A black-and-white photograph of Maurice Halison wearing the snappy tuxedo that was the uniform of his band suggests plenty, but doesn't reveal the full story. One of the great musical innovators from the island of Madagascar, Halison put together one of the most truly unique and musically satisfying combinations of European and African musical concepts in the history of music. It makes sense that this fascinating island, which features so many of its own cultural peculiarities, should become the source of a musical blend that has defied many other composers and performers over the years. Indeed, listeners can approach many different attempts at putting together African and European music without finding anything remotely as fun to listen to as the work of Halison and his groups. The Ocora collection Valiha Madagascar provides a generous sampling of four tracks by these groups, which included different combinations of European instruments such as piano and violin with the Malagasay valiha.
This wonderful instrument may not be totally limited to Madagascar, but is almost completely identified with the music of the island. There are many variations on design, but the basic idea is a fat bamboo tube upon which strings are mounted in various combinations and tunings. Performers work with several different sets of strings at once, laying the groundwork for rich harmonic combinations as well as the overlapping of scale patterns, one of many trademarks of Malagasy music.
One of Halison's great contributions as a composer was to extend the manner in which the valiha would be doubled or tripled within an ensemble. "Ny Fiatavako Anao" is a piece for three valihas, two with 17 strings and one with 19, all tuned differently. The harmonic complexity of this piece has more in common with the work of composers such as Schoenberg or Boulez than most African music. Nonetheless, the composer's influences are clearly the traditional valiha of Malagasay tribes such as the Merina, Sakalava, and Bara. Yet it was Halison's work involving European instruments with the valiha that really put him on the map, as well as leading to his groups becoming regular fixtures in hotels, dances, and many other public events requiring live music. Typical ensembles might range from a quartet of guitar, piano, violin, and valiha to a group of chamber orchestra size including contrabass, flute, and drums. Halison also built and performed on a special valiha with a total of 37 strings. On the album Invisible Means, the guitar trio of Fred Frith, Henry Kaiser, and Richard Thompson paid tribute to this artist with the Kaiser composition "Kalo Takariva: Requiem for Maurice Halison."