D'Gary

Born : 22/10/1961 in Antananarivo (Madagascar)
Country : Madagascar
Category : Composer / Male Artist
Style of music : world music

According to David Lindley, the American producer who helped compile the seminal Madagascan music album "A World Out Of Time", D'Gary is "a monster guitarist!" And, if you think that's an exaggeration, just take a listen to the unique open-tuned style of Madagascar's guitar wizard!

According to David Lindley, the American producer who helped compile the seminal Madagascan music album "A World Out Of Time", D'Gary is "a monster guitarist!" And, if you think that's an exaggeration, just take a listen to the unique open-tuned style of Madagascar's guitar wizard!

Ernest Randrianasolo – better known to Madagascan music fans as D'Gary – was born in the Madagascan capital, Antananarivo, on 22 October 1961. He is a descendent of the Bara tribe, a nomadic people who traditionally made their living herding oxen across the plains of the central south.

At the age of eight young Ernest moved to Tulear, a town in the south east of the island, when his policeman father got a new posting. Ernest's first contact with the music world came via his elder brother, who played bass with a local band. The group would often get together and rehearse at the Randrianasolo home and, after rehearsals, Ernest would mess around on his brother's guitar. Developing a veritable passion for the instrument, he went on to cobble together his own makeshift guitar at the age of thirteen. Honing his strumming skills, playing with a group of schoolfriends after class, he also spent hours on his own, trying out the tsapiky (a rhythm which was just taking off on a local level and which eventually went on to become a symbol of the music scene in southern Madagascar).

In 1978 Ernest lost his father, who died barely a month after retiring from the police force. Meanwhile, the Randrianasolo family had returned to live on their 'native soil', setting up home in Betroka. And Ernest's father's funeral turned out to be a prestigious affair, the island's leading musicians coming together to play at his graveside - a performance for which they were paid in Bara currency, i.e. humped oxen! Listening to the havoria, the final stage of the Bara's traditional burial ceremony (marked by an all-female choir singing and wailing), Ernest noted that the women's mourning took its melody from the tribe's traditional songs. This was the first time the young boy had come into contact with his ancestral culture and the experience would mark him deeply.

The Randrianasolo family fell on hard times after Ernest's father's death, his mother finding herself alone with nine hungry children to raise. But Ernest/D'Gary soon found a way of helping his mother out. The budding young musician had recently learnt to play the electric guitar at a schoolfriend's house and one day he came up with the novel idea of playing the instrument without plugging it in. At first, D'Gary could only play the tsapiky (the rhythm he had learnt in Tuléar), but with a bit of help from his friend, he soon mastered the basic chords. And when his friend was invited to play at a local wedding he offered to take D'Gary along with him.

D'Gary found himself playing at the open-air dance after the ceremony with a group, but soon decided that the other musicians' tastes were not to his liking. Branching out on his own, the young guitarist launched into a vibrant tsapiky solo – and ended up bringing the house down! Indeed, D'Gary's wedding 'concert' turned him into a local celebrity and he was soon invited to join the best musical outfit in Betroka.
 

In 1979 the group were contacted by Discomad (the only real record company in Madagascar at the time, which later metamorphosed into the label Mars), who invited them to Antananarivo to record their first single. Interestingly enough, D’Gary had never actually envisaged taking up music as a serious profession. But, eager to contribute whatever he could to the family's finances, he agreed to go to the capital, seeing it as an ideal opportunity to sort out his mother's pension! D'Gary's trip to Antananarivo turned out to be a major turning-point in his early career, for it was during his stay in the capital that he hooked up with the leader of Feon’ala, one of Madagascar's leading groups, who invited him to join the band.

D'Gary could scarcely believe his luck. Joining Feon'ala not only meant that he got to go off on extensive tours of the island's provinces – it also meant that the guitar wizard who had never owned his own instrument finally got to lay his hands on a permanent guitar. Experimenting with a wealth of different styles, D'Gary recalled the music he had heard at the havoria ceremony at his father's funeral and began working on a string version of it.

Whenever Feon'ala returned to their base in Antananarivo, D'Gary would stay with an old friend from his Tulear days, Régis Gizavo (the accordion-player from the star Corsican group I Muvrini who was also busy with his solo career). It was not uncommon at this time for the young guitar maestro to spend hours locked away in his room, poring over new melodies and rhythms as if they were some hidden treasure.

After honing his musical skills with Feon’ala for several years, D’Gary embarked on a parallel career as a musical 'mercenary' in 1985. The ambitious young musician would spend his days hanging outside the doors of the Discomad studio, hiring himself out as a session guitarist capable of playing lead, rhythm or bass guitar – whatever the occasion required! Then, in 1986, D'Gary branched out in a new direction, travelling up the east coast to Maroansetra to play at the famous 'dust dances' (so-called because by the time the village dances finished in the early hours of the morning everyone would be covered in white dust from the fields!)

Six months later D'Gary upped sticks again, moving a few hundred kilometres up the road to Tamatave (the island's main port). This proved to be another major turning-point in D'Gary's career, for he scarcely had time to step off the boat before he heard someone calling his name. The someone in question turned out to be Dida, one of the Madagascan music world's most respected and influential figures. Seeing D'Gary step off the boat Dida recalled an experience six years earlier, when he had come across a young guitarist playing at his brother's jazz club in Antananarivo in 1981. He had caught D’Gary in the midst of a 'private' session, warming up before proper rehearsals began and had been impressed by the young musician's flair.

Greeting D'Gary off the boat six years later, he invited him to come and stay at his house for as long as he wanted, encouraging him to give up his lifestyle as a musical 'mercenary' and develop his own style. Dida offered food, lodging – and, most importantly, the loan of a guitar!

D’Gary went back to see his family in Betroka in 1988, but resumed his 'artistic residency' in Dida's house shortly afterwards. Acting as mentor and sponsor to D'Gary, Dida introduced his young protégé to one of the directors of CGM (the German-Madagascan Centre in Antananarivo) the following year. The association, renowned for playing a very active role on the island's music scene, invited D'Gary into the studio to record two tracks. But, excited by his extraordinary playing style, the director of the Mars label, pushed the young guitar wizard to work on a solo album. "Garry" was released shortly afterwards – and several tracks from this impressive debut ended up featuring on the "Musiques de Madagascar" compilation (released in France in 1992).

D’Gary soon found himself working with the CGM on a full-time basis and in 1989 he went on to form his own group, Iraky Ny Vavarano. Working as a trio (vocals, percussion and guitar), the threesome went on to record a series of demo tapes. Meanwhile, D'Gary was beginning to make a name for himself in the national media and soon started making his first television appearances.

D'Gary rejoined Feon'ala for a one-off tour in the north of Madagascar in 1991 and it was partway through this tour that he received an urgent phone call from Antananarivo. Could he drop what he was doing and head back to the capital immediately? Two American producers were waiting to see him at the Mars studios. The two American producers, David Lindley and Henry Kaiser, had picked up on the D'Gary buzz on the local music scene and insisted on staging a recording session with the Madagascan guitar hero before they left town.

D'Gary arrived back in Antananarivo and headed straight into the studio, laying down thirteen tracks in an hour! And this highly fruitful recording session went down in history as his first international album, "Malagasy Guitar, The Music From Madagascar" (released on Shanachie). Henry Kaiser, who did not miss a moment of the legendary session, remembers the experience to this day. "I couldn't believe my eyes or ears when those tracks were played in front of me," he says incredulously, "If you get a guitar and sit at home trying to work out what's going on while he plays, all I can say is 'Good luck'!"

D'Gary's style is disconcerting to say the least. Listen closely to his music and you'll swear there must be at least two guitarists playing. This illusion stems from D'Gary's penchant for "open tunings" (a special technique he has developed through years of patient research and which, needless to say, he keeps totally secret!) Open tunings are actually nothing new in musical terms. In fact, they form the basis of tsapiky, the music that influenced D’Gary so strongly in his early years. However, in tsapiky musicians change only one string while D'Gary alters several. Some critics have claimed that D'Gary's unique playing style attempts to reproduce the sound of the marovany (the traditional Madagascan frame box zither). But D'Gary's secret techniques actually make his guitar sound more like the lokanga (the traditional violin which plays such a major role in the Bara's havoria).

D'Gary flew out to Louisiana to appear at the International Music Festival of La Fayette in 1993. Taking advantage of his presence at the festival, D' Gary's producers, Lindley and Kaiser, pressured him to go into the studio and record an album with Dama (lead singer of hip Madagascan pop outfit Mahaleo). The recording of "Dama & D’Gary" turned out to be a far from pleasant experience for D’Gary, however. Indeed, once the guitar parts had been recorded, he was not even allowed back into the studio to listen to his contribution!

This disappointing experience was only a temporary blight on D'Gary's horizon, however, because the following year he came bounding back to the forefront of the Madagascan music scene with his new group, Jihé. What's more, the outfit soon flew out to France to record a new album, "Horombe". This turned out to be an altogether more uplifting experience than "Dama & D'Gary", the guitarist working under much better conditions – and, of course, having initiated the recording of this album himself!

Enjoying increasing popularity abroad, D'Gary soon established himself as the most sought-after Madagascan musician on the international circuit. Playing sell-out concerts all the way from Germany and Norway to Tasmania, Nigeria, Cameroon and South Africa, D'Gary brought the house down at the world's top music festivals, scoring a big hit at Abidjan's MASA festival in 1995 (as he would at Womad in Singapore in 2001).

On his next album, "Mbo Loza" (recorded in 1997), D'Gary cut his band back to a basic trio – guitar, vocals and percussion, handing the role of lead vocalist over to his seductive dancer, Rataza. In fact, D’Gary preferred to take a back seat when it came to singing. Although he began singing vocals on a few of his tracks every now and then, he considered that his voice was not good enough to do more than that. And fans had to wait for "Ataka Meso" (recorded in 2000 and released in 2001) to hear D'Gary really let himself go on the vocal front!

The year 2000 brought some important changes in D'Gary's relationship with his homeland. After having neglected the Madagascan music scene for some ten years, preferring to focus his attention on his international career, he finally agreed to put together a compilation of Madagascan music ("Tsapiky 2000", released on the Mars label). Later that year he also embarked on a mini tour of Madagascar, organised by the Alliance Française, playing fifteen concerts across the island. These two events appeared to reconcile D’Gary to his homeland once and for all.

 December 2001 

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