In an unusual episode, we listen back to field recordings that co-host cris cheek made in 1987 and 1993 on the island of Madagascar. It’s a rich sonic travelogue, with incredible musicians appearing at seemingly every stop along the way. Mack interviews cris, who discusses the strangeness and surprises of listening back to the sounds of that other time and place–and listening to the voice of an earlier version of himself. The BBC broadcast some of this material on Radio 3 as ‘The Music of Madagascar,” produced by John Thornley. It won the Sony gold radio award for ‘specialist music program of the year in 1995. A longer version aired as “Mountain, River, Rail and Reef,” produced by Phil England and Tom Wallace for Resonance FM, the world’s first radio art station as part of 1998’s Meltdown Festival at the South Bank Centre, curated by John Peel. This episode takes its name from a boat cris traveled on in Madagascar.  

[ominous music plays]

[CRIS CHEEK]

This…is…Phantom Power.

[sound of glass being smashed]

[MACK HAGOOD]

Episode 13.

[CRIS]

James Bond.

[MACK]

Welcome to another episode of Phantom Power, the podcast about sound in the arts and humanities.

[CRIS]

Who are you?

[MACK]

*laughs* I’m Mac Hagood.

[CRIS]

I’m cris cheek.

[MACK]

And today we have a very unusual episode because I get to interview cris.

[CRIS]

Yay!

[MACK]

cris has brought in a program that he produced for the legendary community radio station in London, Resonance FM. Based on your travels in Madagascar, actually two trips you took right?

[CRIS]

That’s right 1987, 1993, yeah.

[MACK]

cris, why don’t you tell us a little bit about this show?

[CRIS]

It was originally broadcast on the BBC. And there was some format things that got in the way of it being a longer show on the BBC. And I wanted to let some of the recordings play a little bit more than they could do in the original.

[MACK]

In resonance, it was much more of a sort of freeform kind of space where you could let something like that stretch out right?

[CRIS]

It was pretty emergent as a station at that point, but also yeah, the BBC wanted to cut me distinctly to just under half an hour.

[MACK]

And why Madagascar? Maybe we should start off with where is Madagascar?

[CRIS]

Madagascar is off the east coast of Africa. It’s in the Indian Ocean. Fourth largest island on the planet. 90% unique in flora and fauna. Really extraordinary mixtures of people who came from

From Polynesia, down the Amoni Arab coast from particularly Southwest India, pirates. Did I mentioned pirates yet?

[MACK]

No, you didn’t.

[CRIS]

There were several pirate bases in Madagascar.

[MACK]

Yeah, and the musical traditions that resulted from that mix are really, really incredible.

[CRIS]

They are, and the people are really incredible.

[MACK]

So what we’re going to hear, I’ve heard a little bit of it already. It’s gorgeous music and really some delicious sounds recorded, just delectively. I just really love these recordings and sort of what interests me beyond this sonic travel log that you’re presenting to us, is just the fact that I’m going to hear the you that I didn’t know from 20 years ago, and then you’re also going to sort of hear yourself, the person that you used to be back then.

[CRIS]

Yeah, that’s why I brought this. I mean, I brought it because we’ve been talking in so many different ways about listening about paying attention to the sounds that are around you, the things that are at the edges of our attention, and really concentrating on those. It felt like it was in conversation with so many of the other programs that we’ve made.

[MACK]

Great well, so maybe what we should do is just let it roll, check in, and debrief?

[CRIS]

We’ll stop.

[MACK]

Okay. This is Mountain, River, Rail and Reef by cris cheek.

[upbeat, almost latin style music plays]

[CRIS]

Mountain, River, Rail and Reef. A field sound narrative.

[music continues then fades out, a low drumroll plays]

Monday, March the 13th, 1993. It’s so hard to see out of those distortionary plastic Lawson shaped windows. We’re flying in land over the north western coast of Madagascar now. An island of ancestors, ghost voices. And below the countryside is veined and rotted by streams and rivers. Each Delta stained red by silver deposits bleeding out into the Mozambique channel. Outcrops of rock and tiny villages of no more than a half dozen buildings rise into focus.

Longhorn cattle, zebu, being driven along dirt tracks turned on to otherwise empty stretches of tarmacked road. Further inland, more and more carts and then cars become visible. A hustle and bustle of people activities, thickening towards the capital and tender leave. On the trip into the city center, I’m told by my mirror shaded taxi driver that the rainy season has already been and gone. Red brick houses with pierced wooden balconies are baking in the golden late afternoon sun. Groups of children. One chases a metal hoop with a stick or running home from school through crowded narrow streets. They dance in pungent clouds of steam from blackened parts where rice is coated roadside stalls.

[street sounds are heard]

Tana as it’s cold is high up on the central plateau of this, the fourth largest island in the world. It combines a huge Central Market Square or Soma, facing onto the train station, a couple of lakes, ones colonial hillside suburbs, and a spreading girth of makeshift encampments.

[music and people talking fade in. Flutes and drums are primarily heard]

Most weekends somewhere in these mountains you’ll find the hero gosh or songs of the Malagasy taking place. It’s like a friendly match or flighting between local singers, dancers and musicians, and the visiting troupe from out of town. In the round roller coaster of folk performance, from chaos to pathos, including prototypical rap, improvisational cabaret, martial dances and a somewhat rough band.

[People singing and chanting is heard, they are keeping a beat]

Each group performs twice and a typical performance lasts about a half an hour.

[singing and chanting continues]

Towards the end of each round of the hero gash, a near riot of fanfares, featuring those highly

overenthusiastic drummers breaks down. Everybody keeping themselves going with delicious fish samosas dipped in berry sauce.

[sound of a fast car speeding by]

Monday, March 22nd. I’m leaving the capital and heading for the southwest of Madagascar, where the music the people and their ways are still far less well known.

[sound of a train going by is heard]

The train rumbles it’s sleepers through cornfields dotted with pink perrywinkles and scalloped rice paddies fitting snugly into the mountainside.

[A horn is blown]

Every station as a throng of gesticulating people selling fruit and sausages through open windows to the passengers inside. I got out of the place of big salt, walked up to a Highland Lake nearby. Jade water edged by steep white cliffs, then cut directly West in a taxi Bruce, that’s an open back pickup truck with a canopy, nearly always holding more passengers that is really comfortable. In a bar along the way, for a welcome stretch. I heard the dancing sound of a cobalt. It is a box mandolin, stronger than flexible reed. The Cabalist incorporates the striking of a bass string into his playing, whilst the young boy uses a recycled can holding rice as a shaker.

[The two playing is heard, then street sounds are heard]

The end of this road or certainly as far as the bus goes. The onward road was washed out weeks ago by torrential rain. It’s one of the hottest and most humid places on the island. It translates to waiting for a wife. Well, I’m here hoping for a boat. Pouring down the surrounding mountains, a giant river runs zigzag towards the sea. As I walk along its banks under the mango trees. The evening air cools and heavy rain on the corrugated roofs begins.

[Fast paced music plays, then a crowd claps]

[Street and outdoor sounds are heard once again. A dog barks, and metal is clanging against itself.]

In the half hour or so of dawn light, I’m sitting on a balcony, listening to this small town waking up. Men are hollowing out trees to fashion boats. Goats and sheep hold a rally at the podium in the town square.

[animal noises are heard]

There’s a large insect trying to make passionate overtures, or kill itself against my microphone. One of the endearing features of this lodging house is when I empty the washbasin by some freak of the plumbing system, an airlock perhaps, creates a phantom drummer  rising from the black hole.

[the sound of pouring water, then the phantom drumming is heard, starting slow then gaining speed]

All day we followed the River City Venus currents in a small dugout canoe. Storks and herons perched out on those flows fishing from nest of twisted weed and each night we camped out on the riverbank and makeshift tenants made from cut bamboos.

Sometimes we’d simply drift.

[sound of rushing water]

gliding down through rain forest in silence, having been warned not to speak if I saw anything unusual. To do so would be taboo.

[guitar like music plays, children cheering, then fading out]

[MACK]

This is just incredible stuff. You know, I did a lot of backpacking in the 1990s myself around East and Southeast Asia. the scenarios that you’re painting are so familiar, right you got to get in the back of the pickup truck to go somewhere, and then wait for the boat, and maybe the boat’s going to come this evening or maybe it’s going to come tomorrow or whatever. But the thing that I did not experience is you keep making these little pit stops at these places where you have to wait. But they’re these killer musicians are just making the most incredible music in these places. And that’s something that I wish I had experienced in my travels. I definitely heard a lot of great music but not just sort of at these rest stops.

[CRIS]

There seem to be musicians everywhere. And it was it was what you do while you’re waiting.

But a lot of people who were in the traveling party if you like, weren’t particularly interested. They were kind of impromptu rest, stop cafes, just like you’re describing, and now I’m remembering almost certainly most of this was on a Sony Walkman pro cassette recorder with a tiny little microphone. And and I would say to people, do you mind if I put my recorder out? And they would be yeah, sure, don’t worry about it. But because I put my recorder out, everybody else would suddenly get interested. So they would be then listening to what this traveler this vasar, as they say this stranger was finding interesting about this music that they were taking for granted.

[MACK]

Yes, yes. I’ve had that exact same experience with my own field recordings and you pull out the recording and people are like, wait a minute, is there something I should be listening to here? Why is this strange guy from far away so interested in this?

[CRIS]

It was very, very, very interesting and the musicians would also say thank you afterwards as if they were suddenly being taken seriously as somebody who had something to bring to the situation rather than just being used as background. Everyone would as they say in contemporary departments, lean in. Sometimes there was a bit of applause and it was like, it’s like I’d staged an impromptu concert by putting my tape recorder down, which I found incredibly difficult to fathom. It was full of so many paradoxes.

[MACK]

Well, speaking of things that are difficult to fathom and paradoxical when it comes to recording, one other thing I was thinking about is, we’re both sitting here next to each other listening to this. And I’m imagining everything that’s going on, while you’re remembering everything that’s going on. So I’m just kind of wondering what it’s like for you to be sitting here and listening to something you made 20 years ago.

[CRIS]

Yeah, that’s a super interesting question. It’s as if sound and particularly recorded sound can act as a time portal. It’s very odd for me to listen to my own voice too. Because although you might not hear it, my voice has changed a lot, partly by being here in the US for such a long while. So I’m listening to a very different kind of performance of British masculinity, from a very different moment in time, from a different moment in my life, but also a different a different post colonial context.

[MACK]

So you raised that question of the post colonial context. So, I know that since I was backpacking, and making field recordings, I’ve been exposed to a lot of things and read a lot of things that have made me look back on those activities in the early 90s in a different way. Thinking about the fact that I was following in the footsteps of colonialists who probably gave me the privilege to be able to be so mobile and to visit these places. And then just as they extracted certain things of value, I with my recorder was extracting aspects of their culture and taking them out of context and bringing them back with me. Right. And so I have a sort of feeling of discomfort around some of that.

[CRIS]

Me too.

[MACK]

That I never had before. So yeah, I was wondering what you thought about that.

[CRIS]

Well I’m really glad to hear you raise it because those discomforts register for me really powerfully, they’re registered at the time. And they register even more strangely now because I’m listening to the sound that I produced from those discomforts, a two decade distance.

[MACK]

Yeah. It’s a complex issue because you also had the experience of bringing cassette recordings that were made by earlier Western travelers and playing those for people there. You want to talk about that?

[CRIS]

Well, yeah, French missionaries. Actually the recordings released on the Acorah label are beautiful recordings from this French label Acora. And I literally would arrive in a small village and people would come and talk to me, you know, where are you coming from? What are you up to? What are you interested in? And I was, particularly in the second time I visited on a mission not a missionary, but I was on a mission to because I was particularly interested in recordings that I’d heard of forms of poetry, song poetry that were used for healing purposes in the

southwest of the island. So my whole journey was to go there to try to hear some of this. And I would, people would come, I would play them a little bit of this recording and they put on the headphones, because there was no speaker on a Sony Walkman Pro. And their faces would light up. And then they’d start to laugh. Oh my god. I remember this stuff. Some of them would say, huh, you know, it was a little bit along the lines of having people at the road stop, get interested in the music, the local music. This was also a moment at which people registered that somebody from outside was really interested in a cultural aspect of their culture. So I’m with this malagasy couple traveling down a river. And one night we stop. We make benders out of the bendable branches at the riverside and malcash guy walks up past and walks past holding a crocodiles jaws shut in one hand and doing a breath rhythm, like *sound of breathing* and I copied him. As he went past I just did exactly the same thing back. And the next morning this couple were alive with questions like Where did you learn that stuff? And I said, What stuff? And they said, you know, this, this rhythmic stuff? And I said, I don’t know, I do strange things with my voice. So we arrived at a village The following night, and they disappeared. I sat and looked after the boat and brought the entire village with them and asked me to do a performance. So I had to do this kind of really weird impromptu sort of sound, poetic voice rhythm, performance. And then the villagers all went away and they came back down with their cassette machine and played me examples of what you’re about to hear. And we went on down the river, and we got to this place and all these people showed up, because word had gone out in the forest, from village to village, that there was this guy who was particularly an expert in or interested in this kind of interlocking voice performance. And that’s what happened.

[MACK]

That’s amazing.

[music plays, are back to cris’ recordings]

[CRIS]

After four and a half intense days on this river we arrived at Billow. There in a moonlit courtyard, I witnessed nine young men perform a vocal music that I’d never heard before.

[Male vocals are heard, sound like onenote fluctuating]

They referred to it as cognac key, rapid interlocking rhythms made with a voice. It’s hard work keeping it going for long. And they produce this extraordinary style by kind of whiplash pecking movement of the upper body to project their open breath.

[singing continues]

They’d fall apart into weeps of laughter. Have a cigarette and a drink strictly lemonade for all of them except the chorus master preferred rum, and then start again.

[sounds of bugs humming]

I journeyed on down the south coast for several days. Firstly in a break out of modern dawn, than a dugout canoe with a single patchwork sale or lacken, mostly the village is only accessible by boat. *names of villages* The fishing villages of the veighs.

[sound of water running]

It was ravishingly come surfing over the coral, listening to what the Malagasy called

the colors of the sea. Or simply rowing when the wind stayed put. You can get some inkling of the philosophy of these parts of the island if you know what their place names mean. Take Chepotra. When you walk through it barefoot on the red Earth, you might as well be strolling through a firing kelm. The name means not hot. Typical Malagasy sense of humor.

[town sounds are heard]

I brought a little tape record

with me and a copy of some of the recordings made along this coastline in the 1960s whenever I could if it seemed appropriate. I played this tape to someone in a village and asked if there were any people still singing such songs. More often than not, they got quite excited. They’d call their friends over and ask if I could make a copy and send it to them for the archive or their local school, for example. Listen to this, they’d say it’s that old song poetry from the 1960s.

[A song poetry song is played, with a man and woman singing]

[town sounds are heard]

Impatie is almost as close as Madagascar gets to a resort. Onne of the tourist villages around which the developments are gathering is called Mora Mora, slowly, slowly or take it easy. I stayed in Mangeelie. It’s a small place set back from the beach, sea foam and plush running squid like Creole bungalows with strangers like me are expected to rest. Not that I was any less of a stranger for all that. In the evenings, there’s a huge roughly fenced open air bar where local people gather to drink and dance the minusk. This might sound like a bit of a low fidelity recording. In fact, my microphone is placed directly on the bar, picked exactly what it sounded like.

[distorted fast paced music is heard]

[electric guitar is heard]

Just a few hundred yards away. There are groups of young musicians promenading in the villages, playing acoustic versions. They sling large box like mandolins around their shoulders. The instruments come in several different sizes roughly small, medium and large. And this passionate quirky music is led by exuberant singers accompanied by some virtuoso football whistling. It can go on for hours.

[this type of music is heard, with people talking in the background, then becomes the forefront. People sing and whistle, then fade out]

[a low rumbling is heard in the background]

[MACK]

And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. All the recordings you heard today are by cris cheek, with the exception of that extract from Possession and Poetry in Madagascar, recorded by Bernard Coachland in 1969. Today’s episode was produced by cris cheek and Mack Hagood. Mountain River Rail and Reef was produced by Phil England and Tom Wallace for Resonance FM, the world’s first radio art station as part of 1998’s meltdown festival at the Southbank Centre curated by John Peel. The BBC broadcast some of this material on radio three as the music of Madagascar, produced by John Thorn Lee. And by the way, it one the Sony gold radio award for Specialist Music Program of the year back in 1995. You can subscribe to our show at Phantompod.org or wherever you get your podcasts. We’d love it if you’d rate and review us on Apple Podcasts. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter at Phantompod. Thanks to our intern Gina Moravec. Phantom Power is produced with support from the Robert H and Nancy J. Blaney endowment, the Miami University Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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