Western Madagascar is dominated culturally by the traditionally pastoralist Sakalava, who are known – if it’s not unfair to try to summarize their culture in a few words – for their love of their zebu, for their music (the nervous jangle of the 6/8 salegy rhythms are their lasting legacy) and, unlike the Merina and some other groups, for not digging up and reburying their ancestors.

The Sakalava’s name is a Malagasy derivation, meaning “people of the valleys”, a reference to the rivers that meander across their dry cattle pastures. A more dubious etymology has it that the name originates in the Arabic sakaliba and Latin esclavus – “slave” – though these words originally referred to the once enslaved Slavic populations of eastern Europe. It’s a measure of the sensitivity around race and cultural origins that such a derivation could be stamped on this large and diverse ethnic group. Much of the Sakalava population does indeed have a partly African slave and immigrant background, the old Sakalava capital of Morondava itself once being a big slave port that traded with the Swahili coast of East Africa.

The Sakalava kings and their subjects came to be associated with the extremes of wealth and divergent social hierarchies that accumulated with the slave trade. For centuries they dominated the west, conquering by force, absorbing, enslaving and intermarrying with less powerful groups such as the cave-dwelling Ankarana and Vazimba, who may have been the first humans on the island, presumed to have sailed from what is now Mozambique. With the arrival of proselytizing, industrializing Europeans in the nineteenth century, the slave trade was banned and then slavery itself was abolished. At the same time the highland Merina rapidly came to control most of the old Sakalava kingdoms, with the exceptions of Menabe (capital: Morondava) and Boina (capital: Majunga). French colonial rule suppressed Merina dominance and relatively elevated the Sakalava and other coastal peoples.

Sakalava subgroups who probably had a former separate ethnic identity include the town-dwelling Muslim Antalaotra, many of whom trace their origins to the East African coast and Arabia, and the Vezo fishing and seafaring people, who make a livelihood from the sea. Western Madagascar also has an important population of people with Indian ancestry, known as Karana, who played a key role in the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century slave trade.

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