One of the members, Soaraza Patrice Thomas, is a talented singer and songwriter from the port village of Toliara in the south-east of Madagascar. His primary musical experience was singing gospel and playing traditional music in the Lutheran church.
Thomas formed Sa Roy with school friends Ando Pra, an accomplished singer and dancer, and Damy Sinaotsy, a strong baritone. The three musicians are from the Antandroy clan, known for their traditional dances, ancient culture and respect for ancestors.
Many of their songs tell stories about the country’s traditions and social fabric. Because many villagers have adopted modern practices, the songs add awareness of the depth and importance of traditional culture.
Thomas said: “Traditional life is good. It is helpful and teaches one how to respect others.”
After the three musical friends had finished school, Sa Roy entered a competition at the Goethe-Zentrum in Antananarivo.
Director of the institute Eckehart Olszowski, who has been living in Madagascar for 35 years and is a cultural activist, recently produced a TV series about green crimes. Madagascar’s forests, which are among the most unique in the world, with 95% of the flora and fauna endemic, are under threat.
Performing on home-made instruments, including mandolin (guitar) and korintsana (a shaker), Sa Roy sang a composition, by Thomas, calling for the protection of the indigenous forests.
They won first place, which came with prize money and a computer.
“Our music begins from that,” said Thomas.
Forest Jam, a team of music students, producers and master musicians from Switzerland and South Africa toured Madagascar in 2015 for workshops and collaborations. It was created by musical entrepreneur, partner in B&W and founder of Melt2000 records, Robert Trunz.
Trunz hosts events, such as Gathering Forces in KwaZulu-Natal and Outernational Meltdown in Gauteng, South Africa, which provide spaces for diverse musicians to collaborate.
Forest Jam Madagascar took place at the Goethe-Zentrum in Antananarivo. The musicians became immersed in the depth of traditional Madagascan music, jamming with performers such as Zamba, who has constructed a chromatic variation of the indigenous valiha (tubular zither), and accordion player Jahleky.
Madagascar has a rich, fascinating culture and unique musical sound, marked by the depth and variety of instruments.
Forest Jam has continued the awareness campaign as large parts of Madagascar’s forests are stripped. Trunz had seen the forests of his native Switzerland turned around after they were threatened by acid rain. After hearing the recordings of Sa Roy from the Goethe competition, Trunz insisted they travel to Antananarivo to join the workshops and collaborative performances.
The musical master on the tour was Madala Kunene from South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province Madala’s nickname is “Bafo”, which means friend, and his gentle and generous approach to sharing his music makes him a musician of choice for major local and international projects. He creates multi-layered music that reaches beyond boundaries.
The magic Kunene made with Sa Roy was very special. “Madala was like a father with his three kids. He would teach them some of the songs in Zulu. And they would add their own lyrics in Malagasy,” Trunz said.
After six weeks of rehearsals and performances, the musicians travelled north to the village of Diego Suarez, where they hosted a concert for school children.
The experience of touring prompted the recording of their debut album, Pelakolo. It tells the story of the three young men and includes traditional instruments. It is as gentle as an island breeze and as strong as the hot sun that beats down on the island.
Through support from the Goethe Institute, Pro Helvetia and the embassies of Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Switzerland, funds were raised to continue the collaboration in southern Africa with a touring band, including young Swiss musicians Matthias Abächerli and Fabio Meier. Last month, Sa Roy began a series of concerts across the region.
Performing alongside an international musician like Kunene opened many doors for the young musicians from Madagascar. Kunene’s latest album is licensed across Europe and Sa Roy will be following suit with an international release and tour.
Trunz said: “With Forest Jam, once you have some people who are getting established like Sa Roy, when they go back they will have more experience and they must start working towards collaboration with other Malagasy musicians. It is all natural steps. We have proved how much can be done with musicians who are not well established.”
Sa Roy and Madala Kunene perform at the Harare International Festival of the Arts on May 6 and 7; UKZN Centre for Jazz, on May 16, and at the Playhouse on May 27. See www.forestjam.org