A review of Madagascar Slim’s Good Life Good Living (2009)
Sometime in September or October 2009, I woke up – as I always do – to the sounds of CBC Radio 1. I’m not always sure why I listen to it, but it has something to do with all other options on the dial being much, much worse. Andy Barrie, the host of ‘Metro Morning,’ has a sort of dignified, grown-up way about him, a seemingly sincere desire to pander to my shrinking highbrow demographic, and so I get my tax dollar’s worth every morning between 6 and 7. Very occasionally, Metro Morning plays music; to introduce something the editorial team has deemed worthy of our rarefied ears. That morning, I encountered Madagascar Slim, an exceptionally talented Canadian singer, songwriter and guitarist, originally from Madagascar.
Now, Madagascar isn’t a geography I’m familiar with musically, despite having lived in Southern Africa for 20 years. This was perhaps a sign of South Africa’s disconnection from the rest of the region (culture, like foreign currency, wasn’t allowed to flow freely during the Apartheid years, and rebuilding regional relations since has been slow). In terms of widely recognized African music, West Africa (Mali, Senegal…) and South Africa itself always seemed to dwarf everyone else’s output, especially since the Western market for ‘world music’ isn’t known for its ability to differentiate sounds or appreciate the subtleties of regional inflection.
Madagascar, the world’s 5th largest island, had been a proudly independent seafaring monarchy for centuries before being invaded and colonized by France in the 1880s. It was a crucial trade gateway between East Africa and Southeast Asia, and – perhaps this is purely in my head – some of these influences can be heard in Slim’s music. For me, the recognizable elements are similarities to a certain South African ‘folk’ – I hear early Johnny Clegg (when he was still playing with his original band, Juluka) and Vusi Mahlasela. There’s a simple lyricism with very distinct Southern African elements here (I would call them kwela rhythms, but I realize that that’s just nomenclature). There’s also a “Latin” tinge, perhaps echoing the deep influence salsa, son and cumbia have wielded in other African coastal economies (such as Senegal, whose music is deeply influenced by Latin American sounds imported by sailors). While I can’t really hear an Asian influence, I sense elements of European folk song – evidence, no doubt, of the missionary colonialism present everywhere in historical Madagascar; this is similar to Waldemar Bastos from Angola, say. In this sense, Madagascar Slim’s music is an amalgam of his country’s history and geography.
Known as a Canadian world music guitar virtuoso, Slim also has another set of influences. Much has been made of his early discovery of Hendrix and his desire to play Jimi’s and B. B. King’s music. And certainly, there are tracks on Good Life Good Living (such as the cleverly named ‘Take Me Home (Slight Return),’ the name an homage to Hendrix’ ‘Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)’) that feature electric, blues-inflected guitar work. In essence, though, this is largely an acoustic, melodious, low-key affair that’s a lot less austere than a blues record, and it has absolutely nothing in common with West African ‘blues’ like Tinariwen, Ali Farka Touré or Boubacar Traoré. (I find myself wondering whether the “Malagasy kid discovers Hendrix, takes up guitar” origination story is maybe one of those self-perpetuating PR myths that don’t really serve to shed any light on an artist’s work but rather obfuscate the complexities of heritage and the richness of influence.)
There is much on this CD that is both immediately accessible (for someone open to world music) and benefits from repeated listening. Slim is an outstanding acoustic picker (witness the instrumental ‘Neny Malala,’ for example) whose simple picked chords propel everything here. There’s a heaviness of spirit here, a sadness of love and loss, underscored by strong and simple harmony vocals (‘Fankahalana’). Since I don’t understand the Malagasy lyrics and don’t have access to the CD cover (bought it on iTunes), I can’t say if it’s longing for lost love, home or a resolution of Madagascar’s complicated politics and poverty, but it’s touching in its simplicity and earnestness.
There’s one moment that borders on a misstep: ‘Take Me Home,’ a beautiful melody and a perfectly executed mid-tempo number, is apparently about every immigrant’s nightmare of living abroad, away from home, and about being sent home, deported. Suddenly, in the middle of the song, there’s a very Canadian voice (presumably meant to belong to an immigration official) announcing Slim’s deportation. It’s jarring… presumably deliberately, but uncomfortable nonetheless. At the end of the track, we hear a female voice waking the singer from his nightmare. It puts this track uncomfortably close to the ‘novelty song’ category. On the other hand, it’s these idiosyncrasies that make us remember and cherish certain albums, so I’m choosing to interpret it this way.
All is well the minute the next track comes on – a rollicking party of a song called ‘Sitaka’ that blends Malagasy roots, Quebec folk (or maybe Zydeco?) and intersperses it with a beautifully executed 12 bar blues seemingly out of nowhere. It’s effortless and demonstrates why Slim is in high demand as a sideman in Toronto’s blues scene.
I can wholeheartedly recommend this if you’re at all interested in world music. It’s one of the freshest things I’ve heard in a while, particularly since African music on CD has become so heavily oriented towards West African desert blues in recent years.
Madagascar Slim’s Good Life Good Living is available on iTunes, Amazon.ca, and Amazon.com. He also had a self-released (?) earlier album called “Omnisource” that is out of print and has sketchy availability.