Malagasy culture

With no doubt visitors who land for the first time in Madagascar is struck by sonorities of the Malagasy language which seems to contain a very significant number of the letter “a”, a little bit sounding like Italian. But then realizes soon that other “a” vowels, though written, are not stressed and that a great number of syllables remain dumb. The traveler in question has then put the finger on an aspect of the Malagasy culture: the untold are very numerous, not only in elocution but also in the statement even on the ideas; not that the Malagasy people is mystery-maker but his process of reflexion passes by the picturesque mould of obscure proverbial phrases for those who was not exposed since its early childhood because they adopt readily an elliptic form.

Thus, we will not tell you that you act with your own risks and dangers, but let’s have enough with the evoked the mythical character of Rakamisy who wished to marry someone originated from the highlands (implied: with all the loads of responsibilities that such an engagement involves). In fact, the great speeches of the most eloquent speakers can be composed only of several series of more or less humorous proverbs, seeming disconnected, which make the listeners happy because they aim at destabilizing them or presenting them some riddles.

At the time of a recent traditional marriage, the speaker speaking for the groom spent three minutes to ask whether he can start to speak, five minutes to greet the assembly with large member of family, and four minutes to excuse himself to speak. Following that, the bride’s family speaker could not make less than the first, although everyone could have entered in the main subject only towards the end of the first half of an hour: presenting the groom, his ascending of the second generation and his origins, as well as his desire to marry the bride, whose ascending and the origins were also enumerated in detail. The most obvious untold comment was that the young woman is in a very interesting situation (her baby was born two months after the weddings). But the honor was saved: a request presented in the code of Master of speech practice, followed by a reception looking like a banquet. All the appearances were respected.

The same applies to political speeches: one does not go straight but makes use of subtle allusions that must make the opposite camp understand that they are going the wrong way and which should force him to go backwards without losing the face. The example above is rather exceptional, because it is not daily. But take the case of the greetings: seemingly, nothing simpler than to say hello, good evening; except that for Madagascar, it is necessary to know with which social class and even to which caste belongs the greeted person, and also on which occasion one greets oneself. The formula totally change according to whether one meets an aristocrat at his place or plebeian in the street, according to whether one is Merina, Tsimihety or Betsimisaraka, according to whether the visit consists in presenting condolences or asking for the wellbeing of a recently circumcised little boy. There is a risk of offending the interlocutor if one formula is mistaken and this later will only be ready to forgive foreigners whose knowledge of the customs and habits is manifestly embryonic.

However, the culture is not limited to the language, and that of Madagascar is not only oral. The writing holds a place of honor with authors as famous as Rabearivelo, Rabemananjara, Ny Avana Ramanantoanina or Georges Andriamanantena, to quote only some of them best known among general public. It is true that the study of their works passes obligatorily by a thorough knowledge of the language and of its subtleties because their native tongue shows through even in their French works. The access is easier about painting where everyone recognizes forms and colors, either the canvas is closer to Miro or Matisse that of Vinci or Breughel. The Malagasy painters evolve indeed almost at the same pace as those from abroad and they are no more confined with the almost photographic representational art which was usual for them, but launch out in a free search for an expression uncontrolled by the canons of tradition.

The Malagasy music is even more dynamic because it is subjected to a reciprocal fecundation with the music of the world thanks to new technologies, information and the communication. Malagasy artists are well sold outside and hold a good place on the markets of the world music. While starting to produce not only songs in Malagasy but also in French or English, in particular in rap, they also start to touch the field of the pure orchestral music after having shone in jazz and dance music.

This rapid flight over the culture would be incomplete if it did not mention the traditional music of the travelling singers called "Mpihira gasy". Enough near to the Western operetta by its mixture involving stirring tune and narrator, it attracts the popular mass by its moralizing topics and knows even a kind of rebirth because it is said that high-ranking persons of the state appreciate it particularly and give their support to him. This very eclectic art calls upon rhetoric, with poetry, with the music and the dance but does not hesitate to add moral and to insert religious canticles in its compositions.
Whereas the traditional Malagasy dance is connected with that of our cousins of Bali, by the shoulders and hands movements as much as legs, young artists launched out in the modern choreographic composition and hold the attention of experienced choreographers of Europe and America.

The cinema is probably what had a very striking start, thanks to numerical shooting gears definitely less expensive in Madagascar than the old film making. With the Festival of Durban, the very short films presented by Madagascar strongly impressed the public, and on the spot, various producer companies already launched out in the adventure, with a certain success on seeing the public which rushed to see the projections. It was such a success that the warnings against the works of pirate on DVD or VCD became so common.



In the rural area, a very interesting aspect that probably relates to the strange habits of the population is the case of the Exhumation. Circumcision, marriage and the burial can also be added on to that. These big events in life mark out the terrestrial course of the Malagasy who gets conform to it whatever religion or ideology he actually belongs to.

These tough and deep rooted habits could thus not be what certain members of the Protestant clergymen see as a syncretism, even as a form of paganism to be fought at any costs. They indeed see in that a kind of worship of the ancestors, because still many Malagasy people from these rites take the chance to ask for blessing or intercession of their late ancestors. Anthropologists though see there an obvious result of the strong Community woven bonds between those who are alive. In fact, following the Bantu example which thinks “I am because we are”, many Malagasy do not conceive life or death unsocial.

The clans identify themselves like those who “alive, live the same house and dead, stay in the same tomb”. So there hardly exists individual tombs in the Malagasy custom: they all are mostly community, family or clans vaults where “the skull are joined together. ” The families thus do not hesitate to engage high expenses to repatriate the mortal remains of their dear ones and, for the better, to bring back their ashes few years later. The French government understood it well and provided a big effort to repatriate Ranavalona III ashes in 1936, which died in exile in Algeria nineteen years earlier and to bury them in one of the seven tombs of the Queen’s Palace. Nothing exceptional when it is thought that Napoleon’s ashes which died in Sainte-Hélène in 1821, were brought back to France only in 1845. But these are two examples of sovereigns there - symbols, that the Malagasy rite is quite commonly practiced generally three to four years after their death. Let us recall that the tombs, if exiguous, wouldn’t fit any coffins: so Malagasy are buried in rough silk shroud which will rot at almost the same speed as the flesh of the deceased. It is about at this moment that the family will proceed to an exhumation of the body to change the shrouds. A French researcher recalls a ceremony which reminded the burial of the remainders of someone’s ancestor who died at sea during the long crossing voyage of the Indian Ocean.

It is better to mention the annual ritual bath relics in the royal Sakalava country. As in the latter, the dead are in fact returned to their place of eternal rest once the shroud being changed or washed in the sea. In any case, it is not an occasion for sadness and mourning but of a festival marked by zebu sacrifices, jubilation, feasts, dances and music. A mocking observer who was not informed about the meaning this ceremony is attached to the Malagasy saw it as "a day off for the dead being transported to the village to change their clothes, hear music and see festivities in their honor before returning with a flourish in their cellar. Another foreigner will admire a" practical education for the younger generation who has the opportunity for a live experience with the customs and history of his lineage ... and at the same time to get in touch with many of their big family members being scattered throughout the country. "

II- Circumcision

Inherited from the Semitic tradition, if not the Islamic faith, this rite of passage marks the little boy not to any confession or to his allegiance to a particular faith but to his belonging to men’s world (less acceptable interpretation) or his accession in adulthood. The formula repeated throughout the transaction says: "You are a male, kid".

Indeed, while in Africa, circumcision is often the passage from puberty to adult age, it occurs in Madagascar most often just before school enrollment, an age still too early for marital status. One could almost say that for some, this rite signifies the assumption of citizenship, since sometimes the ancestral burial tomb is prohibited to the uncircumcised. The surgery itself appears not to have too much importance, especially since they tend often to clinical practice in a fairly large (up to a hundred) of small boys the same age, the deeper meaning of the rite can be seen in the customs related to the date and time of operation, the fetching for the purifying water by strong young men, the trunks of banana trees in the house, the consumption of the foreskin, toys gifts, greeting ritual. All of whose symbolism is not obvious, without a solid knowledge of the ancestral customs.

Thus, before modern medicine exists, circumcision was practiced during the winter to avoid infections which can occur in the hot season, when flies abound. To symbolize the future victory of the young boy on the pitfalls of life, the young men who went to fetch the purifying water were stoned while all along the way back to the village, which required them to run along the way and carry shields. As for the foreskin, father, uncle or grandfather was responsible for swallowing it with a piece of banana to prevent it being lost or eaten by some animal, which will contaminate the child’s humanity consecration.