; the dancing ground was the village soccer field, surrounded by dense rainforest, banana and papaya trees, and the hills of Ranomafana. With several hundred people gathered around, children performed the steps of various animals, and a youth ensemble presented traditional dances from the region. Bakomanga performed several dances in their colorful costumes.

We left Ranomafana on market day as nearby villagers drove farm animals and water buffalo down the road to town and balanced bundles of goods on their heads. In the village we made a quick visit to a women’s weaving cooperative which makes beautiful cotton and silk scarves on small looms in a low, dirt floor building, without heat or electricity.

We said goodbye—“mirary soa”—to the members of Bakomanga and the staff of Centre ValBio. Our driver, a certified race car driver, got us back to Antananarivo two hours quicker than it took to get there, accelerating along the same narrow highway through the high plateau, with Baba Chuck holding on tight. Perhaps a fittingly all-too-quick end to trip that gave us exposure to the wonderful banquet of Malagasy culture, but admittedly, really only flavors.

Nick Schwartz-Hall is line producer at BAM. Reprinted from April 2014 BAMbill.

1 comment:

  1. Before attending this event, my only frame of reference to Madagascar, was the vanilla I would purchase for baking! How pleased I was to see the performers of Madagascar, who were significantly of "all ages" and to know there are individuals of "all ages" in that country who work hard to preserve tradtional culture for their people in song and dance..a much softer and melodic sounds and complicated movements...who knew from Africa!. Also loved, loved the drumming group from Buffalo. I give Thanks to all those involved for bringing these art forms to the people....an amazing show by all!

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