Of kabary and hip-hop: coming full circle.

Picture this:
your two favorite MC's battling one-on-one in front of a captive audience, each one representing his "people". They are going back and forth, exchanging killer rhymes, clever one-liners and obscure references, with the laughter and the cheers of their supporters in the background.

By now, you are probably picturing some scenes from the "8 mile" movie (or the very odd Jodie Foster 's version of Eminem's "loose yourself" at U Penn's commencement.)

( photo via EW)

Now instead of a club, picture an engagement party. Instead of a mixing table, picture flower arrangements and cocktail bowls. Instead of two young rappers in FUBU clothing, two middle-aged speakers wearing formal suits and declining poems of yore.

A Kabary in the Malagasy culture is just that: an oratory art/battle in the most unsual setting. Something in between a Frank Sinatra roast and a Jay-Z/Nas battle, if you will. It's certainly not as aggressive but done right, it can be just as entertaining.
Done poorly, a kabary is the most boring hour you could ever spent.

So what is a Kabary ? Here is a definition:
"Kabary--pronounced Kabar--refers to Malagasy oratory plied by the mpikabary--the orator--during any social or family gathering such as political assembly, wedding, famadihana, burial, funeral, or condolence. Kabary involves using word play and Malagasy proverbs-"

In the setting of a Malagasy engagement party, each orator represents either one of the families. The choice of the orator should not be taken lightly because your family "street cred" ;) may depend on it. Should your orator be badly outperformed by the other family, words in the city would be that your family was too cheap to afford a decent orator and that you are indeed lucky to have hitched your sheep to the other family's fortune ( I am exaggerating here but you get the idea).

You don't want to bore the audience with a lifeless out-of-touch orator but you don't want to go to war with a young speaker either because he may be tricked by a more experienced "mpikabary" or he might use cultural reference that your uncles and aunts can't possibly understand.

In my younger days, I use to think that a Kabary was a inevitable nuisance and 1h1/2 of absolute boredom. Why couldn't we just let cousin X tie the knot with his bride and move on to the eating and dancing part ? Do we really need to hear those two old chaps exchanging wits and pleasantries about the pitfalls of matrimony?
Now I long for the time when our "designated hitter/orator" waxed poetry on the uncanny parallel between love lost and the Cameroon-England quarterfinal match at the 1990 World Cup.

(photo via Tatamo)

The importance of Kabary in the Malagasy culture cannot be overstated. We are, and will always be a society based on our oral culture. Consider that we have 18 tribes in Madagascar and yet all of them without exception have a tradition of Kabary.
To further illustrates the importance of Kabary, the tranofalala website lists a series of idioms related to kabary. Here are a few of them:

- Kabary anelekelan-trano: resolving a disagreement among a community between themselves instead of taking the case to court.
- Kabary tsy efan-kalahady: disagreement that cannot be settled by making simple apology, instead it needs the intervention of the elders or even the court.
- Kabarim-behivavy: a confusing debate during which all participants speak at the same time and raise their voices.
- Kabary tsara pasoka: a captivating kabary.
- Kabary am-panambadiana: call and response talk in a wedding ceremony between the bride's orator and the one of the groom. The groom or the bride might be represented by one or several orators depending on the family's custom.
- Zanak'omby tsy ampianarin-domano, zanak'andriana tsy ampianarin-kabary: used to say that you have special skills without having to learn them.

(Examples of Kabary can be found here, or here.)

The irony is that Malagasy youngsters are quite drawn to hip-hop culture but are not as inclined to revisit the elders' kabary. Our fondness for hip-hop comes from following American or French rappers. We are more likely to chant 50 cent's " In da club" in night-clubs than decline a kabary at a ceremonial.

It's a pity because this could be a case of old school becoming new school all over again. In both cases, one has to captivate and relate to your audience and at the same time, respond to the verbal gauntlet thrown by the opposite orator. It's usually quite tame but it's nevertheless a challenge.

One new young Malagasy blogger, Lomelle, is also a poetry slam artist. I wonder if she relates more to Lupe Fiasco or Dox or if she just naturally embraces both influences.

I, for one, am more likely to produce a Kabarin'adala (a blether) or a Kabarin-tsahona (nonsense) so I will let others be in charge of the "olan'teny"at the next family reunion.
No one needs to hear a Kabary with the words " Check out the hook will my DJ revolves it" in it.

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