So here they are, finally two completely independent bands from Madagascar, both with a lot to offer: Tarika Sammy and Tarika. What folllows is my musical opinions, and my take on the history of the groups.
I will make an attempt at writing a simple, reasonably unbiased listener's history of Tarika ("the band of") Sammy, since the press release and the liner notes that comes with their CD, and the various email messages and faxes I have gotten (and that you out there in radio land will no doubt get as well) from all over the world seem to have their own various agendas to hash out. I first encountered the group as an eight piece ensemble led by founders Sammy and Tiana with singers Hanitra Razaonialimiarina and Claudia, on some of the early excursions into contemporary Malagasy music. First there was Madigasikara (Globestyle), then the wonderful Madagaskar series (Feuer und Eis/Germany, where their billing was simply Sammy, and which included ensembles called Tarika Rakoto and Tarika Gilbert among the other tracks, all without confusion) They later appeared briefly on Kaiser and Lindley's A World Out Of Time (Shanachie) project. These hints of fame were followed by the formation of a smaller touring and recording unit that included Sammy and Tiana (the Shanachie liner notes says they were "hired out," implying who knows what) along with singer/musicians Noro and Hanitra Rasoanaivo, a quartet that went on to record two marvelous full albums for Rogue Records and Green Linnet/Xenophile.
After those two recordings, due to whatever differences there were creatively or personally between factions in the band, Hanitra and Noro started a new quintet with three new musicians, renamed themselves, in a bit of cheeky bravado, Tarika (in effect, "The Band"). Sammy and Tiana continued the Tarika Sammy name, reuniting with some of the early contingent, going back to a sound more like the one they developed in the early eighties, while adding a certain pop sensibility to the proceedings clearly acquired through his experiences with the touring band. Hanitra and Noro's Tarika headed in a more contemporary roots direction that resulted in Bibiango (Xenophile/Green Linnet, reviewed below) and from the Sammy crew we now have their new album:
TARIKA SAMMY Beneath Southern Skies
Beneath Southern Skies is a beautiful, raw roots album centered around Sammy and Tiana. They have added some electric bass and guitars here and there, but otherwise sound and feel much like the group of 14 years back. The harmonies are the full and sweet, almost church-choir sound that first attracted me to this group. The traditional kabosy (box guitar), the valiha and marovany (zithers) and sodina (flute) are still in the forefront of the instrumental sound, augmented by the guitars, harmonica, accordion, drum kit and a full barrage of small local percussion instruments. But their music has far from stood still. The grooves have a slightly more international sound, revealing the expanded horizons these musicians have faced over the last two decades. In their founding they were dedicated to bringing together the various and diverse musical cultures of Madagascar, and they don't hesitate to bring a lot of other African, Asian and European sounds into the mix now. They can even edge close to a driving pop sound, as they do on "Basse Marovana," where new member Johnny riffs on the electric bass as if it were the zither. He takes a similar route in a tribute to "Mama Sana," the legendary singer and valiha player and, on the electric guitar, on "Manafo." But it is still in the more local numbers that this band has the most appeal. There's so much energy in the scraping lokanga (fiddle) of "Tsarovy," and it's the gorgeous vocal harmonies of "Zalahy" and lilting harp tones of "Hanatra" that set this group apart from the mainstream. While there's plenty of room for many a "tarika" from Madagascar to be heard by the world, Tarika Sammy are making the competition stiff. (Final aside: maybe Richard Manuel should get after The Robbie Robertson Band for confusing The Band fans?)