Ottawa Citizen Review
A Madagascar Music Icon\'s Haunting Songs Have Been Revived by His daughter and
Ottawa Citizen November 23 2002
A Madagascar music icon\'s haunting songs have been revived by his daughter
and her Ottawa husband
By Doug Fischer
Ottawa Citizen The tragically short career of (one of) Madagascar\'s most famous musician began with the execution of his father -- and continues a half-century later in Ottawa with a daughter he hardly knew. This connection between past and present will be on stage tonight at Ottawa\'s Bayou Blues & Jazz Club, and can be heard on a compelling new recording. But stories like this are best told from the beginning.
In this case, that\'s March 1947 in Mananjary, a thriving mining town on Madagascar\'s east coast, where a teacher and several other men were put against a wall and shot for plotting to end 81 years of French colonial rule. Among those forced to watch the executions was Raymond Razafimbahiny, the teacher\'s 25-year-old son. Until that day, he\'d been known as an unassuming, fun-loving office clerk who liked music - he played the piano at parties - and who was devoted to his wife and infant daughter. Razafimbahiny had never shown any interest in politics. But as the son of a member of the resistance, he was suspected of being a sympathizer. He knew he had to flee. Gathering his wife and daughter, brothers and sisters and their families, a tribe of 15 to 18 in all, Razafimbahiny led them inland on foot, unsure of their destination but knowing it was urgent to get as far away as possible. For months they walked, stopping occasionally for a few days while a woman gave birth or a sick child got better, then picking up and continuing their slow northwest trek. Music had always been a part of Razafimbahiny\'s life, but never more than a pleasant diversion. Now, though, as he journeyed with the memory of his father\'s execution tearing at his soul, Razafimbahiny began to compose songs and poetry to express his pain. \"It\'s what we think of as therapy today,\" says Maggy Razafimbahiny, the daughter who wouldn\'t be born for another 10 years and who found her way to Ottawa 30 years after that. \"All he knew was he had to get down his thoughts to keep going.\" The songs Razafimbahiny wrote were often deeply personal, but it was possible to interpret them in broader ways, as nationalistic expressions of love for Madagascar. And among them were the songs that would soon become island
The trekkers eventually arrived at the end of the road, 450 kilometres from their starting point, at Majunga, a lively port city on the island\'s northwest shore. Razafimbahiny found work, and as life eased into routine, he began to perform again at parties. He was a fine pianist, and his music was an appealing blend of popular Malagasy styles and influences imported by the French - the mambo, cha-cha and jazz. As his local fame grew, he and his band (singers, bass and drums) were soon being hired to play at larger celebrations. Sometime in the late \'40s or early \'50s, he changed his stage name to R.R. (after his first and last names) Majunga (after his adopted home). By \'51, he was recording his songs, and over the next 12 years, Majunga became something of a living icon, his style emulated by musicians across the island. In 1960, when Madagascar finally achieved independence from France, he performed his best-loved songs at the celebrations. But three years later, without warning, Majunga suffered a fatal heart attack, leaving a wife and four children between the ages of one month and 17 years without a breadwinner. \"I don\'t remember a lot about him, but I think he tried to cram too many things into too short a time,\" says his daughter Maggy, who was six when he died. \"He smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and lived life to the fullest.\" For the next decade, the Razafimbahinys struggled to get by with help from their extended family. Eventually, as the children grew and got jobs, things improved.
By the 1980s, Maggy was working for UNICEF - and that\'s when Ottawa entered the picture. She met Dean Pallen, a 28-year-old Ottawan on a three-year Canadian International Development Agency program connected to UNICEF. By the time he left for home in 1991, they, too, were connected - romantically. She followed him to Ottawa a year later, and they were married. Their marriage was a good fit musically. Pallen, a jazz musician and composer on the side, had travelled extensively, always with his saxophone handy. \"A big part of my learning came from sitting in with local musicians wherever I went,\" he says. \"It gave me a broad musical perspective.\"
Maggy Razafimbahiny had never sung professionally but, blessed with a haunting voice, she became lead singer of Mada Vazo, a group that built a loyal following in Eastern Ontario and parts of Quebec while performing Malagasy folk music. Pallen sometimes sat in with Mada Vazo, but it wasn\'t until a group of up-and-coming Malagasy musicians produced a pop-style tribute album to R.R. Majunga in the mid-\'90s that he began to think about doing his own more serious homage, with Maggy as the main singer. He started to transcribe and work on fresh arrangements of Majunga\'s songs -- there are roughly 40 in all, 22 of them on record -- and had some of the original 78-rpm recordings digitally enhanced to improve their quality. In 2001, Pallen and Maggy formed Raivo -- the word means \"middle daughter\" in Malagasy -- to perform and record the music.
The group\'s CD, Hommage, was released this summer. Not surprisingly, Majunga\'s strong melodies and rhythmic mix get a lively reworking through Pallen\'s fresh arrangements. The recording contains a distinctive jazz influence -- Pallen\'s warm tenor sax sound bears a striking resemblance to Stan Getz\'s -- yet it\'s more than just a world music recording with jazz overtones. That has a lot to do with Maggy Razafimbahiny\'s instinctive feel for the Malagasy rhythms and uniquely plaintiff voice, which stays with you for hours after listening. \"I\'d heard her sing at family reunions and things,\" says Pallen, \"but it wasn\'t until I heard her doing traditional Malagasy religious pieces at a wedding that I knew just how amazing she is. \"She got something you can\'t learn. It\'s just in her.\"
Knowing most listeners would never have heard Majunga, Pallen wisely included five of his originals -- including two of his best-known pieces, Fanatenana and Malagasy anie ianao -- on the CD, which provide a delightful contrast to Pallen\'s updated versions. Razafimbahiny is pleased with the outcome: \"It was interesting to take a traditional beat and put it in a more jazzy setting and yet keep the original language in the vocal,\" she says. \"I love the exotic way it came out.\" She also believes the mix would have pleased her father, for whom she feels a new closeness. \"I finally got the relationship I wanted with my father,\" she says quietly. \"It the kind of spiritual connection I\'d always hoped for.\"
This article appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2002. It appears here with permission of the newspaper.