Kabary, oratory art distinguished by Unesco

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Kabary session between rhetoricians Gérard Abdou Jacky (right) and Rado Harrivelo (bottom left), during an engagement in Antananarivo, in December 2021.

“Manao azafady tompoko! ” (” Excuse me ! “) The soft voice of Gérard Abdou Jacky, 53, marks the start of the traditional engagement ceremony celebrated this day at the end of December in Antananarivo, the Madagascan capital.

Around the swimming pool, under the oppressive heat of the dry season, young and old alike listen, captivated, to this tall man dressed in a three-piece suit who gives his speech after having delivered the ritual apologies and then declaimed the formal tributes to the ancestors as well. than to the family of the future spouses. Over his jacket, the fifty-something has draped himself in a lambahoany, the main piece of traditional Malagasy costume.

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Gérard Abdou Jacky is mpikabary, a “rhetorician” who practices kabary, this Malagasy oratorical art inscribed in mid-December by Unesco on the list of intangible heritage of humanity. That day, for more than two hours, he will give the reply to the second mpikabary, Rado Harivelo. Both were recruited for the occasion, while the traditional speech is a capital element of the ceremony, aimed at fostering understanding between the two in-laws.

“I’ve been practicing Kabary for twenty-two years, explains Gérard Abdou Jacky, his forehead beaded with drops of sweat, after speaking. The first time I heard one, I was still a child and it was at church. The applause was so loud, it struck me. I immediately wanted to receive similar ones later in my life. “

“Anaphors, metalepses, antitheses …”

The art of Kabary was passed down to him by his family, unlike Rado Harivelo who studied it at university, juggling anthropology, linguistics, etymology and theater classes. “What I like is being creative and playing with figures of speech, he says. I tame them like wild animals. Anaphors, metalepses, antitheses… A framework is given and then we can have fun inside, creating a bond with the public. “

Brought to light by Unesco, kabary has been practiced since time immemorial in the four corners of the Big Island. “He is the guarantor of fihavanana, that is to say the family bond and, by extension, social peace, comments Mahery Andrianahaga, historian specializing in the cultural heritage of Madagascar. The fihavanana is a cardinal value for the Malagasy, to the point of being inscribed in the preamble of the Constitution as “Traditional fundamental principle”.

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“Kabary is unifying and follows precise protocols, continues Mahery Andrianahaga. There are taboos and codes to be observed. “ Marriage, burial, reversal of the dead, circumcision… Each stage in the life of a Malagasy has its traditional discourse.

If there are no official statistics on the number of practitioners, some 1,000 students each year leave specialized courses at the university, according to the Association of Malagasy rhetoricians. This organization, which has already existed for fifty-eight years, is established in all regions of Madagascar and in eleven other countries hosting the Malagasy diaspora, including France.

Make way for women

Surprisingly, it has been chaired by a woman for four terms. Originally, Kabary was mostly practiced by older men, whose authority as rhetorician was based on gender and life experience.

“For about twenty years, Kabary has been democratizing, confirms Hanitra Andriamboavonjy, the president of the association, while recalling that in the past, the Malagasy queens were already required to deliver the required speeches on special occasions.

However, she continues, “Women have not always been well received in this area. And even today, in the kabary of marriage or engagement where two speakers give the answer, one feels a certain embarrassment when one of the families has chosen to be represented by a woman ”. In some provinces, it is also forbidden for women to speak on graves for speeches in the vault.

Anyway, the kabary seems to have a bright future ahead of him. Far from being reserved for an elite, this oratory is taught throughout the Big Island during courses and internships provided by multiple associations of rhetoricians. ” Women and children are doing it, notes the historian Mahery Andrianahaga. The rhetoricians have acquired a special status. Some are considered stars, just like singers or actors. They are in high demand and applicants pay a premium. “

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