The Unique and Sublime Guitar Virtuoso                               D'Gary

Ernest Randrianasolo          D'gary

Biography: Courtesy of Radio France

According to David Lindley, the
American producer who helped
compile the seminal Madagascan
music album "A World Out Of Time",
D'Gary is "a monster guitarist!" And, if
you think that's an exaggeration, just
take a listen to the unique open-tuned
style of Madagascar's guitar wizard!

Ernest Randrianasolo – better known
to Madagascan music fans as D'Gary –
was born in the Madagascan capital,
Antananarivo, on 22 October 1961. He
is a descendent of the Bara tribe, a
nomadic people who traditionally made
their living herding oxen across the
plains of the central south.

At the age of eight young Ernest
moved to Tulear, a town in the south
east of the island, when his policeman
father got a new posting. Ernest's first
contact with the music world came via
his elder brother, who played bass with
a local band. The group would often
get together and rehearse at the
Randrianasolo home and, after
rehearsals, Ernest would mess around
on his brother's guitar. Developing a
veritable passion for the instrument, he
went on to cobble together his own
makeshift guitar at the age of thirteen.
Honing his strumming skills, playing
with a group of schoolfriends after
class, he also spent hours on his own,
trying out the tsapiky (a rhythm which
was just taking off on a local level and
which eventually went on to become a
symbol of the music scene in southern

In 1978 Ernest lost his father, who died
barely a month after retiring from the
police force. Meanwhile, the
Randrianasolo family had returned to
live on their 'native soil', setting up
home in Betroka. And Ernest's father's
funeral turned out to be a prestigious
affair, the island's leading musicians
coming together to play at his
graveside - a performance for which
they were paid in Bara currency, i.e.
humped oxen! Listening to the havoria,
the final stage of the Bara's traditional
burial ceremony (marked by an all-
female choir singing and wailing),
Ernest noted that the women's
mourning took its melody from the
tribe's traditional songs. This was the
first time the young boy had come into
contact with his ancestral culture and
the experience would mark him deeply.

The Randrianasolo family fell on hard
times after Ernest's father's death, his
mother finding herself alone with nine
hungry children to raise. But
Ernest/D'Gary soon found a way of
helping his mother out. The budding
young musician had recently learnt to
play the electric guitar at a
schoolfriend's house and one day he
came up with the novel idea of playing
the instrument without plugging it in. At
first, D'Gary could only play the tsapiky
(the rhythm he had learnt in Tuléar),
but with a bit of help from his friend, he
soon mastered the basic chords. And
when his friend was invited to play at a
local wedding he offered to take
D'Gary along with him.

D'Gary found himself playing at the
open-air dance after the ceremony
with a group, but soon decided that the
other musicians' tastes were not to his
liking. Branching out on his own, the
young guitarist launched into a vibrant
tsapiky solo – and ended up bringing
the house down! Indeed, D'Gary's
wedding 'concert' turned him into a
local celebrity and he was soon invited
to join the best musical outfit in

In 1979 the group were contacted by
Discomad (the only real record
company in Madagascar at the time,
which later metamorphosed into the
label Mars), who invited them to
Antananarivo to record their first
single. Interestingly enough, D’Gary
had never actually envisaged taking
up music as a serious profession. But,
eager to contribute whatever he could
to the family's finances, he agreed to
go to the capital, seeing it as an ideal
opportunity to sort out his mother's
pension! D'Gary's trip to Antananarivo
turned out to be a major turning-point
in his early career, for it was during his
stay in the capital that he hooked up
with the leader of Feon’ala, one of
Madagascar's leading groups, who
invited him to join the band.

D'Gary could scarcely believe his luck.
Joining Feon'ala not only meant that
he got to go off on extensive tours of
the island's provinces – it also meant
that the guitar wizard who had never
owned his own instrument finally got to
lay his hands on a permanent guitar.
Experimenting with a wealth of different
styles, D'Gary recalled the music he
had heard at the havoria ceremony at
his father's funeral and began working
on a string version of it.

Whenever Feon'ala returned to their
base in Antananarivo, D'Gary would
stay with an old friend from his Tulear
days, Régis Gizavo (the accordion-
player from the star Corsican group I
Muvrini who was also busy with his solo
career). It was not uncommon at this
time for the young guitar maestro to
spend hours locked away in his room,
poring over new melodies and rhythms
as if they were some hidden treasure.

After honing his musical skills with
Feon’ala for several years, D’Gary
embarked on a parallel career as a
musical 'mercenary' in 1985. The
ambitious young musician would spend
his days hanging outside the doors of
the Discomad studio, hiring himself out
as a session guitarist capable of
playing lead, rhythm or bass guitar –
whatever the occasion required! Then,
in 1986, D'Gary branched out in a new
direction, travelling up the east coast
to Maroansetra to play at the famous
'dust dances' (so-called because by
the time the village dances finished in
the early hours of the morning
everyone would be covered in white
dust from the fields!)

Six months later D'Gary upped sticks
again, moving a few hundred
kilometres up the road to Tamatave
(the island's main port). This proved to
be another major turning-point in
D'Gary's career, for he scarcely had
time to step off the boat before he
heard someone calling his name. The
someone in question turned out to be
Dida, one of the Madagascan music
world's most respected and influential
figures. Seeing D'Gary step off the
boat Dida recalled an experience six
years earlier, when he had come
across a young guitarist playing at his
brother's jazz club in Antananarivo in
1981. He had caught D’Gary in the
midst of a 'private' session, warming up
before proper rehearsals began and
had been impressed by the young
musician's flair.
Greeting D'Gary off the boat six years
later, he invited him to come and stay
at his house for as long as he wanted,
encouraging him to give up his
lifestyle as a musical 'mercenary' and
develop his own style. Dida offered
food, lodging – and, most importantly,
the loan of a guitar!

D’Gary went back to see his family in
Betroka in 1988, but resumed his
'artistic residency' in Dida's house
shortly afterwards. Acting as mentor
and sponsor to D'Gary, Dida
introduced his young protégé to one
of the directors of CGM (the German-
Madagascan Centre in Antananarivo)
the following year. The association,
renowned for playing a very active
role on the island's music scene,
invited D'Gary into the studio to
record two tracks. But, excited by his
extraordinary playing style, the
director of the Mars label, pushed the
young guitar wizard to work on a solo
album. "Garry" was released shortly
afterwards – and several tracks from
this impressive debut ended up
featuring on the "Musiques de
Madagascar" compilation (released in
France in 1992).

D’Gary soon found himself working
with the CGM on a full-time basis and
in 1989 he went on to form his own
group, Iraky Ny Vavarano. Working as
a trio (vocals, percussion and guitar),
the threesome went on to record a
series of demo tapes. Meanwhile,
D'Gary was beginning to make a
name for himself in the national media
and soon started making his first
television appearances.

D'Gary rejoined Feon'ala for a one-off
tour in the north of Madagascar in
1991 and it was partway through this
tour that he received an urgent phone
call from Antananarivo. Could he drop
what he was doing and head back to
the capital immediately? Two
American producers were waiting to
see him at the Mars studios. The two
American producers, David Lindley
and Henry Kaiser, had picked up on
the D'Gary buzz on the local music
scene and insisted on staging a
recording session with the
Madagascan guitar hero before they
left town.

D'Gary arrived back in Antananarivo
and headed straight into the studio,
laying down thirteen tracks in an hour!
And this highly fruitful recording
session went down in history as his
first international album, "Malagasy
Guitar, The Music From Madagascar"
(released on Shanachie). Henry
Kaiser, who did not miss a moment of
the legendary session, remembers the
experience to this day. "I couldn't
believe my eyes or ears when those
tracks were played in front of me," he
says incredulously, "If you get a guitar
and sit at home trying to work out
what's going on while he plays, all I
can say is 'Good luck'!"

D'Gary's style is disconcerting to say
the least. Listen closely to his music
and you'll swear there must be at least
two guitarists playing. This illusion
stems from D'Gary's penchant for
"open tunings" (a special technique
he has developed through years of
patient research and which, needless
to say, he keeps totally secret!) Open
tunings are actually nothing new in
musical terms. In fact, they form the
basis of tsapiky, the music that
influenced D’Gary so strongly in his
early years. However, in tsapiky
musicians change only one string
while D'Gary alters several. Some
critics have claimed that D'Gary's
unique playing style attempts to
reproduce the sound of the marovany
(the traditional Madagascan frame box
zither). But D'Gary's secret techniques
actually make his guitar sound more
like the lokanga (the traditional violin
which plays such a major role in the
Bara's havoria).

D'Gary flew out to Louisiana to appear
at the International Music Festival of
La Fayette in 1993. Taking advantage
of his presence at the festival, D'
Gary's producers, Lindley and Kaiser,
pressured him to go into the studio
and record an album with Dama (lead
singer of hip Madagascan pop outfit
Mahaleo). The recording of "Dama &
D’Gary" turned out to be a far from
pleasant experience for D’Gary,
however. Indeed, once the guitar
parts had been recorded, he was not
even allowed back into the studio to
listen to his contribution!

This disappointing experience was
only a temporary blight on D'Gary's
horizon, however, because the
following year he came bounding back
to the forefront of the Madagascan
music scene with his new group, Jihé.
What's more, the outfit soon flew out
to France to record a new album,
"Horombe". This turned out to be an
altogether more uplifting experience
than "Dama & D'Gary", the guitarist
working under much better conditions
– and, of course, having initiated the
recording of this album himself!

Enjoying increasing popularity abroad,
D'Gary soon established himself as
the most sought-after Madagascan
musician on the international circuit.
Playing sell-out concerts all the way
from Germany and Norway to
Tasmania, Nigeria, Cameroon and
South Africa, D'Gary brought the
house down at the world's top music
festivals, scoring a big hit at Abidjan's
MASA festival in 1995 (as he would at
Womad in Singapore in 2001).

On his next album, "Mbo Loza"
(recorded in 1997), D'Gary cut his
band back to a basic trio – guitar,
vocals and percussion, handing the
role of lead vocalist over to his
seductive dancer, Rataza. In fact, D’
Gary preferred to take a back seat
when it came to singing. Although he
began singing vocals on a few of his
tracks every now and then, he
considered that his voice was not
good enough to do more than that.
And fans had to wait for "Ataka Meso"
(recorded in 2000 and released in
2001) to hear D'Gary really let himself
go on the vocal front!

The year 2000 brought some
important changes in D'Gary's
relationship with his homeland. After
having neglected the Madagascan
music scene for some ten years,
preferring to focus his attention on his
international career, he finally agreed
to put together a compilation of
Madagascan music ("Tsapiky 2000",
released on the Mars label). Later that
year he also embarked on a mini tour
of Madagascar, organised by the
Alliance Française, playing fifteen
concerts across the island. These two
events appeared to reconcile D’Gary
to his homeland once and for all.

December 2001
D'Gary            recorded live in Chicago