He was called the Robert Johnson of Madagascar, which probably wouldn't be a bad thing to be if it didn't dictate such a tragic ending; Johnson died young. This artist, on the other hand, was involved in the accidental death of his son and finished out his life in prison. Like Johnson, he was considered one of the best players on his instrument, in this case a variation on the national stringed instrument known as the valiha. He created a version of this zither-like stringed instrument with a box roughly the shape of a suitcase, mounting sets of strings on opposite sides. His performances had a spectacular sound, highly influential to guitarists all over the world and also inspirational to designers of unique stringed instruments such as Jon Rose and Elliot Sharp, both of whom have created box-like instruments with multiple sets of strings. Rakotozafy's instrument featured a total of 24 strings in the two sets, each set tuned to a different scale. His design, handmade from sheet metal, included a small bamboo log which served as a base for his marovany, as well as part of the instrument itself, providing even more resonation.
The tale of this musician was a sad one, but it doesn't end with his death. The musician Paddy Bush, another player greatly influenced by the music of Madagascar and this artist in particular, helped create the documentary entitled Like a God When He Plays, first broadcast in the late '90s. This program tells a unique story, one which might even appear incredibly morbid to those not so familiar with the culture of this island off the coast of Africa. In Madagascar, death is celebrated rather than mourned and when a family has the funds, they dig up the corpse, soak it in rum, and have a party before wrapping it up in a new shroud and burying it again. Westerners may find the thought of this ceremony as repulsive as the way Peter Fonda and his fellow bikers party with the corpse of Bruce Dern in the '60s biker film, The Wild Angels. The Madagascar ceremony is known as a famadihana, meanwhile Fonda and his pals were just raising hell. One of the purposes of Bush's documentary was to find out more about his idol's life, which was pretty much blanketed in mystery despite his being considered one of the land's great virtuoso musicians. Due to problems with political instability and poverty, the country only opened itself up to the outside world in the early '90s. The land's cultural heritage is a strange hybrid of Welsh, French, and African influences. Rakotozafy made his first recordings in the '60s and was frequently accompanied by sidekick Freddy Renarison.
This traditional music has enjoyed a great revival within Madagascar and is even part of projects attempting to provide new interests and artistic training for many of the country's unemployed and often otherwise rowdy young people. Tao Ravao and Justin Vali created an extended musical work in honor of Rakotozafy, entitled "Valiha Malaza," and premiered at the 2001 Festival Africolor.