The cover of Jaojoby’s latest CD, Malagasy (World Village), his first to be released in North America, is a kaleidoscope of color and kinesis: dancers, their thighs radiant, their diaphanous wraps reduced to a shimmer, whir like a maypole caught in a hurricane. The graphics are but a prelude of things to come once the album is ignited on the CD deck, for it is a powerhouse of relentless sound, a challenge to any and all to sit out its energy.
The release of Malagasy was accompanied by Jaojoby’s first North American tour, casting his 10-member troupe in venues as foregone as New York and Montreal and as far-flung as Indiana and Nevada. Midway through the tour, the maestro, whose last name is Eusèbe but who is known only as Jaojoby, expressed pleasure and surprise that his newfound audiences were not only enthusiastic about the tunes but able to absorb the beat.
“I was very pleased to see [North] American people getting easily into the rhythm,” he said. “You American people, you are good.” These observations were characteristically considered and open. “We have been on tour several times in Europe,” he continued. “Of course they like what we are doing, but to get into the 6/8 beat, it’s not easy for them.”
Jaojoby is known as the King of Salegy (pronounced with a hard ‘g’), the folk-derived pop music genre reigning in the Indian Ocean, in which Madagascar is the largest island on the African side. The word is said to be of Indonesian origin and reflects one of the myriad cultural influences on the island. Madagascar was settled approximately 2,000 years ago by people from East Africa and South Asia. Later, African slaves, Arab, Indian and Portuguese traders, European pirates and colonists, most notably the French, joined the jumble. Eventually, the many groups were distilled into the 18 official “tribes” or clans on the island today. Jaojoby himself is culturally and by birth primarily African.
Salegy, as is the case with many African pop styles, was born in the ’60s when local musicians across the continent melded such Western styles as jazz and R&B to local folk idioms. These new styles often took up western instruments, too, especially the electric guitar, and became the heady soundtrack to the newly independent states and germinating youth cultures taking root all over Africa.
Jaojoby was quick to cite his musical antecedents: “James Brown, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge…all the great American singers,” then poignantly offered how deeply affected he’d been by the recent death of Ray Charles, another icon. “You know, I was crying. My tears just fell down,” he recounted. “There were children watching the TV with me in Paris, and they asked me, ‘