Performers from the Madagascan dance troupe Bloco Malagasy kicked off the Phnom Penh leg of their national tour this week. Even in its homeland, the troupe is unique in that it performs a Brazilian art form known as Batucada, a style of samba which incorporates singing, dancing and drumming and originates from African slaves. It has some 75 performers in Madagascar, and 10 have come to Cambodia. The group has already performed in Siem Reap, Battambang, Kampot, Pursat and Sihanoukville, and after the Phnom Penh shows they will move on to Thailand, where they will perform in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Emily Wight spoke to 25-year-old performer Toky and Romain Cogne, the representative of Coconut Water, the international education NGO that brought the troupe to Cambodia.
Batucada is from Brazil. How did it come to Madagascar?
Romain: Coconut Water saw that during the afternoons after school, teenage girls in Madagascar would end up as prostitutes on the streets. So we tried to come up with alternatives so that these girls wouldn’t get into prostitution. We wanted the girls to have a leisure activity, and to educate the children in how to play music.
Why did you decide to come on tour to Cambodia?
Romain: For this project, we wanted to connect two parts of the organisation: the one in Madagascar and the one in Cambodia. We wanted to connect women from Africa with women from Asia. Madagascar told me they had the band, and I organised the tour around the country here, and also found some places in Thailand. A group of sponsors in Switzerland helped fund the tour. We did a similar tour of Cambodia in March 2013, which was a great success.
What does Coconut Water do in Madagascar, and how does this compare to what it does in Cambodia?
Romain: Coconut Water has many offices – it’s a network of organisations. In Madagascar we have basic education programs, so we provide a lot of activities for children. Some of the activities are about putting young kids into school and supporting them, and some are about extra-curricular activities.
Toky, you came on the tour last year. What were the main differences between the culture in Madagascar and the culture here?
Toky: The dance is very different. Here, the Apsara is so still and slow. It looks lovely and I like it, but we move a lot, which is the opposite. Also, here, they wear long-sleeved clothes, even in the same heat as us. We are like this, with sleeveless tops. For us, it’s not comfortable to wear clothes like that! We’re less covered-up.
Did you make friends here?
Toky: Yes, a lot. Khmer people like the Madagascan women, because they are surprised by how different we look. We went in a tuk-tuk and people were staring and waving, but I think they liked it. The problem is with dialogue because we don’t speak good English or Khmer. But when we were together, every day it was “how are you, what is your name, how old are you” – we want to talk to each other, but it’s not possible to make long sentences but we can communicate with each other, and of course we exchanged Facebook pages and shared photos.
Given that this style of performance is new to Madagascar, what do other Madagascans think of you performing?
Toky: Even though I’ve been doing this for six years now, I have a lot of friends at my university who don’t understand it at all! They always ask me why I’m drumming, but I do it because I love the music and it gives me happiness and confidence. It lifts my spirits, and I feel proud that it comes from so far away and not many people know about it. I’m one of the only people in my country doing it, and that makes me feel special.
Do you think it’s important that people from different countries share parts of their culture with each other?
Toky: Yes of course. In Madagascar we have a different way of life, but we don’t want to just experience music from Madagascar. It’s important to learn others. And it’s not just about the music – it’s about the way of life too. Being here, we can learn about how Cambodians live, how to speak with other people, and we can share our knowledge. Last year, the Cambodian audiences loved watching us perform, but I’m not sure if they would dare try it themselves!