By: Samantha Hildebrand

"One factor among Malagasy in valuing their musical instruments seems to be the degree of difficulty in finding and obtaining the materials with which to construct them," (Emoff 94).

Instruments have been brought to Madagascar by settlers from all around the world. It began over 1500 years ago with settlers from Indonesia, those from the Arabian Peninsula brought whistles and lutes, and instruments and musical styles from Great Britain and France have had an impact on Malagasy music. The instruments and influences have been incorporated into Malagasy music, traditions, and ceremonies. Below is a map of Madagascar and the distribution of instruments throughout the island.




The Valiha is the national instrument of Madagascar. The Valiha is a chordophone that is made out of bamboo and is considered to be in the category of a string zither. A zither is an instrument which has strings that span the length of the sound board or chamber. Strings are attached to the top and bottom of the bamboo tube. Originally , the strings were made out of bamboo filaments. More recently, bicycle brake wires are used because they are easy to find. The Valiha is thought to have originated in Asia, more specifically Indonesia. The Valiha is used in traditional Tromba ceremonies where participants are possessed by ancestral spirits. The Valiha is touched during the ceremony in order to link the musician, medium, and the spirit.



The Marovany is one of the oldest indigenous instruments of Madagascar. The Marovany is a box zither. A box zither is a hollow box, usually in a rectangular or trapezoidal shape. Strings are attached to the top of the box and span the body of the box. The Marovany is believed to have African origins and is tuned differently than the other instruments. It is mainly played in the coastal regions where African influence is high.



The Kabosy is a box shaped guitar with four to six strings. Materials used to make this instrument are usually scavenged for. The strings are usually made out of nylon fishing line or bicycle brake wire (what the strings are made of is dictated by the location in which the player is from). The first fretted instrument was brought to Madagascar by the Arabs. The original instrument has been adapted and is now known as the Kabosy. Many Malagasy players often switch between the Kabosy and the modern guitar when playing music because they are similar. Modern Malagasy guitar tunings have been modeled after the Kabosy.


Jejy Voatavo

The Jejy Voatavo is another type of zither . It is believed to have originated in Egypt. The Jejy voatavo is made out of either a gourd or an oil can. A strip of wood is used as a handle and there are eleven to thirteen strings stretched from top to bottom. The strings are usually made out of steel; however, the materials used to make a Jejy Voatavo are dependent on the region . The Jejy Voatavo is mainly played in eastern Madagascar and, today, is used in the rija (chanted stories told by the Betsimisaraka people in Eastern Madagascar). In order to play the Jejy Voatavo, you must be a male, your father must have played, and your father must have taught you how to play . Players must also have white hair in order to play, as that is a sign of maturity. All of these requirements apply because the Jejy Voatavo is considered a hard instrument to play.



The Atranatrana is a xylophone and is believed to have arrived in Madagascar by Indonesian settlers. The Atranatrana is made from slats of uneven hard wood. Four to eight pieces of wood are attached by pieces of string on both sides. Only women play the Atranatrana. The wood pieces are laid across a woman’s lap and are played with two sticks. The women playing must sit tall and keep her legs a part in order for the sound to resonate through the instrument. The name Atranatrana comes from the Malagasy verb miatranatrana which means “to be seated with pride.”

Click Here to Listen to the Atranatrana!




The Sodina is a woodwind instrument and has six upper openings and one lower opening . The Sodina was originally made out of bone, wood, and tin. Now, the player usually makes their own Sodina and it is made out of a high quality tube of bamboo known as voloando or volovato. The Sodina is played at family gatherings and social events (such as second burials and circumcisions) and was traditionally only played by men.


The Antsiva is a Conch shell with a hole made to blow through on the side and originated in Madagascar. The Antsiva was originally used as fire alarms, royal ceremonies, and sending messages. Now, it is used in the coastal regions of Madagascar for various ceremonies including Sambatra and Fitampoha. The Antsiva is a solo instrument and is Woman are prohibited from playing it. In order to play the Antsiva well, the player must master the playing techniques.

Click Here To Listen To The Antsiva



The Djembe is a drum that has been in Africa since the 12th century. The base is made out of hollowed out wood and covered with skin (mainly goat skin). The Djembe is played by tapping the top with hands. It is played during baptisms, weddings, full moons, and harvests. "The djembe is said to contain three spirits: the spirit of the tree, the spirit of the animal of which the drum head is made, and the spirit of the instrument maker," (

Bibliography for Instruments

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