A sightseeing trip to southern Africa in 2007 opened Edward Banchs‘ eyes to an uncharted music scene in an unexpected place: rock and metal, alive and raging in the forgotten continent. Sparked by his own love of heavy music and an insatiable wanderlust, the author traveled throughout South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Reunion and Zimbabwe meeting the musicians and fans who — working with varying degrees of infrastructure and resources — pursue this music with a drive and passion recognizable to metal fans anywhere in the world.
With a scholar’s curiosity and a headbanger’s enthusiasm, Edward sheds light on the history, accomplishments and aspirations of African metal bands living their passions, and defining their generation the only way they know how: loudly.
Don’t miss out: Banchs will be signing at City Books on April 26th (Independent Bookstore Day)!
From the author: “The following excerpt appears between pages 204-213 of Heavy Metal Africa: Life, Passion, and Heavy Metal in the Forgotten Continent. While in Madagascar, the tone of the trip took a humbling turn, as I was now able to see what motivated a lot of the musicians to carry through, regardless of what anyone thought of them, including the government. Along with my translators Stephan and Markus, we meet members of young upcoming groups MetaMorphozed and Dizzy Brains, along with a familiar face for Malgasy rockers, Nary of the band Black Wizard…”
Land of Doom
“We won’t write about politics; we don’t want to go to jail,” uttered Erichi of the band MetaMorphozed. I remember the exact look the rest of his band leveled upon me after he spoke in his broken English. The quiet that fell within those four walls from Erichi’s response triggered a look of discontent from the 10 young eyes glancing back. What did he mean? Was he serious? Or, did I just put everyone in the room in an uncomfortable situation by bringing up politics? Markus had advised me that these topics were not totally off limits after I mentioned my intention to bring up political issues. “They are afraid of publicly talking about politics, not about politics per se,” he explained. “They just want the country to function, and most of them don’t care much if Ravalomanana or Rajoelina is president. They want politicians to leave them alone and care for the country. There is not much going on in the sense of our [the West’s]left/right divide. Yes, they are fearful. Money is getting devalued constantly, and they fear Madagascar will decline again after some 10 years of promise and prospering.” If I wanted to discuss the political situation in Madagascar, like I had learned discussing ethnicity in Kenya, I would have to proceed cautiously. Stephan, like Markus, had encouraged me to continue asking political questions, just not in public.
“We want to talk about revolution,” affirmed the unapologetic front man, Eddie, of the Antananarivo garage-rock band Dizzy Brains. Polished in his demeanor, the tall, thin and well-groomed singer had an honest personality. He wore maroon jeans, designer shoes (imitations), a fashionable sweater and a scarf wrapped around his neck. He never held back. While his band was not metal, their homage to bands like the Rolling Stones, White Stripes and MC5 stood out in the Malagasy scene. It was this raw energy that caught my attention. Led by Eddie’s raspy throat, the band presented me with a video for a song called “Vangy” over lunch one afternoon. The lyrics, which were translated for the video in English and French, were a clear stab at the system. The song included the lines: “They say Madagascar is prospering, but it’s clear demagogy…wanting power and glory is the source of all our discord… they let us die of hunger if we are Gasy like them… Not surprising this country is dying a little more each day.” I asked the band members about the brutal honesty of the track. Eddie responded, “We want to write similar lyrics in all of our songs. We don’t care if the government stops our music, we will continue to sing about poverty and misery here in Madagascar, which is a big part of all our lives.” Stephan and I could not help but notice that the members of the band belonged to the comfortable class of Malagasy society, but their aplomb to send their message was going to continue undeterred. It became obvious why: In order to get to the Dizzy Brains’ rehearsal space, we had to walk through some excruciating poverty.
Madagascar is home to the worst poverty I have seen in Africa. Even in other corners of Africa I had visited, nothing was this bad. On this particular walk to meet Dizzy Brains, we had to turn down a set of stairs directly adjacent to a dumpster near the café where we had just met the band. This was the sort of dumpster you would see outside of commercial buildings, typically picked up and collected by a specialty truck in any developed corner of the world. Not here. What stunned me was the number of children that popped their heads out of the dumpster as we walked by. I had no idea what to do. The overwhelming fetid odor that came from there nearly floored me. Yet, there were kids – all toddlers – rummaging through the litter out of blistering desperation. Many of these kids followed us, dragging smaller ones behind them, all of them barefoot – their feet heavily calloused and infected. Stephan indicated that they might be orphans and have no one to care for them. The malodorous clothes they were wearing would be theirs until they grew out of them, likely passing them forward to the next generation of poverty. Knowing that these children would likely never escape this poverty is an everlasting heartbreak.
Every walk in Antananarivo, as does any trip to any city, town or village in Madagascar, paints a grim picture of poverty. Everything I saw around every corner was another reminder of just how things are here. People disrobing next to puddles that filled in potholes after recent rainfall to wash the clothes they had on their back is another image that remains prominently embedded in my mind. Rivers, too, were places of defecation, bathing and washing clothes. Defecation was seen throughout the sidewalks and streets as many simply “went” wherever they could. This was not the first time I had seen people defecating on the street. Earlier in the trip, I had seen a man in front of a Cape Town nightclub just “go” in broad daylight, as well as fecal matter laying about in Nairobi’s Kibera. But to see it in a city to this extent was something else. Certain locations in Antananarivo were worse than others, as people made their homes everywhere and anywhere without shame. And life just seemingly continued for the rest of the population.
Nary sat on the edge of his bed in a spacious third-floor bedroom inside his home. A mariner by trade, he finds solace in the few months he spends at his home. Fluent in quite a few languages, he was more than happy to get into life as a metal musician with the long-running act that he and his brother formed years ago called Black Wizard. With an ode to classic Black Sabbath prominent in their sound, Black Wizard had gained a respectable fan base over the years, something that Nary was thankful for. Yet, there was one instance still burning in the back of his mind that he wished to share.
“When I write a song, I talk about everything in Madagascar. For example, when you go 100 meters from here,” he said pointing out his window, “you see the worst place in the world. When I go past there I am crying. The situation of the population there I cannot believe. I wrote this song called ‘Land Of Doom.’ If you go past this place,” he emphasized, still pointing, “you will cry. The lyrics ask to pray for the nation today, because this nation is going down.” Nary reached over toward his computer and played a video the band released for the song. A live performance, the video is interjected with clips he took from a hand-held camera of the place he was referring to a block away: a sewage canal, straddled by derelict homes on both sides, an undesirable and dreadful poverty, just one block away from his home. “When I put this music on the TV, policeman arrive at my gate asking, ‘Why you show this [sic] to everybody?’ The movie of the song I make [sic] is showing everything in the city, and they don’t support it.” Everyone in the room stopped what they were doing. Nary said he has never forgotten that day. The incident, which happened a few years prior, was still fresh in his mind. Police had come to knock on his door to tell him they did not appreciate the imagery of his band’s video. “[If] they come today, tomorrow I take my ticket and come back in a year,” he said, showing me his passports, indicating the ease with which he could just leave the country on a whim, given his profession. “I’m talking about the real situation in Madagascar.”
“As you have seen, the system here is very restrictive,” spoke Mandiby, bassist of the thrash metal band Beyond Your Ritual, who was present during the interview with Nary. Doing their best to communicate in English, the members had grown frustrated by the poverty and politics in the country as well. “It is like a bottle: the top is very small and not everyone can pass through. When we were at school, we were told we were the future of the nation, but the people of the older class have seemed to block our way.” He paused for a minute to collect the right words, noting that he worked in the country’s finance sector and was concerned by the lack of money in the pockets of the working class. He continued, “We were always taught we were the future of the country, and we wanted to engage in modeling the future. But you can’t get through. We chose metal to circumvent that. You can be a part of talking of the future.”
“Through our lyrics we convey that we don’t like our politics. We are against our politics. We talk about life and society,” explained Miobula, guitarist of the band JonJoRomBona. Their unique sound and style separates them from many others in Madagascar. A heavy metal band with a traditional flair, the members were excited to host me and discuss matters of effect without trepidation when reviewing their political situation, especially the 2009 coup. “We wrote a song called “Aleoko Ho Faty” (“I Prefer To Die”) about the 2009 coup d’état. The politicians here dislike everything about this country. It looks like they shelled their own country,” Miobula shared. “We send the messages of the misery in this country,” added the band’s percussionist, Niove.
Many of the country’s young acts, part of what could be described as this new wave of bands coming of age in the Internet era, are taking proactive approaches in addressing themes of frustration. “Society makes you oppressive,” commented the alternative rock singer Naday. “If you don’t have money, it is very oppressive,” he added. For many more, it was a way of directing their anger in a healthy manner. “We have a track, ‘7,’ that talks about the [2009 coup],” stated Faniry of the thrash metal band Soradra. Remembering the day of the coup as he sat across from me, holding a drink, he never lost eye contact. His pauses were deliberate, as were the words in his reticent English. “The following day, I went to the place where the killing happened. It was… it was not Madagascar,” he remembered with clarity. Asked whether or not there was ever fear in composing anti-government songs or if the government was even taking notice if anyone was writing songs of the sort, he replied, “I don’t know, and I don’t care. Fuck the government! We write what we want,” he spat out. “The politicians here just steal the money from the people and get off,” added Emmanuel of the extreme band Nocturnal Mortum.
“The situation is supposed to be expressed by our music. The stranger should know about our country,” stated Haja, the extremely shy drummer of the Tamatave deathcore band A Skylight’s Severance. “We put these lyrics in our music for the metal community. We want the world to see what life in Madagascar is really like,” he added. Toky, vocalist and bassist of the death metal band Samar, hinted that it is difficult for him to keep a positive attitude in Madagascar. After watching Samar rehearse, I asked Toky about a song that stood out for me, “No Salvation,” that featured lyrics in English. “‘No Salvation’ is about our leaders and how they don’t care about other people,” he explained. “They think that they are leading the people in the right, but they are not. If the priest wants the people to pray, what is the sense in a song like ‘No Salvation?’ Are people supposed to be saved? We are very angry too! At the time of [colonization], French people would spit on Malagasy people. The French would rape our women.” His bandmate, guitarist Bob, sat quietly beside him nodding his head up and down in agreement. The middle-aged guitar player remembers the colonial period well and was certain that the current government had taken its cues from their French colonial masters.
Kaltz, guitarist of the Antananarivo band Sasamaso, sat quietly, lowering his whispering voice even more so when discussing his frustration with his country’s politics. “There are so many things we want to shout. The injustice, it is definitely about injustice. In [mainland]Africa, things are more civil. Here, injustice rules.” He expressed how this music has allowed him and his band members the opportunity to speak about the issue that would otherwise be left untouched by other genres in the country. Sasamaso came onto my radar by way of their video “Fariseo.” The clip found its way into circulation through Western message boards and metal blogs, raising a few eyebrows around the world in the process, given the lack of awareness of metal in Madagascar. Discussing the video, Kaltz recalled, “our prime minister from colonization has a tomb in Tana,1 we chose this grave on purpose because ‘Fariseo’ talks about fairytales. [Politicians] are famous for not being honest, not being truthful. It was a statement to talk about these politicians and how they say things they then won’t do and so on.”
During one particular conversation on the matter of politics and its effect on music, Markus shared that Nini of the band Kiaki was once approached by the president (though, I was never informed which president) and was asked to write and perform on his campaign’s behalf. When I asked Nini about this a few weeks later, he confirmed it. “Yes, he wanted us to sing only during the campaigns, but we were not to talk about politics. We have performed in front of a lot of people, but we never spoke [sic]of politics,” he said, explaining that the idea was a bit bizarre. One day you are the singer of a rock band, the next you are answering a phone call from the president being asked for songs and performances in order to help “the cause,” something that the band never did so as to not ostracize their fans. However, what this conversation with Nini shows is that rock is viewed in a different light for so many in Madagascar and their greater cultural scope. Being asked by a president shows just how much validity this music has in Madagascar, more than in any other African country. It has become a part of their culture. But why has their culture not become a part of their music?
Excerpted from Heavy Metal Africa: Life, Passion, and Heavy Metal in the Forgotten Continent by Edward Banchs. Excerpted with permission of the author.
- Rainilaiarivony is the prime minister he referred to. Ruling from 1864 to 1895, he helped the nation transition from a monarchy to a constitutional state and was responsible for making public school education in Madagascar mandatory. ↩