Music has been and still is very important in social and family life everywhere in Madagascar. You can always hear music at all the great events of the Malagasy people. One day, I bumped into a friend who invited me to join a group of young researchers who were working on Malagasy music. This really excited me. This is why I am pleased to share my research on the zither or lokanga voatavo with you. Even if I have not yet heard it played, I think that it is an instrument that is worthy of study.

In Madagascar, the zither has two names, lokanga voatavo or gourd instrument and dzedzy or jejy in Swahili, a word that appears to date back to the name of an ancient Egyptian harp, the "dede". In the western part of Madagascar, a corruption of the name, "dzédzivoatavo", can even be found. It is widespread throughout Madagascar with the exception of the northern region of the island.

The zither is made in much the same way as the European viol or violin. Its size can vary a great deal, reaching 50 to 80 cm in length. Its soundbox may take several shapes, made either from a gourd or quite simply from an oil can.

It was first play Read More
Music has been and still is very important in social and family life everywhere in Madagascar. You can always hear music at all the great events of the Malagasy people. One day, I bumped into a friend who invited me to join a group of young researchers who were working on Malagasy music. This really excited me. This is why I am pleased to share my research on the zither or lokanga voatavo with you. Even if I have not yet heard it played, I think that it is an instrument that is worthy of study.

In Madagascar, the zither has two names, lokanga voatavo or gourd instrument and dzedzy or jejy in Swahili, a word that appears to date back to the name of an ancient Egyptian harp, the "dede". In the western part of Madagascar, a corruption of the name, "dzédzivoatavo", can even be found. It is widespread throughout Madagascar with the exception of the northern region of the island.

The zither is made in much the same way as the European viol or violin. Its size can vary a great deal, reaching 50 to 80 cm in length. Its soundbox may take several shapes, made either from a gourd or quite simply from an oil can.

It was first played by the nobility and then abandoned to slaves musicians. Today, zither players are still called mpilalao. Their musical repertory owes a great deal to the songs of popular entertainers. A musician on the outskirts of Antananarivo seems to have specialized in making zithers of this kind and played the jejy throughout the streets of the capital.

The zither is of African origin and can be found in several different shapes with various names depending on the region.

The zither is a stand-alone plucked stringed instrument. It is made of three raffia-fibre strings (although there may be as many as ten) fitted along a strip of wood that acts as a handle. Steel strings greatly improve the sound quality. The gourd that serves as a resonator is pressed against the chest. The neck slants at a 40-degree angle with three deep projections for the first finger, middle finger and ring finger. The right hand, which supports the neck close to the gourd, plucks the string with the middle finger.

The lokanga voatavo is not used in ceremonies but only for choral speaking, stories, legends and satires. It is also used for entertainment at family celebrations and village festivals as well as to amuse small children in the evening around the fire before dinner. In the "faritany" of Antananarivo, it is more than just a decorative object in some houses.

The zither is a particularly interesting instrument but unfortunately it is disappearing in some areas and has a certain notoriety among the Betsileo. Because it is well known, zither players generally play as duos. An analysis of their playing technique reveals that they play alternately at all levels.

© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Jejy Voatavo (Stick Zither)

Jejy voatavo (stick zither)

Ancient Egypt

Museum of Art and Archeology of the University of Antananarivo, Madagascar

A gourd, a stick, sisal or steel strings
69.7 cm
© Museum of Art and Archeology of the University of Antananarivo, Madagascar


Jejy Voatavo (Stick Zither) 2

Jejy voatavo (or stick zither)

Ancient Egypt

Museum of Art and Archeology of the University of Antananarivo, Madagascar

A gourd, a stick, sisal or steel strings
69.7 cm
© Museum of Art and Archeology of the University of Antananarivo, Madagascar


The stick zither is a stringed instrument of the family of chordophones.

It is made from a gourd and a stick. There are frets attached to the neck that serve to support the string and tune the instrument.

Originally, there were one or two sisal strings.

Modern stick zithers have 11 to 13 strings, most often in steel.

The jejy voatavo were once played mainly in the highlands but they could also be found more or less throughout Madagascar.

Today, they are played mostly by the Betsimisaraka (people of eastern Madagascar) to accompany rija, chanted stories. The rija are a literary heritage of this region and generally concern epic topics.

The jejy voatavo are played only by men and not everyone are allowed to play them. Knowledge is passed down from father to son. The men who play them must have received their father's blessing. Moreover, players must show signs of maturity, like white hair, because the jejy voatavo are considered to be difficult instruments and players must have a great deal of experience to play them.
The stick zither is a stringed instrument of the family of chordophones.

It is made from a gourd and a stick. There are frets attached to the neck that serve to support the string and tune the instrument.

Originally, there were one or two sisal strings.

Modern stick zithers have 11 to 13 strings, most often in steel.

The jejy voatavo were once played mainly in the highlands but they could also be found more or less throughout Madagascar.

Today, they are played mostly by the Betsimisaraka (people of eastern Madagascar) to accompany rija, chanted stories. The rija are a literary heritage of this region and generally concern epic topics.

The jejy voatavo are played only by men and not everyone are allowed to play them. Knowledge is passed down from father to son. The men who play them must have received their father's blessing. Moreover, players must show signs of maturity, like white hair, because the jejy voatavo are considered to be difficult instruments and players must have a great deal of experience to play them.

© 1999, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Learning Objectives

The learner will:

  • Understand that music is an expression in all cultures
  • Understand that the relationship between personal feelings and music transcends borders and cultures
  • Develop respect for music from a variety of cultural contexts
  • Examine traditional music practices in selected Francophone countries
  • Demonstrate geographical awareness by identifying Francophone countries
  • Be aware of the musical contributions of various cultural groups in their own community
  • Understand that all world music can be organized within a standard classification system

Teachers' Centre Home Page | Find Learning Resources & Lesson Plans