Centres of Polyphony


Although the island Madagascar is situated off the southeast coast of Africa, the population and the culture of this island (or the Republic of Malagasy) have very strong historical, ethnic and cultural contacts with the outside of Africa regions. Austronesian-speaking peoples of the Southeast Asia are supposed to be the first settlers here. Their initial settlement of the island (presumably about A.D. 500) was followed by the migrations (from around A.D. 1000) from the Arabic counties and the continental Africa, and later – from the Europe. Islam spread on the island from around A.D. 1500 and created the basis for the emergence of hierarchical kingdoms among the Malagasy. The island has been a scene of the struggle between the three major forces: the kingdom of Sakalava (western coast of Madagascar), the confederacy of eastern coastal ethnic groups, and the kingdom of Merina (central part of Madagascar).

Musical traditions of the republic of Malagasy are as diverse as the ethnic origins of its population. Same is true about the vocal polyphony of different regions of the island. Let us listen to the expert of the music of the Republic of Malagasy, Mireille Rakotomalala: “At present, the mixture of African and southeast Asian influence is visible in all genres of music among the Malagasy, though some genres reflect one influence more strongly than others. Gilbert Rouget, for example, called the choral polyphony of the central island Merina, with its intervals of thirds and sixths and rapid rhythms, “oceanic” (1946:87), and found a more pronounced African influence among the Sakalava, with genres in call-and-response style, appearing more rhythmic than melodic (p. 88).

Norma McLeod identifies two styles – one distinct to the Merina, the Vakinankaratra, and the Betsileo of the central highlands, and the other more typical of groups in the southern desert. Both styles demonstrate the polyphony mentioned by Rouget, and both show rhythms whose variability depends on whether the music is meant for dancing or singing. Of the difference between the two styles, McLeod says “songs in the high plateau area are set strophically. In the desert region, … litany is prominent with some examples of development into serial polyphony” (1980:547) (cited from Rakotomalala, 1998:783).

To finish the survey of the vocal polyphonic traditions of the sub-Saharan Africa, would be appropriate to mention the outstanding influence of sub-Saharan populations on the musical cultures of the different parts of the world, and particularly the Americas. Transported from their native lands initially as slaves, representatives of sub-Saharan African populations played a crucial role in the development of national musical cultures of South, Central and North America.

Examples of traditional polyphony from Madagascar

Traditional Dance from the Androy Area. Madagascar
Street Music from Antananarivu. Madagascar
Fihavanana Malagasy


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