"6/8 rhythm" Meets "lova-tsofina": Experiencing Malagasy Music

Jenny Fuhr


This paper argues for the importance of integrating musical practices into ethnomusicological research. Despite an ongoing debate about the need for a more performative approach (e.g., Baily, 2008), there are still only very few ethnomusicologists who include experiences gained through "musicking" (Small, 1998)[1] in their analysis of musical phenomena, which would challenge Western analytical perspectives and prevalent academic discourses (see Agawu, 2003). This paper is the result of my field research and musical collaborations with musicians from Madagascar in Madagascar itself and in Europe. Following the approach of a "subject-centred ethnography" that encompasses the researcher and the researched (Rice, 2003) and Agawu's demand for a "presumption of sameness" (Agawu, 2003), I have integrated both, the analyses of discourses and of my own experiences of learning and playing Malagasy music.

Within all discourses on Malagasy music, the topic of rhythm is constantly present. More precisely, the term "6/8 rhythm" is persistently used whilst at the same time contested, especially by the musicians themselves. The usage of a particular metre is striking in as far as the concept of metre itself is profoundly based on the idea of notating music. However, all musicians I work with neither read nor write music and emphasize the importance of the Malagasy concept of oral tradition, referred to as "lova-tsofina" ("lova" = heritage, "sofina" = ear).

Based on a selection of interviews and shared music-making with Malagasy musicians my paper challenges the perspective of seeing musical experiences as untranslatable with musicking and talking about experiences divided into two different and separated "worlds". Rather, it shows that it is necessary to perceive and analyse discourses and musical experiences in a constant interrelation.


[1] Small (1998) proposes the verb "to music" (with its present participle or gerund "musicking") as music in his opinion should be understood as an activity rather than a thing. He explains that his definition of "to music" goes beyond the meanings of "to perform" or "to make music":  "To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance (what is called composing), or by dancing" (Small, 1998, p. 9).


Madagascar, Malagasy music, musical practice, performance

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