After a year of living in Antananarivo, I decided to finally go visit the Rova of Antananarivo, also known as the Royal Palace of Antananarivo. The site is a locus of Madagascar’s spiritual, cultural, pre-colonial, post-colonial, and modern political history. Of course I brought my ukulele.
The tour guides and souvenir hawkers were curious to hear it and play it. So I let them.
I don’t always bring my ukulele everywhere that I go in Madagascar, but I just might start after having this kind of fun.
I hadn’t really intended to show the uke to anyone at all. I thought I might be able to find a private spot up on that high hill where I could record a birthday greeting for one of my friends. I brought a little tripod so that nobody would have to help me. You can see how that worked out.
I tried to explain that guitar chords also work on the uke. But when the first guy started playing, I could tell that he was using kabosy chords.
Adapted Kabosy Tuning
A kabosy is a Malagasy instrument strung like a mandolin (sort of), tuned like a banjo (sort of), fretted like a dulcimer (sort of), and shaped like a cigar box (often, but not always).
Because I knew a little about kabosy chords, it occurred to me that one tiny change to the tuning on just one string would mean that those chord shapes he was making would work.
Although I thought of this tuning all by myself up there at the Rova, on the spot—yes I did—it is not original. It is known as a “Hawaiian style” or “slack key” tuning.
People who can read music will notice that the Kabosy has two G strings. In most chords, these two strings are barred together by the same finger. If you fret the respective two ukulele strings at once, you get a perfect fifth, and that works most of the time with kabosy chords.
If you watch the guy in the blue Samsung shirt, at about :50 he is trying to play bass/root notes on the G string. He plucks what he expects to be a low D note for D chord. Instead he gets a high A note. D and A notes do belong together in a D chord, but from the look on his face, he seems a little weirded out by the results he is getting.
The guy in the striped jacket is Jany. He was my guide. He’s more of a full-on strummer, and that works better with this tuning.
Jany couldn’t wait to see and hear the uke. He asked me to play it for him while he was still leading my tour. We were inside a building called Mahitsy—the king’s house, as it was in precolonial times. Jany asked, “Would you play a song to honor our ancestors?”
I got out the ukulele, and my mind went blank. The only song I could think of was “Happy Birthday.”
So why did I really bring my uke to the Rova?
Last year I started a practice of recording Happy Birthday videos for close friends and family—if Facebook helps me remember. So when Facebook reminded me of a friend’s birthday on the day when I had planned to visit the Rova…
I’ve always been terrible about remembering birthdays. I like to think that a birthday video from exotic Madagascar makes up for it. The time difference between here and the United States gives me bit of a head start. This is the first time I involved a ukulele.