In every ear and hand
Rakoto Frah, who died in 2001 at the age of 80, was a master of Madagascar´s flute, the sodina, and impressed even jazz musicians like Ornette Coleman with his personal style and phrasing. He composed several hundred songs, made his own instruments and was known on Madagascar for appearing not only on stage but also on banknotes.
Whether the music was traditional, jazz or rock, Philibert Rabezona was equal to the flute and the occasion. Better known as Rakoto Frah, he was born, so he believed, between 1920 and 1925 in Ankadinandriana-Antananarivo on Madagascar and became so esteemed as to tour the island with the French President De Gaulle in 1958. After independence in 1960, Rakoto Frah featured on the 1000 Ariary banknote, but his name was not added, as he was already widely known not only for his music but also for having ushered in the demise of the French colonial regime by leading a demonstration to the presidential palace. He is thought to have composed between 300 and 800 pieces, but he remained poor.
His father and uncle had been shepherds of the Merina people, playing to herds on the high plateau near the capital. Rakoto began playing the sodina - Madagascar´s bamboo flute with six holes for the fingers and one for the thumb - at the age of six, then on losing his parents at the age of ten, was already so proficient that he began to lead a band of his own called Ambohijatobe. This played at festivals in the city and at circumcision and re-burial ceremonies, in which the dead are exhumed and reburied according to custom.
The Merina tradition of the central high plateau embraces two separate styles: the hira gasy (hira = song, gasy = from Madagascar) and the famadihana. At famadihana ceremonies lasting several days, groups appear with players of the sodina and the amponga (a drum borrowed from French army bands) and play exuberant dance-music to cheer the dead up. These ceremonies also have competitions, at which hearers may judge a band by the number of its players, the number of its new compositions and its flair. A big band may have up to 20 flautists.
Rakoto soon became a popular performer and may, for such occasions, have composed up to 800 pieces, including songs in the hira gasy tradition of drama with music, dancing, proverbs and moral teachings. The serious (relira) or light-hearted (zanakira) pieces range from everyday commentaries on love, jealousy and other vexations to descriptions of landscape. Both famadihana and hira gasy pieces are included in his collection ´Rakoto Frah - Flute Master of Madagascar´, recorded in 1985 and reissued as a CD in 1999 under the label Globe Style.
On visiting Madagascar in 1985 to record traditional and popular music for their company, Ben Mandelson and Roger Armstrong soon heard of Rakoto, who at the age of 65 was a familiar figure in the quarters of the capital Antananarivo. He appeared regularly with his group Tarika (group) Rakoto Frah and was esteemed for his diplomacy in settling local disputes.
In his youth, Rakoto had also learned two safer professions - those of a baker and a smith - but his flair for the flute had triumphed. Rakoto achieved mastery of the sodina, which is one of Madagascar´s oldest instruments, as not only a player but also an instrument-maker with a flawless ear and eye. On visiting the market to buy tent-props, ski-sticks and plastic tubes (which he preferred as raw materials to bamboo, as being jinx-proof), he knew at once for which mode each tube was suitable Back home he then bored finger-holes in them without using even a measuring rod.
Despite his prolific output of songs and compositions, he earned little, since on Madagascar nearly all cassettes are copied privately and sold by small traders, who keep their gains for themselves. Producers of music for the home-market earn little for the same reason. Up to the end of his life, Rakoto Frah lived in Isotry, a poor borough in the capital, with his family of almost 30. Here he had his workshop, welcomed fellow musicians, passed his immense musical knowledge on to youngsters and settled local disputes in his role of senior advisor.
Never without a flute, he soon became a living legend. His reputation was so illustrious that the future president of Madagascar, Philibert Tsiranana, chose him in 1958 to accompany General De Gaulle on his tour of the island. Two years later, at the granting of independence, he was shown with a flute on the 1000 ariatry banknote. With the Orchestre National, he then toured black Africa, the Maghreb, the Soviet Union, Europe, India and Australia.
When Philibert Tsiranana´s government was accused of corruption and deposed by the army in 1972, Rakoto Frah too was affected and did not come to the fore again till the mid-eighties, when a new generation of musicians was in search of its elders and keen to learn from the legendary sodina-player. After 1985, hardly an album appeared on Madagascar without at least one track from Rakoto Frah, whose genius was able to draw new strains from even such classics as ´I fought the law´ and was able at the drop of a hat to conjure up a two-step from a New Orleans´ groove played by David Lindley (A World Out of Time, Vol. 1).
David Lindley and Henry Kaiser, who in 1991 recorded musicians whom they had got to know on Madagascar through the singer and guitarist Dama Mahaleo, praise the old master of the flute: ´He is one of the most amazing master musicians and individuals that we have ever met. His mastery of the sodina is on a level that you could only compare to great, western instrumental masters like John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Billy Pigg or Miles Davis. Rakoto Frah certainly seems to know mysterious things about the phrasing of melodies that nobody else knows.´
In 1994 Rakoto was a prominent member of the Malagasy All Stars on their German tour which took them to the House of World Cultures and other venues. Since 1995 he was the soul of the band Feo Gasy, together with the guitarist Erick Manana with whom in 1998 he recorded the CD ´Ramano´, then in August 2001 he was still able to perform at the Festival de Langon in France. On his death on 29th September, 2001, the government of Madagascar organised a public funeral in the Palais des Sports in Mahamasina on the spot where General De Gaulle had proclaimed the country´s independence on 26th June, 1960. On 3rd October his body was laid in the family crypt. The famadihana in his honour are sure to include melodies of his own, but his mastery of the sodina has gone with him into the grave.
Events at the HKW:
Friday, 28th October 1994
Saturday, 29th October 1994
Madagascar - Music from the Forgotten Continent
Malagasy All Stars
Organiser: House of World Cultures together with Cerde Germano-Malagasy
Rakoto Frah was born (1920-25) as Philibert Rabezona in Ankadinandriana-Antananarivo on Madagascar. Being the son of a Merina herdsman from the central high plateau he began playing the sodina, the island´s flute, at the age of six and was the leader of his own band, Ambohijatobe, at the age of ten. Despite this early success, he also trained as a cook and smith, and his skills as a smith were then handy in making flutes, since he preferred to resort to tent-poles, ski-sticks and plastic than to traditional bamboo.
In 1958 Rakoto Frah accompanied the French President De Gaulle on his tour of the island, and in 1960 he was portrayed on the island´s most often used banknote. From then till the fall of Philibert Tsirana´s government in 1972, Rakoto was often on tour with the Orchestre National in black Africa, the Maghreb, the Soviet Union, Europe, India and Australia. In the mid-eighties, he was rediscovered as an old master by foreign musical enthusiasts who had come to Madagascar to make recordings. Since then he featured on all compilations of music from the island.
Though he composed hundreds of songs and gained a national order, Rakoto Frah remained poor, but on his death on 29th September, 2001, the government of Madagascar held a public celebration in the Palais des Sports in Mahamasina for the last great master of the sodina.
Madagascar: Chants et danses en Imerina
Arion 64522 : France 2000
Feo Gasy : Ramano
Daqui 332 008 France 1999
Souffles de vie: Flute Sodina
Musikela 023872: France 1998
Feo Gasy : Tsofy Rano
Les nuits atypiques/Melodie 08771.2: France 1996
A World out of Time. Volume 3
V/A: Shanachie: USA 1996
A World out of Time. Volume 2
V/A: Shanachie: USA 1993
Art of Rakoto Frah
A World out of Time. Volume 1
V/A: Shanachie: USA 1992
Flute Master of Madagascar
GlobeStyle CDORBD 027: UK 1988, reissued as a CD 1999