From the May/June 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Bruce Molsky
Around 2000, I was introduced to the music of Madagascar by my pal Paul Hostetter, master luthier, guitarist, and passionate lover of Malagasy music. D’Gary, Johnny Bass, Tarika Sammy… the list of great players and singers from that island country is long and deep. The guitar tradition from Madagascar takes in not only local music elements but classical and pop influences from everywhere. It’s a beautifully integrated and unique confluence of cultural styles. I was lucky enough to meet some of the members of Tarika Sammy when they visited the United States some years ago. The experience left a deep imprint and made me a fan as well. I have a valiha [a tubular zither] they left with me, which sits in a prominent place in my office, and have been inspired to add some Malagasy music to my own repertoire.
On my first solo guitar album, Everywhere You Go [reviewed here], I play my take on “Iasitera,” a traditional instrumental from Madagascar. I learned this composition through listening deeply to Germain Rakotomavo, a brilliant classically trained guitarist who is devoted to furthering the sounds of the unique, indigenous instruments of Madagascar, like the valiha, marovany [a box zither] and kabosy [a box-shaped wooden guitar]. In this lesson, I’ll teach you the concepts at play in “Iasitera,” which can help you learn something from outside of your normal sphere while picking up some concepts you can apply to solo fingerstyle guitar in general.
When I first listened to Rakotomavo’s re- cording of “Iasitera” on the 1995 compilation The Moon and the Banana Tree: New Guitar Music from Madagascar, I could hear right away that it was in a nonstandard tuning. I listened carefully for open strings and parsed out open C major, but with D in the bass (lowest string to highest D G C G C E). To get into this tuning from standard, lower strings 6–4 by a whole step each and raise string 2 by a half step. Open tunings offer the advantage of playing chords with one finger, and in G major, which is the key that “Iasitera” is in, you can play the I chord (G) by barring the top four strings at the seventh fret. This position is where the tune starts.
Learning tunes aurally is a process I’ve been working on and honing for decades. It really comes in handy when trying to suss out the uneven phrasing and syncopated rhythms in a piece like “Iasitera.” I started by separating the elements of the piece into a rough priority order and then working on them one at a time. It’s as much a thought exercise as a mechanical one; being methodical and patient helps to sidestep the danger of being overwhelmed by everything in a piece of music I’m trying to understand. This process also makes me a sharper listener in general— even for music I’m not working on.
Of course, the melody is in charge of everything and the first thing to get comfortable with. Then, you can add the bass lines that move underneath the melody, then finally putting in the notes that flesh out the chords. Ornamentation and variations pop up as icing on the cake. It’s exciting to see a piece come together this way!
Feeling the Phrases
A piece like “Iasitera” offers not just an excellent introduction to the music of Madagascar but an opportunity to work on a piece with quite a few metric modulations, or changing time signatures. In spite of its rhythmic quirks, the melody flows much like the human voice. Think about the phrases as being separated by breath and space. Let’s divide the melody of each part into phrases in that way. Forget the guitar for just a moment and sing each phrase one at a time. Your body will tell you where the breath and accent go.
“Iasitera” is structured in two main sections. The A part falls into a series of phrases in the following assemblage of beats: 5, 5, 2, 4, 3, 3. A bit more straightforward, the B part’s phrases mainly alternate between groups of four and two beats. Be sure to count carefully as you work through the subsequent exercises, and with a bit of practice these changing time signature changes will fall right into place.
Building the Parts
Start with just the first phrase of the A section, which is shown in Example 1a. Sing or hum the melody before you play it, and refer to the video on AG’s website if you cannot sing on sight. Then pick up your guitar and find the notes you just sang for that one phrase. Developing that relationship between notes you hear in the air and where to find them on your instrument is probably the most important thing you can do to strengthen your ability to play by ear! Repeat the process for the rest of the A section’s phrases (Examples 1b–1f). Before picking up your guitar and playing each phrase on its own. Start slowly, focusing on maintaining a steady beat. When you’re comfortable with all six phrases, try stitching them together as a continuous melody.
Next, let’s reinforce the feeling of the phrases while laying down a harmonic foundation, adding a bass note on the first beat of each bar, as depicted in Example 2. Due to the tuning, most of the bass notes fall conveniently on open strings. Work on Ex. 2 in the same way as the previous figures, playing it one phrase at a time before combining them.
Once you can confidently play Ex. 2, insert notes around the bass line to complete the chords (Example 3). Here’s where it gets interesting. Adding chords not only moves the piece harmonically but adds rhythmic accents, like musical punctuation marks, really waking up a syncopated piece like “Iasitera.” Listen to what the placement of the chords does to lift up the momentum. For me, this is where I have to force myself to stop, listen carefully to what I’m playing, and just cycle it over and over again until it really feels solid.
Another thing to note about the chords is that less is often more in these kinds of arrangements. I often use just a note or two to imply harmony. For instance, in bar 2, for the I chord (G) I use the dyad G–B (the root and the third) over the open G string and for the ii (Am), just the root and the third (A and C, respectively) as well. In fact, the only four-note chord in this section is the D5 in the last measure.
Putting It All Together
Example 4 is a transcription from the video of how I play “Iasitera” one time through the whole form. The A section, which you should now be quite familiar with, is bars 1–6; the B section, measure 7 till the end. On the album—and in the beginning of the video—I repeat the form a bunch of times, never playing it exactly the same way. Listen to both versions to get some variation ideas.
The B part works similarly to the A, here we can create some textural contrast with a more active bass line. Note the appearance of a cool and dissonant walkup in bar 12, contrasted by the more traditional walkups in measure 16 and elsewhere. Either way, the bass notes always serve to support the melody and keep the piece rhythmically grounded.
I’ve also taken some occasional liberties with rhythm, most notably in bars 11 and 15. These measures were originally in 4/4, but I drop an eighth note to build excitement—something that only works in a solo context. But remember that nothing here is cast in stone, and you should play the piece as you feel!
I hope this method of finding your way into “Iasitera”—or any solo fingerstyle arrangement, for that matter—makes sense. Try the same approach with some other tunes—if you’re a blues fan, Mississippi John Hurt’s “Spike Driver Blues” is a great and straightforward one, as is Sam McGee’s “Wayfaring Stranger.” Have fun with this, and remember to enjoy the journey!
For more on the music of Madagascar, I’d highly recommend the following albums. Some might be out of print, but all can be found online, either through used music stores or streaming sites, and are well worth seeking out. —BM
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Beneath Southern Skies, Tarika Sammy (Shanachie)
Horombe, D’Gary & Jihe (Indigo)
The Moon and the Banana Tree: New Guitar Music from Madagascar, Various Artists (Shanachie)
Resting Place of the Mists: New Valiha and Marovany Music from Madagascar, Various Artists (Shanachie)
A World Out of Time, Vol. 3: Music of Madagascar, Various Artists (Shanachie)
Bruce Molsky is a fiddler, banjo player, guitarist, and singer who specializes in old-time music of the Appalachians and also explores music from around the world.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.