At home in the United States, Easter is one of my favorite holidays with my family; Holy Week and Easter for the Faaren/Ruud household is filled with beautiful worship services and music, traditions I look forward to every year, great food, friends, family, and a certain level of frivolity. This is the second year in a row being away from home during the time leading up to Easter, and one of the only times not being present for Easter Day festivities. Although I was sad to miss this occasion, I have come to know that the next best place in the world to be for Easter is Antsirabe.
For the last part of the study abroad program, all the students conduct independent study projects on a topic of our choosing, in a location of our choosing. I want to be academically challenged and study something related to my major, Political Science, but I’m also in Madagascar and want to have fun. Therefore, I decided to focus my project on the formation of national identity and sources of unity in a diverse country…through the lens of music and dance. I could have performed this particular study anywhere in the country, so I decided to come back to Antsirabe to spend more time in this beautiful place that is rich with family history. It was, after all, my Grandfather’s work with the radio station and music here that initially sparked my interest in my topic of study.
What I did not know until my arrival, however, is that if there was a perfect time and place to study the role of music and dance in Malagasy life, it would be Easter in Antsirabe. Two other students and I arrived the Friday before Palm Sunday, so we were able to watch the city transform entirely over Holy Week. On Friday, we were three of the very few guests at our hotel and by Wednesday, every room was filled. Apparently, people come from all over the country, and all over the world, to celebrate Easter in Antsirabe for what is, essentially, a week-long music festival. There are performances all over the city by local artists and big name artists from around the country, and people are out in the streets all day and night. By Saturday, many streets were entirely blocked off for carnival rides, food vendors, and stages. The area in front of the train station was turned into an open-air discothèque, and music blasted from speakers from every street corner in the center of town all night long.
During this first week of the project, I was met with an overwhelming willingness to participate in my study by so many people. After just two days of starting the project, I was in contact with an internationally-known Malagasy musician, met several bands after live performances, conducted many interviews, including one with a man who was introduced to me as “the best person in all of Madagascar to talk to about music and dance,” joined a choir, took part in an intergenerational jam session with friends and family of a new friend where I too sang a solo with a jazz band and one of the other students revealed his secret talent for playing the djembe (who knew there were drum circles in Oshkosh, Wisconsin), met with a man who had worked with my grandparents and remembered by Dad as the little boy who collected stamps, and received so many invitations for musical events happening throughout the week that I had to turn some down. And that was just the first two days. It has been a whirlwind.
Easter weekend was a bit hectic with all the festivities in town, but I made sure to do some of the traditional Faaren/Ruud family Easter shenanigans–with a Malagasy twist. We had some other friends from the program come stay with us in Antsirabe for Easter weekend at an apartment we have now moved into at the old Norwegian Lutheran missionary children’s school. It is now owned by the Malagasy Lutheran church and is a “Cross-Cultural Center” aiming to bridge Malagasy and Norwegian cultures. I cooked a big Easter dinner for all of us and served the food on familiarly Norwegian-looking plates. It feels a bit like my Grandmother’s house. My friends humored me by playing some of my family’s traditional Easter games, and we even raised the level of frivolity a bit by wearing sparkly party hats. These hats and Mardi Gras-style masks were sold by every vendor in the street for the Easter celebration and children wore them all over town; some children even wore them to Easter Sunday church services.
We attended a worship service on Easter at the church some of our new friends work for as the pianists and organists. We had met several people from the congregation already either through our various study projects or at the jam session. It was nice to see familiar faces and have people to score us seats and hymnals. Normally on Easter, I struggle through the soprano part of the Hallelujah Chorus in my church choir, but this year, I got to listen to Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus sung by an amazing boy’s choir; these little guys hit all the high notes effortlessly–it was beautiful.
I know that my Grandfather had composed several hymns and choral peices in Malagasy, so every time I am at a church services here, I scan the hymnal for his name but had never been successful. Because there were so many people, communion lasted about 45 minutes; in between singing songs, therefore, I had time to skim through the hymnal a bit. I was sitting next to one of my American friends and he asked what I was doing. I explained, and told him that I had pretty much given up at this point. He took the hymnal from me to perform his own search, flipped a couple pages and said, “Found it.” There it was. Hymn 374. “Hevero, ry Andevom-Pahotana.” G. Ruud. I come from a long line of criers (we prefer the term, “sensitive”), so I can blame genetics for the fact that I teared-up a bit sitting in that pew. The other students, however, were very supportive of this means of expressing emotions and even when we sang other hymns, my friend who found the hymn kept his thumb in the page so I wouldn’t lose it for the rest of the four hour-long service. When the service had finished, we showed the hymn to our pianist friends and although they were not familiar with the song, they were able to sight-read the notes and sing a bit of it for us. They said that the song is beautiful and that they would go home and learn it.
Being here has been one wonderful, surprising moment after another and I have been so warmly welcomed. Not only has this been great for my project and makes the study process very enjoyable, but I feel like I’m also connecting with my family story and making friends. I am so happy I am here.
And next Easter, Faaren/Ruud family, get ready: We’re wearing party hats.