As part of our commitment to bring local journalism to the forefront of our reader’s attention, we’ve forged a partnership with, Word Association Publishers, in Tarentum. Our first selection in our series spotlighting local writers is an excerpt from Edward Banchs’ book Heavy Metal Africa.
Banchs traveled Africa and wrote a book documenting his journey across the continent watching metal bands perform. Part intro to African culture, part travel log, this book is a great read for music fans of any stripe.
Sponsored By: Word Association Publishers
I have continually given thought throughout these trips to Africa as to what is behind the lack of traditional influence or cultural sounds in the continent’s rock and metal communities. Quite often, I return to the same conclusion: rebellion. Most of the bands in these countries – with the exception of Madagascar and South Africa, which are made up of acts from differing generations – are composed of young musicians who want nothing more than to redefine their identity through this music. But what it is about heavy metal and rock that lend them to an identity shift away from the local? This metal and rock identity follows an unwritten set of norms, like any other subculture. But, metal and rock have found subtle ways of becoming local in the various African countries, mostly through hints of language and themes. At the same time, though, this local metal community was still holding back. Was there still something in their way? Stephan shared that Madagascar, in his view, was ext remely conservative, and he was made to feel unwelcome in some places because of his proclivity to wear black T-shirts with heavy metal band logos, and facial piercings. But for Stephan, like so many others, this was how he felt comfortable.
“Metal is not welcome in Madagascar. Maybe because of the Malagasy culture? Malagasy culture is the opposite of metal culture; for people, metal [to others] is Satanic music,” explained Faniry. Tsilavina of the metalcore bands Set and My Funeral Song explained that “people’s religion, Christianity and Catholicism, changed the mind of the people and became [sic] narrow minded.” The problem, he said, are the religious leaders who have taken advantage of a nation whose population is not very international and the interweaving of politics to faith. According to Joss of Allkiniah, “Religion here is political; it helps them get money. If there is something wrong, they talk to the people. For example, ‘Look at the metal fans, they wear black.’ So many people trust them.” Tsilavina explained that he and his friends, who are all in bands, have a different approach that could perhaps assuage their situation. “We began to change the new vision of metal with white clothes and short hair. The new look!” he says laughing. Though, I did notice, with the exception of a few, the stereotypical “metal attire” was absent throughout Madagascar, mostly as a result of the cost of the metal T-shirts. Most of the T-shirts were homemade or bootlegged versions shipped in and sold on street markets. Misspelling of band names, inaccurate album covers and lyrics scrawled on the back that had nothing to do with the associated album on the front were common mistakes found on these shirts. But the Malagasy metal fans who were fortunate to own a few did not care. They loved those shirts as much as they love the music and those bands.
Perhaps it is this trepidation by the non-rock/metal commoner that has hampered the reputation of this music for many and, thus, the rejection of Malagasy culture in the music. “The people here are so afraid when they see a guy or a girl in a black shirt. The religion has told them about what is good and bad, and that is why people think that rock is a bad thing. They will blame rock and roll,” explained Ndriana. “Because of the religion, people were afraid. They were scared of talking about reality,” stated Claude of the band Aowa. His bandmate Setra added, “This is a really Christian country. They are blinded by religion. It’s like the Middle Ages here. People are frightened that ‘you can’t do this’ because we go to hell. It’s always,” he paused for a few seconds, resuming with a shift in thought. “Actually, it is a fear dictatorship here that continues to manage. The most intelligent here understand things and get out of the system, but people are really stubborn. ‘You play metal!’” he said, imitating the mocking tone. “And they associate it with Satanic ideology, or really bad things.”
Stephan and I had a first-hand encounter with this perception at an Antananarivo corner store. Sharing a few drinks with the members of JonJoRomBona, we found ourselves surrounded by a few local youths who were taken aback by the way Stephan and I were dressed, but they had taken particular umbrage to my attire. My sweatshirt, (which many joke is part of my uniform) of the American band Darkest Hour, features a “demonic goat” across the back, which, in reality, is a caricature with exaggerated horns and “arms” spread wide open with a motionless grin across its facetious face. It became the target of their rage. This same hooded sweatshirt got me booted from a store in an upscale shopping mall in a Nairobi, Kenya, because an employee had taken offense to the image on the back. Now, confronted by a few men – and separated from Stephan, the only person who could speak on my behalf – I was cornered and unsure of what was happening. This happened quickly! I had just bought a few bottles of beer for the members of JonJoRomBona, clutched them in my fingers and turned around to the angry faces of these young men. With my back to the sales counter, the clerk went to fetch the owner. A few others were holding back Stephan, who was shouting across the room, “They think you are a Satanist!” The men, assuming I was French, were confronting me in French, accusing me of coming to Madagascar to spread Satanism. Our situation probably was not helped by the store’s radio playing the American thrash metal band Shadows Fall, which the clerk had agreed to play for us off of Stephan’s phone (likely because of the amount of money I was spending there).
Once they realized I was not French, they allowed Stephan to translate for me. I explained my reason for being there. In the end, it was agreed that I would be left alone and that I could enjoy my trip to their country on the promise that I would not spread Satanism – a promise that I kept! But the instant, on-a-dime reaction to my attire supporting one of my favorite bands and the manner in which Stephan presents himself were strong indications that an intense “rock and metal music is evil” mentality permeated this country. Even within the Internet youth.
“When people hear the distorted guitar, people think it is the devil’s music. They still think about the same thing they did about a thousand years ago. I just want them know this is not the bad music they are thinking about.” The words of Antananarivo musician Rado came clearly and without pause. He spoke passionately while surrounded by his band, Heavy Hell Stomp. “I don’t think how I dress should be the topic for you to judge me. I think it is just matter of what I love to wear. I would like [people] to understand that this music has its good, too. They think we are on drugs. It has to take steps,” he confessed. “I hope, as we are all dreamers and great [optimists], I hope we are a part of this change. This is the music that allows performers to truly share their feelings and to commence a dialogue about the matters affecting them most. Our lyrics [are] about changes, not revolution, not destroying anything, but changing things,” he added. The appeal of this music to some was directly because of the honesty it welcomes, as was explained when two of Stephan’s friends came to visit from Tamatave. “The lyrics of the band Kreator, I like their lyrics because they talk about misery, war, and chaos,” shared Stephan’s friend Hary, speaking of the German thrash metal band. “In my country, this misery is everywhere.” Poverty, politics and the pessimism of a future in peril allows many to feel at ease within this music’s expressive nature.
A few have used their lyrics to delve into exigent social issues of Malagasy life. Romeric, the quiet vocalist of the extreme metal band Nocturnal Mortum, explained that his music has helped him express his frustrations with a matter he holds close: the environment. “We talk about someone who robbed the tomb, because the politicians here export precious trees called ‘Pink Tree, ’” as the look on his face became one of frustration. As Romeric decried, seeing the trees leaving his home city of Fianarantsoa was like watching someone rob a tomb. “These kinds of trees are expensive, and that is why the politicians export them. Just like that! Because not many people know about them.” A fan, who was sitting at the table behind ours, glanced over (as if he were going to argue with Romeric) and intruded in a staunch manner. “Some people here do the traffic of the ‘Pink Tree.’ Some people give the money to the politicians from the tree [sic]. ” Nini of Kiaki also uses his platform to address environmental issues. “We talk about the Malagasy culture that cuts and burns trees. Malagasy should not do these kinds of things.” When I asked why this was common, Nini said he was unsure, but “we have a habit to burn [sic] everything. You can’t see these animals without Madagascar,” he added, referring to the ubiquitous symbol of the country, the lemur.
Madagascar receives a lot of positive attention for its ecology, notably because of its unique biological diversity. Roughly 90 percent of the flora and fauna that exists in Madagascar are endemic. But on the drive to Fianarantsoa, I would spot smoke plumes in the distance and the horror of a black, charred earth staring back at me. As Stephan and I took in the scenery that Nini had described, I could not help but keep noticing pockets of black surrounded by the remnants of dead fauna. The process of slash and burn in Madagascar is known as tavy and occurs because of the level of poverty throughout the country. Farmers convert forest, topical or not, into rice fields by burning everything down, which in turn releases nutrients into the soil that allow for a natural fertilization for the rice crop. The land is left fallow for a few years after harvest so the process can be repeated. However, most of the time dismal vegetation, or scrub grass, grows in its place. A typical forest can see signs of life 20 years after a good burn, yet that is not the case in Madagascar, as signs of tavy are everywhere in the countryside.
Deforestation in Madagascar is a crisis in its own right, but it also heavily threatens the furry and curious primates adored by so many around the world: lemurs. Their home is being destroyed. An effort by the Malagasy government to protect much of their native land was in full effect, but many still did not understand – Stephan included. It was during an off day that we were able to see lemurs first hand, even touch them, and learn just how valuable they are to the country, which is the lemur’s indigenous home. The animal was now a symbol of the desperation of a nation. Yet, many Malagasy are oblivious – unaware of what they were doing, or if they were, they did not care. Everything, as they saw it, was a food source, even the precious lemur. It was hard to blame them. The country is remarkably poor. Food, however you could get it, was necessary. Speaking with members of bands in Fianarantsoa (much closer to the lemur’s natural habitat), Stephan now saw how protective members of the rock and metal community were of their country.