Oral Literature & Storytelling

This section deals with initiatives which study, gather and make available orally transmitted literary texts as well as projects focusing on the artistic expression of all forms of oral literature, including storytelling, spoken word, music, dance and theatre.

Hira Gasy: Musical theatre in Madagascar

Photo: Simon Rawles
Hira Gasy is a form of storytelling theatre with musical elements that is mostly performed for ritual purposes and done so in the open. It started in Madagascar towards the end of the 18th century with influences from Asia. It still has an important social function to this day.

Created by order of the King

The Hira Gasy was invented towards the end of the 18th century. The Madagascan King Andrianampoinimerina wanted as many people as possible to listen to his speeches so he asked musicians to attend his performances. These would then create an entertaining spectacle so that his messages and convictions would be spread quickly and widely. A mix of speech and music – and the Hira Gasy was born. The text always had a special meaning and the King gave his musicians an explicit order to teach their nation. Different forms that were used contributed to the performance: Kabary, the art of speaking; Hain-teny, a kind of short poem similar to the Japanese Haiku; the lyrical Tolonkano, as well as the meaningful Ohabolan. There are thousands of proverbs in the Madagascan language.

Another name for Hira Gasy is Vakondrazana: “Tradition of ancestor worship”. Thus, Hira Gasy groups are frequently used to accompany the religious rites of the ancestor worship cult. But Hira Gasy groups can also be met in everyday life, for example Sundays at the market place or at a fair.

Influences from Asia

The Hira Gasy arose, in part, from different traditions from South-East Asia and Oceania. It is from these regions that the native inhabitants populated the island. The hand movements of the female dancers still remind us today of the South-East Asian dances, and the abrupt leg movements of the male dancers awaken associations with Asian martial art. At public shows mostly two or more competitor groups perform improvisations on a topic that has been decided beforehand. Frequently love is in the foreground but politics, morals and philosophy are also common themes.

Variations of speech, dance and song

A typical performance of the Hira Gasy is precisely structured. The compiling of the costumes and the preparation of the performance area are a part of the piece. They build the introduction, the Sasitehaka. A speech, mostly given by the leader of the group or the oldest member, follows this as an official opening. With this the women already enter the stage. The main part that follows, Renihira (“The mothers singing”), takes about an hour and is concerned with the predetermined theme. The female singers direct themselves directly to the audience and change places several times. They emphasise their singing with dancing hand movements. The spectators cheer them on with frequent shouts and even throwing money onto the stage during particularly successful passages. For the finale the dancers appear for the Dihy: they dance individually or in numbers with wild, broken and sometimes acrobatical movements. The Zanakira songs take place at the end, in which new themes come up. The performance is accompanied by about ten musicians. They play the traditional flute, the Sodina, as well as drums, kettledrums, fiddles and wind instruments. The rhythms are very syncopated.

A tour unites

A complete Hira Gasy group is made up of at least thirty members. The cook and traditional healer importantly count among those. The groups often tour for several days through the country. Therefore, perfect organisation is very important. Everyone must be able to rely on one another. This promotes the unity and solidarity of the group. Often the groups are made up of a family. The children grow up within the Hira Gasy tradition from a very young age and often they already perform with their family from the age of ten years. If the leader dies (this can be a man or woman ¬− often it is women that lead such a group) then a younger family member will take over the leadership. In this way the anchoring in the tradition and authenticity is ensured.

A festival for the whole town

A Hira Gasy performance is an important event in the town calendar and is anticipated long in advance. Even in the neighbouring areas many people take part in an extensive march in order to get there. There is a happy, festive atmosphere; everyone listens expectantly to the texts. Often the event starts in the morning and lasts until sunset. The artists direct themselves specifically to the different population groups: children, men and women of all ages.

The development of Madagascan music has, of course, not stood still since the Hira Gasy was introduced. To this day the Hira Gasy is a national spectacle and still very much alive. It has nothing to do with lifeless, reproduced folklore. Indicative of this development are the often highly modern texts. And as ever before the Hira Gasy has a large and enthusiastic following.
Ranja Raveloson, Madagascar, 2012

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