Régis Gizavo

Born : 16/6 /1959 in Tuléar (Madagascar)
Country : Madagascar
Category : Composer / Male Artist / Songwriter
Style of music : world music

The idea of mixing traditional Madagascan music and the accordion may appear a little strange at first. However, the two have a shared history going back hundreds of years. The accordion - or the "poorman's piano" as it is known in French - was introduced to Madagascar by sailors in the early 19th century and went on to become an integral part of the local culture. Régis Gizavo, one of the last custodians of the island's traditional music heritage, has developed a unique accordion-playing style, reworking the renitra for modern ears.

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The idea of mixing traditional Madagascan music and the accordion may appear a little strange at first. However, the two have a shared history going back hundreds of years. The accordion - or the "poorman's piano" as it is known in French - was introduced to Madagascar by sailors in the early 19th century and went on to become an integral part of the local culture. Régis Gizavo, one of the last custodians of the island's traditional music heritage, has developed a unique accordion-playing style, reworking the renitra for modern ears.

Born in the Madagascan town of Tuléar on 16 June 1959, Régis heard the sound of accordion music echoing round his house before he learnt to walk. His father owned a small diatonic instrument and Régis's elder brothers would often pick it up and amuse themselves, playing music in their free time. It wasn't long before Régis was bitten by the accordion bug himself. He began playing the family accordion when he was just six years old, using the instrument as a toy to imitate the sounds around him.

By the age of twelve Régis had blossomed into a serious accordion talent and a local band soon got in touch with him and asked him to play at regional dances with them. While the other musicians in the group spent the night drinking and chatting up pretty girls, Régis mastered the intricacies of musette, sega and other local dance rhythms and explored the possibilities of the new chromatic keyboard accordion his father had just bought.

The budding young accordion-player went on to learn a whole new range of styles while on holiday in his mother's native village. It was there that Régis discovered the traditional Madagascan music used in rituals, ceremonies and village festivities. And this led to him developing his own special style of fingering on the accordion. In traditional Madagascan music the accordion is used to exorcise evil spirits. And in 1971 Régis got first-hand experience of this while he was rehearsing with a group of friends one day. A neighbour, who was in the midst of a full spirit trance, calmed down when she heard the accordion-playing echoing from next door and became her normal self once again. 

The accordion music used to drive out evil spirits is known as the renitra. The music was originally played on the diatonic accordion, but Régis adapted it for the chromatic accordion, turning it into his signature style. (Madagascan guitarists also adapted the traditional ritual music onto their electric guitars, transforming it into tsapiky).    

As a teenager Régis left Tuléar to study management at Tamatave University on the east coast. But two years into his course he abandoned his studies and headed home to Tuléar where he got back on the music circuit, playing with a group of friends. In 1984 the ambitious young accordion-player moved to the Madagascan capital, Antananarivo, to try his luck with his own compositions. This proved to be a good move. Within a few months of settling in the capital, Régis formed his first group Regis Sy Landy. The duo, in which Régis sang and played accordion, proved to be a big hit on the national music scene and Regis Sy Landy's singles and video clips received extensive airplay.

Winner of RFI's "Découvertes" award

In fact, Gizavo's career took off so fast that he was barely able to keep up with things at first. Concert invitations began flooding in from all sides, but at this stage of his career the accordionist had only recorded four tracks – hardly enough to fill an hour's concert! Having decided to assume full artistic control of his music, Gizavo also found himself extremely busy with day-to-day administration and management concerns.

The majority of Madagascar's leading music stars are signed to the Mars label (the only major record company on the island). But Gizavo opted for a different approach, preferring to go it alone and find his own recording studio. This did not stop him getting involved in collaborations with other singers and musicians, however. Indeed, Gizavo went on to play bass with the famous Madagascan crooner Rija Oelijaonina and also worked with Feon’ala, one of the island's legendary groups. Gizavo also hooked up with one of his childhood friends from Tuléar – Madagascan guitarist D’Gary (who has gone on to enjoy an international career himself).

In 1990 Gizavo went on to get a major break on the international scene thanks to a mini two-track-cassette he sent to Paris. Invited to take part in Radio France Internationale's annual talent contest, "Les Découvertes", he carried off first prize. And at the awards ceremony organised in Conakry, Gizavo's unique playing style caught the attention of French drummer Francis Lassus. Lassus, who has worked with the likes of Claude Nougaro, Laurent de Wilde and Ray Lema, was looking to form his own group in France and he invited Gizavo on board as accordionist.

Gizavo accepted Lassus's offer and boarded a plane to France where he joined Bohé Combo, playing alongside Richard Bona, Sally Nyolo and Jean-Michel Pilc. Bohé Combo turned out to be a veritable hotbed of talent, in fact, because each of the group's members went on to launch successful solo careers. "We were all leaders in our own right really," Gizavo says in retrospect.

Gizavo went on to audition for I Muvrini (a Corsican group renowned for their traditional polyphonic vocals) in 1993. He was chosen to replace the group's departing jazz maestro Daniel Mille. By this stage of his career (thanks to the prize money from RFI's "Découvertes" award) Gizavo had invested in his first accordion. And it was this simple 4,000-franc model - which a repairer once described as "an instrument for beginners" - which he played on two of the four albums he has recorded with I Muvrini over the past eight years.

Besides playing hundreds of concerts with I Muvrini, Gizavo also found time to work on a variety of parallel projects, touring with New Zealand-born folk singer Graeme Allwright (in 1994) and guesting on albums by Zao, Les Têtes Brûlées and D’Gary. But throughout his career he has always insisted on expressing his own musical style and remaining true to his Madagascan roots.

First solo album

Towards the end of '95 Gizavo ended up going into the studio to record his debut solo album, "Mikea", on which he paid tribute to the tribe of the same name who live in the south-west of Madagascar. The Mikea live cut off from modern civilisation, living off the land through hunting and planting crops, but their traditional way of life has become increasingly threatened by the massive deforestation programmes currently ravaging the island.

Teaming up on his new album with percussionist David Mirandon (another former member of Bohé Combo), Gizavo continued to explore different ways of playing his instrument. He claims that he has never really "worked at" the accordion in the formal sense of the word. And this is not only because, during the early stages of his career he did not have his own instrument, but because he believes that "the best musicians aren't the ones who just recite things, as if they've learnt them off by heart."

Gizavo headed out to Quebec in 1996 to play a series of concerts in French-speaking Canada, where he was the joint winner of the Francophone "Miroir" award (together with his compatriot and old friend D’Gary). In increasing demand on the international 'world' music circuit, Gizavo soon found himself performing at a number of major festivals including the International Festival of Lafayette in Louisiana. He has also become a regular fixture at the "Musiques Métisses" festival in Angoulême.

Gizavo returned to the studio in 2000 and began work on a new album entitled "Samy Olombelo". This album featured a number of innovative touches – such as the addition of a guitarist and bass-player on two tracks and a song co-written with Jean-François Bernardini from I Muvrini. But apart from that "Samy Olombelo" was recorded very much along the same lines as "Mikea".

Environmental problems and ecological issues remained a prime concern in Gizavo's songwriting. But this time round the main subject of environmental awareness-raising concerned lemurs rather than the Mikea. Several of the songs on "Samy Olombelo" were concerned with the future of this bizarre-looking animal species, currently threatened by the destruction of their habitat. Needless to say, "Samy Olombelo" also tapped into Madagascar's musical tradition, with Gizavo playing his trademark renitra on the chromatic accordion.

In June 2002, Régis Gizavo hooked up with another accordionist, Marc Berthounieux and the pair flew out to South Africa for a series of concerts with fellow accordion virtuoso David Mzwandile. This led to another important encounter. It was while performing at the region’s biggest music festival in Grahamstown that Gizavo came into contact with the South African guitarist Louis Mhlanga. The pair hit it off immediately and began discussing the idea of a future collaboration. 2002 was also the year that Gizavo worked with the Brazilian singer Lenine, composing a number of tracks on the latter’s album, "Phalange Canibal" (released on 9 July 2002). In October of that year, the accordionist with the golden touch also put in a memorable performance at the Womex festival in the U.K.

2003 proved to be a busy year for Gizavo on the live front. He represented Madagascar at the Hauts de Garonne festival and at Africajarc, in the Lot region, in July. The following month, he took his "world musette" mix to the Festival des Vaches in Le Gallo. Later that year, the Cape Verdean star Cesaria Evora invited Gizavo to compose a number of tracks for her album "Voz de Amor" (released on 23 September 2003). But, above all else, 2003 was to mark the birth of The Malagasy All Stars, a group made up of five major stars from the Madagascan music scene: Fenoamby, Justin Vali, Dama, Erick Manana and, of course, Gizavo himself. The group came together thanks to the director of a travel agent’s based in Paris, specialising in trips to Madagascar, who came up with the bright idea of organising a promotional concert in February where the Madagascan All Stars performed their first gig together at a special event called "Madagascar un soir".

Throughout 2004 and 2005 Gizavo was busy with appearances at various music festivals including Les Francofolies in Spa, Belgium, Les Nuits Atypiques in Langon and the Métisses festival in Angoulême. He was given a warm welcome on each occasion. In 2005, Gizavo was introduced to the legendary South African divas The Mahotella Queens and, working in conjunction with Louis Mhlanga, he went on to compose six songs for the trio’s best-selling album "Sebai Bai.” Between 11 March and 13 April 2006, the Madagascan accordionist accompanied Cesaria Evora on a tour of North America and a series of concerts throughout Europe and the Maghreb.

2006: "Stories"

Much sought after on the music scene as an accompanist, Gizavo still managed to find time to work on his own albums, each of which he allowed to slowly mature to fruition. "Stories", which was finally released on 21 April 2006, featured a collaboration with the South African guitarist Louis Mjlanga and the French drummer David Mirandon. This trio of musician friends, generally better known as sidemen, served up a truly cosmopolitan album working each of the threesome’s own individual influences into a  colourful, rhythmic mix. Gizavo presented the project live on stage during a French tour that summer which included an appearance at the Scènes d'été festival at La Villette, in Paris, where he performed with The Mahotella Queens.

That same year, another Cape Verdean singer, Lura, asked him to contribute to her album, "M’bem di fora". When the French singer Mano Solo, whom he’d been accompanying live ever since “Les Animals”, reduced his team to a handful of musicians, Régis was among the chosen few, including on the 2007 album “In the Garden”, followed by a major tour. The Voix des Pays Festival, organised near Nantes, gave him carte blanche in July, and he invited along Boubacar Traoré, Graeme Allwright and Mano Solo.

The Madagascar All Stars project expanded, with the recording of an album, “Masoala”, in 2008 at the Mars studio in Madagascar. Régis and his companions presented the collection at several festivals, like in Rudolstadt, Germany. In June, he met the singer Christophe Mae, who immediately invited him to play on his “Comme à la Maison” concert, which was filmed on a Corsican beach and transformed into a live album. They continued with a tour round France until spring 2009, including playing support act to Johnny Hallyday at the Stade de France.

In the studio, he participated in Mano Solo’s last album, “Rentrer au Port”, another by French trio Karpatt, and Lura’s “Eclipse”.

The Netherlands-based Portuguese guitarist Fernando Lameirihnas asked Gizavo to work on three of his albums, and invited him to go to South Africa with him in 2010 on a tour called Cape Connection with Dutch singer Stef Bos, who lives and works in South Africa.

In 2011, as well as playing accordion on the albums "Sur le quai" by Karpatt and "Dor de Mar" by the Cape Verdean Tcheka, Régis Gizavo also joined the Rivière Noire project, along with musicians like the Brazilian Orlando Morais and the Frenchman Pascal Danaë.
2012: "Ilakake"

His new album, "Ilakake", was released in September 2012. This time the Malagasy invited more instrumentalists to join him, like his compatriot Charles Key, and Mano Solo’s former musician, Daniel Jamet on guitar, and Thierry Fanfant, Guy N’Sangue and Mishko Ba on bass. In the album, the different worlds he had frequented over the last few years come together harmoniously, finding their place in compositions that continue to take inspiration from his home island. To launch the album, Régis Gizavo featured as star artist at the Nuits de Nacre festival in Tulles, which gave him the opportunity to play with several other bands, including Manu Dibango’s.

October 2012


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