From Madagascar to Corona: Making Music in a Basement

Mino (a.k.a. Nouns) with the valiha. (Photo courtesy Mino Razafimpamonjy, via Brooklyn Rail).

Mino (a.k.a. Nouns) with the valiha. (Photo courtesy Mino Razafimpamonjy, via Brooklyn Rail).

Immigrants from the island of Madagascar off the southeast coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean, and visitors from there, come together to make music in a basement in Queens that Edward Carver, writing in The Brooklyn Rail, likens to a speakeasy. In a fascinating account of the little-known Malagasy community in the New York area, Carver tells of a recent performance at “NY Valiha,” named for the “Malagasy icon, a bamboo zither called the valiha.” Mika, a guitarist visiting from Madagascar, was the star attraction:

The basement felt like an old speakeasy with a few modern flourishes. Little American and Malagasy flags rested atop a fridge in the corner. Couches surrounded the makeshift stage; in the back, glass high-top tables sat under a strobe light, refracting bright colors across the room. After a few songs, the furniture was pushed aside for casual dancing.

Mika fuses Malagasy folk with indie rock—his dreads and his mellow vibe might bring to mind the Wailers, but his tight guitar hooks sound more like the Shins. Except for a couple of men who’d been in the U.S. too long, everyone sang along to hits like “Ampindramo ahy,” a simple ballad in which he begs to “borrow” a woman’s love, or at least an arm to rest on. The audience relaxed, briefly insulated from American ignorance. In this basement speakeasy, no one confused their home country for an animated film from DreamWorks.

Playing bass alongside Mika was not his usual bandmate, Davis, who couldn’t make the trip from Madagascar, but another young Malagasy man with long dreads, David Rajaonary, who’s been in the States since 2000. It’s David who taught Mino Razafimpamonjy about music, and it’s Mino who turned the basement of his house in Corona into a speakeasy, creating a sort of cultural microwave, where, for those hungry for a reminder of home, traditions can be reheated on demand.

Carver goes on to describe the valiha, which is Mino’s instrument, and to explain how the language and culture of Madagascar, a former French colony, show the influence of Indonesia.

The original bamboo zither instruments came from Indonesia, like many of the people who settled Madagascar 1000 to 2000 years ago—relatively recently. When Europeans arrived 500 years ago, they were surprised to notice similarities between the Malagasy language and those spoken on Borneo, Java, and Sumatra. Language and culture had, as it turned out, migrated across the vast Indian Ocean on sailing vessels. The early Indonesians knew how to take advantage of the trade winds.

For more on Mino and his friends, the life that these Malagasy live in NYC, and the music they make and hear, go to The Brooklyn Rail. And find out the second meaning of “NY” in the name “NY Valiha.”

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