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The hiragasy (hira: song; gasy: Malagasy) is a musical tradition in Madagascar and particularly among the Merina ethnic group of the Highland regions around the capital of Antananarivo. The hiragasy is a day-long spectacle of music, dance, and kabary oratory performed by a troupe (typically related by blood or marriage and of rural origin) or as a competition between two troupes.
The tradition in its contemporary form began in the late 18th century when Merina prince Andrianampoinimerina first used musicians to draw a crowd for his political speeches (kabary); these troupes became independent, and began to incorporate political commentary and critique in their performances. The audience plays an active role at hiragasy events, expressing their satisfaction with the talent of the troupe members and the message they proclaim through applause, cheers or sounds of disapproval. Hiragasy troupes were used during the French colonial administration to communicate decrees and other information to the rural population in the Highlands, and as such troupe members were exempt from the forced labor requirements imposed on all other Malagasy.
After independence from France in 1960, the hiragasy troupe was held up as an icon of traditional Malagasy culture, and began to find greater popularity along the coasts, although performances remain largely concentrated in the Highlands. Aspiring politicians routinely hire hiragasy troupes to attract a crowd for their political speeches while campaigning. While most troupes remain apolitical, some have opted to throw their support behind particular candidates to spectacular effect, as when former hiragasy member-cum-popstar Rossy authored his 1995 song "Lera." The song was critical of the Zafy regime and was picked up by hiragasy troupes, who performed it across the island; the popularity of this song played a key role in mobilizing popular support for Zafy's impeachment. The most famous troupe is Ramilison Fenoarivo, Rossy's former troupe and staunch supporter of ex-President Didier Ratsiraka.
The performance of the hiragasy follows a number of conventions, such that there are certain similarities between the 80+ troupes currently performing in Madagascar. Among these are the order in which songs, dances and oratory are performed; how troupes are named (after the last name of the founding member and his/her town of origin); what costumes are worn (men typically wear straw hats, red coats and pants inspired by 19th century French military garb, and matching lamba cloth sashes; women wear identical dresses designed after the style popular among ladies of the court during the Imperial period); and which instruments are used. Traditional instruments are not common at hiragasy performances, due to the origins of the performance with the royal court, where European influences reigned. Instead, the most common instruments are violins, trumpets, and snare and bass drums; the sodina, accordion, kabosy or clarinet may occasionally make an appearance.
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