• OVERVIEW •
The kabosy is a small box-lute played in Madagascar, likely descended from the Arabic oud (thus implying it is also a much-removed cousin of the European guitar and lute). Often made from scavenged materials such as scrap metal, fishing line, and bicycle brake cables, most designs have 4-6 strings, set over irregularly-spaced frets which may not cross the full width of the neck (like the cittern of Renaissance Europe).
In keeping with the instrument’s DIY ethos, kabosy tunings vary wildly. This fifths-friendly layout is a common kabosy-to-guitar adaptation, used by a multitude of Malagasy musicians. It essentially forms ‘Drop Open G’ (i.e. DGDGBD with 6str lowered a further whole tone), retaining most of Open G’s strengths (e.g. a mix of low drones and clustered high tones) – while also increasing the range, and (if playing in G) offering the 4th of the scale in the bass rather than the 5th.
Fantastic for wide-spread chords and intricate fingerpicking rhythms – both hallmarks of Madagascar’s guitar styles – although the tuning has also been put to great effect elsewhere (notably in Hawaiian slack-key, where it is known as ‘Leonard’s C‘ after the great Leonard Kwan).
Harmony: Gmaj(11) | 4-1-5-1-3-5
• TUNING TONES •
• SOUNDS •
Banning Eyre’s fantastic Malagasy Guitarists feature includes illuminating interviews with several of the island’s leading guitarists – and, naturally, the subject of tuning comes up a lot. In the words of Haja, an innovative electric fusioneer: “I try to mix everything I know…I had the idea to transfer all the reharmonizations that exist around Madagascar, and put them on the guitar…There are tunings that I’ve practised a lot. The…kabosy and ba-gasy (the way of tuning the Malagasy guitar), I mixed that and put it on the universal guitar…I use do-sol tuning [CGDGBE: known in Hawaii as ‘Keola’s C’], but I also mix the kabosy tuning: [CGDGBD]. That’s my preferred tuning”. (n.b. also see Haja’s Bb, another of his twists: a superlow shift of the 7>7>5>5>2 ‘Orkney’ pattern).
Philip Lewis’ 2007 paper Gitara Gasy: Guitar Music of Madagascar adds further context: “Some tunings, such as CGDGBD, probably derive from the kabosy…Most Malagasy guitarists double on kabosy, and many start on the instrument, switching to guitar as soon as they can afford one. The fierce right hand technique…particularly in the tsapika style, is directly adapted from kabosy playing”. Hear some top-class electro-acoustic kabosy virtuosity from Jean Emilien (Belina, Toliara), as well as in the astonishing field recording below (“note the…use of the pull-off technique to produce rapid descending single-line riffs”):
- Tsy Anambalia (‘There Is No Reason To Marry’) – Kabosy Trance Rituals: Awakening the Spirits (2005):
“Malagasy music is broad…but also unified by the threads of a common cultural legacy. In the guitar, the Malagasy people have found an instrument with which the threads of that legacy can be woven into the fabric of modern multi-culturalism…Malagasy musicians have created a guitar culture which abounds in virtuosity, depth, and profound beauty.” (Philip Lewis)
In Hawaiian slack-key – another island tradition rich with altered tunings – the CGDGBD layout is known as ‘Leonard’s C’, in honour of Leonard Kwan (1931-2000): a legendary innovator and educator from Honolulu. Kwan drew on his early training in piano, ukulele, alto sax, and double bass to develop the kī hō’alu style, touring the U.S. mainland in the 1940s and 50s, and releasing the genre’s first ever all-instrumental guitar album in 1960 (Slack Key, a.k.a. ‘the red album’). In George Winston’s words, he was “a quiet man, with great depth of feeling…his personal philosophy of respect for others embodies the spirit of nahenahe [gentleness]”.
Others slack-keyers have since followed in Kwan’s footsteps – e.g. see Jeff Peterson’s video lesson on Hi’ilawe (a famous Gabby Pahinui composition) in CGDGBD. And, as per Jay Junker and George Winston’s excellent liner notes for Ledward Kaapana’s Live Solo album, Led uses the tuning on I Kona (“this mele pana [song of place] praises Kona on the west coast of the Big Island…it expresses love for…everybody in Kona”), Silver Strings (cp.5: Led ‘learned this Mainland song…from Leonard Kwan’s recording…the song illustrates the strong cultural exchange that has existed between Hawaiian and American Mainland music for over 170 years”), and Na Ka Pueo (“this rollicking love song declares the feelings of a sailor serving on board the boat [of] the title. Named for an area on Maui, which is named for the Hawaiian owl (pueo), the ship plies the waters between the valley isle and Mamala, an old name for Honolulu”).
- Na Ka Pueo – Ledward Kaapana (2013):
“Na Ka Pueo showcases [Led’s] mastery of leo ki’eki’e, the Hawaiian art of falsetto singing. Although the exact origins of leo ki’eki’e are unknown, experts cite himeni [hymn] singing, Mexican paniolo [cowboy] yodeling, European counter-tenor, and oli kahiko [ancient-style chant]. Many aspects of this 1,000-plus year old tradition live on” (Jay Junker/George Winston)
CGDGBD also enjoys regular use beyond Madagascar and Hawaii (predominantly a product of its close proximity to Open G: another truly global tuning). Many peg-twirling artists have found their way to these tones over the years – e.g. Jack Johnson (Constellations, cp.1), John Butler (Spring to Come, Mystery Man cp.2, Young & Wild cp.2), and Joni Mitchell (Sweet Bird, Trouble Child, Underneath the Streetlight, Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow, Cold Blue Steel & Sweet Fire: tabs here).
Also Coldplay (UFO), True Widow (Flat Black), Wilbur Soot (Saline Solution, cp.5), Jackson Browne (Running on Empty +2), This Town Needs Guns (26 is Dancier than 4), Big Wreck (Do What You Will, You Caught My Eye, Mistake -1), and Owen/Mike Kinsella (Playing Possum for a Peek cp.6, Breaking Away +2 cp.6).
- Cold Blue Steel & Sweet Fire – Joni Mitchell (1972):
“Pawnshops crisscrossed and padlocked,
Corridors spit on prayers and pleas,
Sparks fly up from sweet fire,
Black soot of Lady Release,
‘Come with me, I know the way’, she says…”
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• NUMBERS •
- See my Tunings Megatable for further such nerdery: more numbers, intervallic relations, comparative methods, etc. And to any genuine vibratory scientists reading: please critique my DIY analysis!
• RELATED •
—Associated tunings: proximities of shape, concept, context, etc…
- Keola’s C (this with 1str +2): a slightly wider Hawaiian twist
- Orkney (this with 2str +1): another expansive island layout
- Hejira: same lower half, radically slackened treble side
• MORE INFO •
—Further learnings: sources, readings, lessons, other onward links…
- More Malagasy guitar: also see my tuning pages for Haja’s Bb, Rakotomavo, and D’Gary, as well as the aforementioned works by Banning Eyre and Philip Lewis – plus Danny Carnahan’s Guitar Masters of Madagascar series (“Dama, leader of the band Mahaleo…had a voice like liquid gold, and a very western alternating-bass picking style. Henry [Kaiser] had heard that Dama was credited with introducing this American pattern picking approach to ‘Malagasy trad music’, and that the style was even referred to there as ‘Dama Picking’. We marveled that identical picking styles could be invented within a generation by two different guitarists 12,000 miles apart. Of course, when Henry finally met Dama, he found that Dama had grown up listening to plenty of American pickers on the radio. While he’d popularized the style, he made no claims of inventing anything. So much for parallel evolution…Musicians on the island have hardly been culturally…isolated. Connected by fiercely eclectic radio programming…local traditions have absorbed influences from Europe, North America, South America, Africa, and even Hawaii, giving each a unique twist.”)
- Oddly-fretted instruments: for more curiously divided designs, see my Global Instruments writeup for the sitar (moveable metal frets, set according to the sruti of the raga), as well as the old European cittern (kabosy-like partial frets) and viola da gamba (normal frets, but only up to number 7) – plus the fast-expanding world of irregularly-fretted xenharmonic guitars (i.e. those set up to ring with tones from outside our usual 12-to-the-octave system: see Tolgahan Çoğulu‘s pioneering designs, including the customisable microtonal lego-brick fretboard insert – and also Jan Wouter’s quarter-tone electric jazz)
Header image: a guitar-style, partially-fretted kabosy
George Howlett is a London-based musician, writer, and teacher (guitars, sitar, tabla, & santoor). Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the voices, cultures, and passions behind them. See Home & Writings, and hit me up for Online Lessons!
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