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Title: Rakotozafy Valiha Malaza--O Zaza Ny Fandeha Diasa. Label: Sterns. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CDORB 028. Track: 3.

Title: Fanafody--Variana Variana; Tarika Sammy. Label: Green Linnet. Format: CD. Catalogue#: GLCD 4003. Track: 10.

Contextual Associations

The valiha is a tube-zither chordophone of Madagascar. Not all valiha are tube zithers; many have string carriers made in box form from wood or metal (these are more precisely referred to as marovany or marotany in some areas of Madagascar), or use repurposed items such as metal mail boxes. The oldest form, however, is that of a tube, like the one pictured here. Originally used solely in ritual settings, it is today heard outside these contexts as well, including in the domain of popular music (listen to audio #2 of the internationally-renown Malagasy group Tarika Sammy). At times in its history it was associated with the Malagasy aristocracy. In the past only men played this instrument, but this prohibition is no longer followed even in ritual settings. To the world at large, the valiha is an emblem of Malagasy identity. Some valiha, such as the one pictured and described here, are manufactured for sale to tourists, and although fully functional musically, have been somewhat reduced in length and decorated with folksy imagery.


The bamboo tube used for this valiha has a lengthy middle section articulated by two closed nodes in the bamboo (in the first detail image, which is taken from the top end of the instrument, the top node can be seen a few inches in from the lip). The nodes, located 3.8 inches down from the top end of the tube and 7.6 inches above the bottom end of the tube are marked on the instrument’s exterior by leather rings, which cover up the hitch pins--basically small nails--that are pounded into the nodes and serve to anchor the strings to the string carrier (the tube). Two sound holes are drilled into the otherwise totally enclosed center section of the tube (see second detail image). Fifteen metal strings are attached to the string carrier between its two nodes by winding them around nails pounded into the exterior nodal rings. These nails, and the nodal rings that they are imbedded into, are covered with a band of leather. The third detail image shows the placement of the moveable bridges (made from fragments of gourd) for the six highest-pitched strings (note that the bottom end of the vibrational segment of each of these strings is approximately the same distance from the point at which each is attached to the tube; it is the placement of the upper bridges that sets off different vibrational lengths for the strings).

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The valiha is held a variety of ways, two of which are: in a nearly vertical position with its bottom end pinched lightly between the thighs of the player who s sitting on the ground; or nearly horizontal with a side of the bottom end resting on a kneeling player’s thigh and the top rim on the ground. In both positions all of the digits of both of the player’s hands are used to pluck the strings. The number of strings and how they are tuned will vary from area to area and instrument to instrument, but in general valihas have from 14-20 or more strings tuned to a heptatonic scale over a range of at least two octaves with consecutive scale degrees located on opposite sides of the tube. The two lowest-pitched strings (with the longest vibrational length and played with the thumbs) are facing the player; the highest-pitched strings are on the opposite side. The left hand notes on this 15-string valiha, from the lowest to the highest, are: C5 - E-flat5 - G5 - B-flat5 - D6 - F6 - A6; right hand notes, from lowest to highest, are B-flat4 - D5 - F5 - A5 - C6 - E-flat6 - G6 - B-flat6. When rearranged into a single sequence of notes the pitch material for this instrument is a B-flat major scale over a range of two octaves (B-flat4 - B-flat6). Stings are sounded both individually as part of melodies or figurations, or simultaneously as chords.


Considered one of the oldest instruments of Madagascar, the valiha likely is a descendent of similar tube zithers (such as the sasandu) brought to the island from parts of insular Southeast Asia during ancient migrations. Originally, the strings were simply raised lengths of the bamboo tube’s skin (making this instrument what is called an idiochord), but by the turn of the 20th century metal strings started to be used. The greatest area of innovation over the past century has been with the string carrier--the materials used and its form.


Bibliographic Citations

Domenichini-Ramiaramanana, Michel. 1984. NGDM v.3: 705-706.

Duvelle, Charles. 1983. Valiha Madagascar. Liner notes for 33-1/3 rpm record. OCORA OCR 18.

Emoff, Ron. 2002. Recollecting from the Past: Musical Practice and Spirit Possession on the East Coast of Madagascar. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Africa

Region: East Africa

Nation: Madagascar

Formation: Malagasy

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

312.12 chordophone--whole-tube zither (the string carrier is a complete tube): heterochord

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: zither - tube

Resonator design, chordophone: tube

String courses: single

Vibrational length: pressure bridge to pressure bridge

String tension control: stretch and knot

Method of sounding: plucking (direct)

Pitches per string course: one


25.2 in. length 2.4 in. diameter

Primary Materials

string - wire
leather - tanned

Entry Author

Roger Vetter