Botanical Resonance: Learn More About Madagascar Instruments

Botanical Resonance: Plants and Sounds in the Garden is currently installed in the Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum, which is open to visitors Tuesday – Sunday, 11:30 am-4:30 pm (winter hours through January 8, 2023, are 10:30 am-3:30 pm). The exhibition content is available online at the Museum’s Twitter account and the Museum’s Instagram account. Please check the Museum site for updates and future online events.

The Botanical Resonance exhibition at the Sachs Museum explores how plants create and cause sounds in our natural environment and cultural arenas. One special feature of the exhibition includes the work of Garden botanists working in Madagascar. A team at the the Garden’s William L. Brown Center identified, collected, and documented almost a dozen traditional Malagasy instruments from different regions of the country to share in the exhibition. These instruments are made from many endemic plants in Madagascar, and are now a part of the Brown Center’s biocultural collection. The team also plans to add more instruments from other regions in the future. Botanists in the Garden’s Africa and Madagascar department also shared their expertise in the species of rosewoods and ebonies native to Madagascar as they have worked to identify and protect the at-risk plant families that have been historically renowned for use in many types of objects, including instrument-making.

To visit the exhibition virtually, please check out the tour designed by Garden Sr. Digital Media Specialist Cassidy Moody.

Madagascar Musical Instruments

The island nation of Madagascar is renowned as a global biodiversity hotspot. The Missouri Botanical Garden has been working with Malagasy scientists doing research on endemic plants and ecological restoration for several decades. Madagascar is also ethnically diverse with many different groups of Indigenous Malagasy, as well as communities of immigrants from other countries around the world. The impact of these cultural influences is evident not only on the landscape but also in the material culture of the traditional Malagasy instruments and musical traditions.

Today, with more than 29 million inhabitants and growing, Madagascar has rich and diverse contemporary music, with a history that has been shaped by the arrival of African, Arabic, Indian, and Indonesian people for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. European colonizers only arrived circa 1500 CE on this island nation. All of these cultures brought their musical instruments with them, leaving their contributions in the shapes and types of materials used to make the instruments, as well as the sounds and compositions of the music played by the musicians. The William L. Brown Center collected several diverse instruments from different parts of Madagascar, each made with different plants endemic to the region. All of these instruments and the plants that are used to make them are on display in the Botanical Resonance.

Prior to the Botanical Resonance exhibition, the Brown Center’s biocultural collection included one instrument, a tube zither called a valiha, from Madagascar and made in the 20th century. A valiha is a plucked chordophone, where its sound is generated from the plucking of its strings. The national instrument of Madagascar, the valiha is often recognized as a symbol of Malagasy identity. The instrument was brought to Madagascar by the Hovas, a clan possibly of the Zafiraminia people, who were a group of Muslim settlers who came to the island during the 13th century. The Hova first settled in the southeast coast of Madagascar, then migrated to the central highlands around the 15th century. This valiha is decorated with incised imagery depicting the Queen’s Palace and other features of life in Madagascar. Contemporary Southwest Madagascar is still rich in traditional practices that make use of valiha in rituals. This valiha is made from Dendrocalamus giganteus, also known as Giant Bamboo or Dragon Bamboo, and the small bridges made from gourd bark support the valiha’s strings.

The second valiha (tube zither) in the exhibition was collected by the Garden and purchased from the maker, Raymond, and made from bamboo local to Madagascar. To play the valiha, a musician wedges it under either arm, so that both hands are free to pluck the strings with fingernails by alternation. While the valiha is now used in secular music and may be played by anyone, the instrument was once only played by men during religious ceremonies in Madagascar. The complex 12/8 rhythms of music produced by the valiha are associated with trance states and the world of spirits. In the highlands of Madagascar’s Merina region, the valiha accompanied rites honoring ancestors to gain their favor. The Bara people played the instrument during possession ceremonies. In the northern part of Madagascar, osica, a musical genre that uses the valiha, was performed during magical and religious rites.

Madagascar valihas in the Brown Center biocultural collection; left/bottom valiha is made from Great bamboo and right/top valiha is made from bamboo, Valiha diffusa; photo by Virginia Harold

Dendrocalamus giganteus (Giant bamboo, Dragon bamboo) is the tallest bamboo in the world, growing up to 80-100 feet tall and 40-50 feet wide. Giant bamboo occurs naturally in humid tropical highlands and hillslopes and is a native species of Burma, Bhutan, China, and Thailand. While not a native species of tropical Africa, it has been reported in Madagascar, Ghana, Kenya, Benin, and Réunion. The tubular shape of bamboo culm naturally lends itself to use as a resonator. Valiha diffusa is a newly described evergreen bamboo genus from Madagascar, producing solitary culms from an elongated rhizome. V. diffusa is a locally useful wild source of construction material.

The marovany, a box zither, is a deep-tone chordophone from Madagascar that is integral to Malagasy musical tradition. In Malagasy, marovany means “with many strings.” The instrument consists of a rectangular wooden box strung on both sides with metal strings, often bicycle brake cables, and is played by alternately plucking with the fingers of both hands. The instrument’s melodic and harmonic colorations are well adapted to the syncopated rhythmic patterns typical of Malagasy music played as an accompaniment to rituals and spiritual gatherings. The larger marovany in the exhibition (#06808) is a historic example made in 1980 by Lambo that would have been used during a healing rite when medical or magical remedies failed to heal the sick. It is made from a species native to Madagascar, Zanthoxylum tsihanimposa, a threatened species called Monongo in Malagasy. A second, smaller box zither, called a valiha marovany (#06801) made by Rema and Agustin is also on view in the exhibition. Made from a local tree called Vantsila, the valiha marovany has a complex sound but is handmade with simple tools, such as a saw and hammer. The marovany is part of the orally transmitted repertoire of Malagasy musicians and is played by both men and women. It is featured in trance rituals known as tromba, where it is commonly accompanied by a rattle called kantsa or faray. The complex rhythm achieved by bilateral finger plucking is believed to enhance the trance-like state of the performers, enabling connections with the spirits.

Marovany (darker box zither in background) and Valiha marovany from Madagascar in the Brown Center biocultural collection; photo by Virginia Harold

There are also flutes among the Madagascar musical instruments. Two types featured in the Botanical Resonance exhibition are a set of bamboo flutes—kiloloky—made by Tzivazay (#06804) and a longer flute made from bamboo, the sodina. Kiloloky is from the southwestern part of Madagascar; the length of the bamboo stem determines the pitch and it is typically played in pairs. Unlike other Malagasy bamboo flutes, the kiloloky has just one hole carved into the side of the stem. The sodina (#06803) is made from a bamboo species endemic to Madagascar, Spider bamboo (Nastus elongatus), and this flute is either played solo or in a group of Malagasy instruments, including the valiha and kabosy. The sodina form originated in the southeastern Asian islands of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. The most renowned sodina player in the 20th century was Rakoto Frah (born Philibert Rabezoza in 1923, died 2001) who became famous on the stage of global music, touring and recording around the world. He was immortalized in his portrait playing the sodina on one of the denominations of the ariary, the currency of Madagascar.

The jejy voatavo is a chordophone, stick zither native to Madagascar. It can also be called ‘lokanga voatavo’ or ‘herrauou’ (gourd instrument) and ‘dzedzy’ or ‘jejy’ in Swahili. The jejy voatavo traditionally has two sisal (agave) strings, though there can be as many as 13 strings, three frets, and a resonator; this example was made using two twisted steel bicycle brake wires in place of the more traditional sisal string. The soundbox resonator is traditionally made of a Calabash gourd, but can also be made of other materials such as oil cans. A finger guard is fashioned out of a thin roll of steel and the long handle is made from Sesbania pea (Sesbania bispinosa). The jejy voatavo is not strictly a ceremonial instrument and is also traditionally used in south and south-eastern Madagascar to accompany sung epic poems, rija. It is also used casually for entertainment, but only mature men (such as those with white hair) are allowed to play it, with fathers passing down the knowledge of playing to their sons. This instrument (#06807) was made by Tzivazay.

Jejy voatavo; photo by Virginia Harold

The lokanga (#06805) is a three-stringed fiddle carved to resemble a European fiddle or violin, which is popular among the southern Antandroy and Bara ethnic groups of Madagascar. The left-hand holds the neck of the lokanga with fingers pressing the strings to get the tuning and the other hand holds the stick to bow string instruments. The trunk is made using Albizia gummifera. Doratoxylon stipulatum is used to make the adjustment knob for the metal cord, and Homalium moniliforme is used for the stick (or bow) to play the lokanga. Before playing, the wick of the stick used to play the violin is coated with dried resin, to improve the adherence with the strings; it is impossible to play without this resin because the string would be too smooth and would not produce any sound. This example was made by Yhamad Lesabotsy, and it is played for entertainment and special events.

Lokanga; photo by Virginia Harold

The kabosy of Madagascar is closer to a mandolin than the short-necked lutes from which derives its name. Its development was likely influenced by fretted instruments believed to have been brought to the island by seafaring Arab merchants, around 800-900 CE, who established settlements, first along the west coast of Madagascar and later on the northern coast. Only much later (between 1500 and 1900), did versions of the guitar make their way to the island via French, Portuguese and British traders and settlers. The kabosy was traditionally played by herdsmen or zebu guardians as part of a repertoire of polyphonic songs from Madagascar’s highlands. It was also played as an instrumental accompaniment to the recitation of epics during veneration and healing ceremonies performed to contact ancient spirits and during popular performances involving improvised narratives about daily life. Today, the kabosy is played primarily by young boys and men, many of whom are members of wandering musical troupes playing popular tsapika music. This example pictured at the top (#06810) is made by Yhamad Lesabotsy from Albizia gummifera for the body and Doratoxylon stipulatum for the adjustment knob. The example pictured at the bottom (#06800) is made by Kanano from Anthostema madagascariense (mandravoky in Malagasy), as well as modern materials.

Historically, the mandaliny (pictured middle, #06809) was the instrument used to call the spirit during the ritual event of healing; this spirit is an intermediate between the world of the ancestors and the world of the living. It has its origins in the European instruments that colonizers brought to Madagascar during the 19th century. Made by Faralahy, this chordophone is handmade entirely from the trunk of the Sakoa tree, Sclerocarya birrea, a medium-sized deciduous fruit tree native to Madagascar, and strung with fishing line. The mandaliny is played by pressing the fingers along the frets on the fingerboard and strumming the strings with a piece of wood.

Kabosy (top and bottom); Mandaliny (middle); photo by Virginia Harold

Albizia gummifera var. gummifera (or Peacock flower) is a rapidly growing, deciduous tree native to sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar, and naturalized in Brazil. The wood saws and works easily by hand or machine and holds nails and screws well; its timber is primarily used for applications such as light construction, furniture, cabinetwork, toys and novelties, boxes and crates, veneer, plywood, and hardboard. The tree is also harvested for food and used in traditional medicine. A. gummifera also has ceremonial uses, especially as a meeting tree for traditional leadership assemblies. Native to Madagascar, Doratoxylon stipulatum is a genus of flowering plants in the family Sapindaceae—known as the soapberry family—that occur in temperate to tropical regions. Doratoxylon are characterized by indehiscent berry-like fruits.

Called Mandravoky in Malagasy, Anthostema madagascariense is an evergreen, monoecious tree endemic to Comoros, Mayotte, and eastern Madagascar. The heartwood (central core) of Anthostema madagascariense is whitish when freshly cut, turning pink on exposure to air, and indistinctly demarcated from the sapwood (outer portion of the tree trunk). It is used in house construction and small objects, such as utensils, boxes, and veneers. Sclerocarya birrea is a medium-large sized deciduous tree valued for its edible fruits, which have been an essential staple throughout the African continent since ancient times. The species has a long history of use for many purposes, including traditional medicine, timber, food, fodder, and fuelwood. In Mberengwa (western Zimbabwe) S. birrea is among the most popular species for making musical instruments.

Learn more from the Garden’s Madagascar team on how they identified and collected the instruments included in the exhibition:

Precious Woods Project in Madagascar: Ebony and Rosewood

The Missouri Botanical Garden has been working in Madagascar since the 1970s and plays a significant role in identifying important plants, directing conservation projects, and researching human and plant cultural interaction. Over the last 20 years, illegal logging of precious woods—such as ebony (Diospyros) and rosewood (Dalbergia) tree species—has been a recurrent issue in Madagascar, which threatens this biodiversity hotspot’s pristine ecosystems. In 2019, the Madagascar Precious Wood Project was initiated to gather information on all species of rosewood and ebony in Madagascar so that the Malagasy government can sustainably manage this valuable resource. The Garden has been leading the effort to catalog these species and to determine which require protection and which are potential candidates for carefully managed exploitation. With that information, the government can move toward its goal to replace uncontrolled illegal logging with controlled, sustainable harvesting.

The taxonomy of rosewoods proved to be a complex project, even though a taxonomic study was conducted just 20 years ago. Garden Botanists Pete Phillipson and Nic Wilding, working with other researchers, identified more than 30 new species, including 22 large enough to provide precious wood. This will bring the total number of Dalbergia species in Madagascar to about 100, of which 60 potentially can produce valuable timber. There are now 53 species formally recognized, and a further 31 that have been delimited (by the group), 26 of which are large trees producing more-or-less valuable timber, and all endemic to the country.

Members of the ebony genus (Diospyros) are exploited throughout the tropics for their dense, black wood used for musical instruments like clarinets, furniture, and cabinetry. About 250 species occur on the island of Madagascar, all but two endemics. Some species are widespread, such as D. cupulifera and D. squamosa, but most have narrow geographic ranges and are threatened by deforestation and illegal harvesting, largely in officially protected areas, including more than 60 new species recently named and described by Garden botanists. Ebonies are particularly diverse in the island’s far north, where 25 species occur, including many with narrow ranges such as D. plicaticalyx (Endangered), characterized by the folded calyx surrounding its fruits, D. antsirananae, with rusty hairs on its fruit and leaves, and D. chitoniophora, whose calyx resembles a pleated skirt (both Vulnerable), along with D. suarezensis, with a broad, cup-like calyx (Near Threatened).

Diospyros antsiranana; photo by R. Randrianaivo, courtesy of Pete Lowry.

It is a special opportunity when the subject of a Sachs Museum exhibition about how plants affect our daily lives (in this case through sound) intersects so perfectly with the work that the Garden is doing around the world, so that the people, plants, and objects can be highlighted through botany, culture, and art. Music and sounds play a role in understanding our space in the world, and they are part of our daily existence, so it is integral for us to understand how these daily objects are made from materials that come from us around the world. Thanks to all of these contributors and collaborators to the Sachs Museum’s exhibition and programs who shared their expertise, passion, and creativity on sounds, plants, and instruments for this project.

Nezka Pfeifer—Museum Curator, Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum

Grateful thanks to the sponsors of the exhibition: Nancy and Kenneth Kranzberg, The Thomas A. Kooyumjian Family Foundation, and Tony & Cindy Kooyumjian.

Special acknowledgments to Garden staff who shared their expertise and collections featured in this blog post and in the exhibition: Dr. Armand Randrianasolo, Fortunat Rakotoarivony, Tefy Andriamihajarivo, Tabita Randrianarivony, Nivo Rakotoarivelo, Lucien Rasoaviety, Aina Razanatsima, Dr. Pete Lowry, Dr. George Schatz, Peter Phillipson, Heidi Schmidt, Dr. Robbie Hart, Aurora Prehn, Carolina Romero, Dr. Jordan Teisher, Mary Merello, Lauren Boyle, Colin Robinson, Sally Bommarito, and Mike Blomberg.

Especial thanks to the Sachs Museum remote interns who contributed to the research and text, for the Madagascar instruments and plants featured in the exhibition: Stefanie Hermsdorf, Alexandra Lebovitz, and Sarah Winski for her work on condition reports and installation.

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