For those not yet familiar with Jaojoby, his appeal can be summed up in two words: Live Phenomenon! The Madagascan star is capable of performing five hours non-stop on stage accompanied by his loyal group of musicians and backing singers. And by the end of the night everyone will be up on their feet dancing along to his vibrant salegy. Salegy - the roots of which can be traced back to the 15th century - is an infectious uptempo rhythm from the north of Madagascar historically linked to spirit-possession rituals. Salegy was modernised in the late '60s with musicians introducing electric instruments and it has since been adopted as the national emblem of the Indian Ocean isle.
Jaojoby is one of the most popular salegy performers in Madagascar and the local press has taken to referring to him as the "King of Salegy." Jaojoby has done much to promote the sound of his native isle on the international scene where fans also know him by his royal title. Given his worldwide reputation as the King of Salegy, Jaojoby's latest album, Donnant Donnant (recorded and released in Madagascar in June) could well bemuse much of his fanbase at home and abroad. The album, which His Royal Salegy Majesty will be presenting at the Olympia on 20 September, is to be distributed in France as Le Bal de Jaojoby. "It's an exceptional album," asserts its author with his typically serene smile, "It's an album in the pure 'variété' tradition which means it's got everything from a funky track and slow, smoochy numbers to a rock’n’roll track, a reggae track, a sega and even a cha cha cha." And then, of course, there are the two salegy tracks added on the advice of his "French partners" who include Christian Mousset (director of the "Musiques Métisses" festival in Angoulême and owner of the Marabi label which released Jaojoby's previous album, Malagasy, in 2004).
"I could easily have done an album without a single salegy track!" insists Jaojoby, admitting that he is beginning to feel a little trapped by his King of Salegy image. "The society we live in tends to push people into specialising in one thing so I concentrated on salegy," he says, "But I'm actually a soul man at heart. I have to say, I was really upset when Isaac Hayes died and I cried when someone told me Ray Charles was dead. I cried over the death of my mentor James Brown, too."
Interestingly enough, Le Bal de Jaojoby turns the spotlight on the 'real' Jaojoby, providing a sort of musical flashback on his past. "When I started my career back in the '70s," Jaojoby says, "I used to play in this nightclub in Diego Suarez called 'Le Saïgonnais'. It was run by this guy who used to be in the Foreign Legion who was married to a Vietnamese woman. The club was full of soldiers most of the time and because it was a mostly European clientele we used to do paso dobles, waltzes, cha cha chas and the jerk. Our group, Los Matadores, had a whole range of different singers who each had their own speciality. There was one singer who just did French 'variété', a Mauritian guy who did sega and Anglo-Saxon pop and another girl who did French 'chanteuses' like Nana Mouskouri and Mireille Mathieu… I did all the rhythm’n’blues and soul numbers."
Besides performing covers of Otis Redding, James Brown and Wilson Pickett hits, Jaojoby admits, "We did throw in a bit of salegy from time to time, but it was never the main dish, you know, it was more of an exotic extra. I remember these French people would get up and shout 'Come on, it's time to do the zebu dance!' The way we dance salegy, lots of people going round and round the room together in a big herd does look a bit like zebus stomping around the rice paddies!"
Jaojoby's nightclub era came to an abrupt end in 1975 when Madagascar became a democratic republic led by the socialist President Didier Ratsiraka. The Foreign Legion soldiers moved on and Jaojoby remembers that "We pretty much lost our clientele over night… But I continued performing with a new group and we put together a totally new repertoire, playing African rhythms and music from the Indian Ocean region, adapted for local Madagascan audiences. We performed at various indoor venues, but we also played outside a lot too, plugging in a generator and performing in the rice paddies."
Critics might raise a collective eyebrow at the idea of a Jaojoby album commemorating the days when the singer used to entertain drunken soldiers in nightclubs. But the King of Salegy insists he is proud of the material he wrote before achieving star status on his native isle. "These are songs in French, English, Creole and Malagasy that I wrote in the '70s and '80s," he says, "I love these songs and I don't see any reason why I should disown them and pretend they're not mine. They're all very danceable - and that's what my job's all about, getting people up on their feet dancing!"
Meanwhile, the Madagascan star is conscious of the honour of performing in Paris at the Olympia - "a legendary venue if ever there was one!" Jaojoby realises that his show there on Saturday night could be one of the most memorable moments of his career - almost as memorable as the human chain of solidarity that rescued him back in 2006, whisking him off to hospital in Reunion after a serious car crash in Madagascar that almost left him dead. "I'm a walking miracle!" he chirps, gearing up to stage his own musical miracle at the Olympia on Saturday night.
Translation : Julie Street