November 2014: The Music of Madagascar

Meets National Core Arts Anchor Standards 4, 5, 7, 9, and 11


Learn about the music and culture of Madagascar, and understand how history and geography have contributed to the development of its distinctive modern music.

Analyze the rhythmic structure and vocal arrangement ideas in two contemporary Madagascar pop songs

Try to recreate the complex 12/8 time used in Malagasy music (Pr5)



CD (November 2014)

A globe or map of the world. Google maps link:,66.3478678,4z/data=!4m2!3m1!1s0x21d1a4e3ea238545:0x5244e3c1977b1388



Find Madagascar on the map.

Read (or have students read) a brief history of the music of Madagascar:

Focus on two musical styles: salegy and tsapiky


What are the key differences between salegy and tsapiky? (Salegy is older, from the north, and in 12/8 time; tsapiky younger, from the south, and in 4/4 time.)

 Play Jaojoby’s “Somaiko Somainao”

(CD track 5 with video linked below).

Consider the way the song’s rhythm unfolds. When the bass drum comes in at 0:28, count the song out in 4/4 time. Then notice what happens when the band comes in at 0:48. A strong triplet feel is established—1-and-ah, 2-and-ah, 3-and-ah, 4-and-ah—the signature beat of salegy music. Notice also the way the two different guitar parts interlock to create a rhythmic and melodic texture. That kind of interplay is a common feature of modern African music.

Play Damily’s “Nahoda” (CD track 4).

Notice that it is in a clear 4/4 time—no triplets. However, the bass drum does not play the straight four beats. Rather, it plays a three-beat, syncopated pattern that repeats twice in each four-beat measure. Between the bass guitar and the bass drum, the 4/4 time feel is established, even though neither one is playing it directly. No wonder outsiders find Malagsy rhythms challenging to master!


Compare the vocal arrangements in the previous two songs. Both involve a lead voice (harmonized in the Jaojoby track) with other singers responding. This is known as “call and response.” But each song uses a different approach. The Jaojoby track is more predictable and organized—like a pop song. In the Damily track, the male and female voices intertwine, and there are spoken passages that feel improvised, reflecting the fact that this comes out of social occasions, where interaction with the public is a key ingredient.

Play D’Gary’s “Lamba Flanelle” (CD track 6).

Notice how intricate the rhythmic phrasing of the guitar and the percussion instrument (katsa) is. After 1:28 the song settles into a fast triplet feel. At this rapid speed, it is difficult to analyze. So let’s slow it down.

Using voices and hand-clapping, have the whole class clap out a slow 4/4 beat—the downbeat. Then have them speak a triplet feel, with the first beat coinciding with their claps: ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three, etc. Now, keeping the claps steady, change the accentuation by having the class speak the second beat of the triplet louder: one-TWO-three, one-TWO-three, etc. That feeling of accenting a beat that does not fall on the downbeat, but just after it, is a common characteristic of Malagasy music.


If you find the rhythms in this music challenging, that’s no surprise. There is a lot of Africa in the American music we all grew up with—especially blues, rock, funk, jazz, and hip-hop. But the Africans who contributed to the development of those sounds mostly came from West Africa. Madagascar, due to its affinities with east Africa and southeast Asia, reveals a different kind of rhythmic sensibility, less familiar to our ears. More proof that music encodes the histories of people, everywhere in the world.