Reapers were treated to the sight of a Madagascan drumming band taking over Pub Street with Phare circus performers this week, as part of Bloco Malagasy’s Asian tour. The ten strong, all girl, all singing-and-dancing batucada (afro-Brazilian percussion) group has been performing all over town, culminating in shows tonight at Marum restaurant and Gigi Brasil, with a final send-off at tomorrow’s Giant Puppet Parade.
This is the group’s second time in Siem Reap, and Jose Luis Guirao Piñeyro, director of NGO Bel Avenir Madagascar, describes the girls as “ambassadors for women’s rights in Africa.”
The group, made up of girls aged between 14 and 18 from underprivileged neighbourhoods in Toliara, Madagascar, was put together by European and Malagasy music teachers at Bel Avenir’s Art and Music Centre.
“Bel Avenir is part of a group of NGOs called Coconut Water Foundation,” explains Piñeyro. “In Europe we are in France, Spain, and Andorra, and in developing countries we are in Brazil, Madagascar and Cambodia.”
Piñeyro founded Coconut Water in Battambang 22 years ago, later moving to Brazil and then Madagascar.
The full Bloco Malagasy group consists of 75 girls, all from the poorest part of the city in the south of Madagascar.
“We have a musical project with 500 students and in Bloco Malagasy the girls are aged between 14 and 18 years old more or less,” he says. “It’s a very bad age there because they have nothing at home. They are very poor people so often they try to find an easy solution, they go out to meet men to get money – it’s a delicate time for them. So we try to give to them a basic education, training, a job and set them on the road to a good life.”
Part of the project is taking the girls on international tours, both to perform and to talk to other young people about women’s rights. Piñeyro says this tour is a means of developing “cultural interchanges between African and Asian people through music and arts, and promoting human rights.”
He says, “We try as much as possible to take the movement to the villages. We try to get to know the situation of other women and find out what happens in other places. We want there to be rights for all women in the world. The girls are good ambassadors for women in Madagascar and in Africa.”
The group has already carried out workshops at Chong Kneas village, International School of Siem Reap and the French School, and performed at various venues including X Bar and Phare.
“The workshops are a mix between the music – they show their skills – and at the same time they can train the kids about the music, and the dancing,” explains Romain Cogne, country representative for Coconut Water Cambodia.
“We have a makeup activity called African Beauty Workshop, showing how to braid the hair and do makeup. And the other part is the exchange between the Cambodian people and the Malagasy people, so the organisation proposes an activity, for example drawing or playing traditional Cambodian music. We try to make a good exchange between them. It’s also an opportunity for the girls to visit the place and learn something new, do educational activities.”
At Bloco Malagasy’s first show last Sunday at Eric Raisina’s shop, the girls moved seamlessly through a sequence of pieces, delighting the audience with their drumming, singing and dancing. The acoustics in the room amplified the percussive beats even more – as one spectator said you could feel it going through your whole body. And the girls’ infectious smiles were hard to ignore. It seems clear that they love performing and evidently have a knack for it even though none had had any musical experience previously.
Charlotte, 18, says what she likes best about drumming is that it always makes her feel great.
“It’s good because even if I’m feeling tired sometimes, or not very well, when I play drums I’m ok, no problem,” she says. “It wakes me up, gives me energy.”
Her friend Tokiniaina adds that she loves going on tour because it opens her eyes to new things.
“For me it’s a very good experience – I don’t know anyone like me in Madagascar who gets to go abroad,” she says. “I discover many things every day I’ve never seen before.”
After Siem Reap, the group moves on to Battambang, Sihanoukville, Kampot, Phnom Penh and finally Bangkok while this summer, if the fates align, Bloco Malagasy could be playing at the World Cup.
“We plan to go to Brazil in July for the World Cup. We are sure if we go there we will drum in the finale – Spain and Brazil, I hope,” jokes Piñeyro.
“We also plan next year to go to West Africa. Every year we try to go somewhere different to have a good experience, and we also travel inside the island in Madagascar to spread the concept there.”