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"Hira Hira Hira"
I just have to sing!

Erick Manana
In concert at New Morning, Paris, France on February 15 and 16, 2002
Reviewed by Uli Niebergall

One of Madagascar's musical giants celebrated his 20-year anniversary as a stage artist and invited his dedicated followers to Paris' New Morning, a renowned venue for both jazz and world music, to enjoy two remarkable perfomances on two successive evenings. The demand for tickets was incredible, both events were completely sold out, and it would be an understatement to say that the place was packed. Of course, the majority of the spectators were Malagasy expatriates, but there were also a considerable number of vazahas (non-Malagasy people) present.

Erick Manana, for several years a resident in Bordeaux, France, is not only one of the Red Island's most talented and innovative guitar players, but also a prolific song writer of notable personal integrity. He has often been labeled the 'Malagasy Bob Dylan,' but the comparison is weak. There may be similarities in the way Dylan and Manana are received in their respective hemispheres, but their musical approaches, their characters and their personalities are quite different.

In spite of a pronounced masculine appearance and a natural authority both in conversation and on stage, Erick maintains an humble attitude towards his own importance and prefers to emphasize the significant influence of his idols on his musical development. The spirit of Rakoto Frah, the legendary flute virtuoso who passed away last October at the age of about 80, is ever present as Manana's own personal artistic godfather in his speech and thoughts. The introductory part of his first concert consists exclusively of songs by Razilinah, a Malagasy ballad composer, singer and guitar player who meant so much to Erick Manana in his youth that he even preferred to call himself Erick Razilinah. Manana, however, doesn't limit himself to influences from his home country, but displays a distinct eclecticism in his choice of songs by other artists, both geographically and stylistically.

At the same time, he never fails to add a very characteristic Malagasy touch to all renditions of others' songs. For example, in reverence to Air Madagascar flying the distance between Paris and Antananarivo, he has remodeled "Amazing Grace" into a song called "Vorombe tsara dia" (The plane that flies well). He sings a Malagasy version of Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" which sounds surprisingly fresh. As a matter of fact, Erick doesn't care much about the source of his musical influences, as long as they touch a string in his heart. He laughs out loud when I tell him that I actually heard the title track of his newest album "Mitsonika aminao" more than 35 years ago as a little boy. It was the German version of a hit by Danish duo Nina and Frederik. Manana didn't have the slightest idea who these guys were and where they came from, he just liked the melody and wanted to do something about it. Listen to his version, and it sounds like a genuine folksong from the Malagasy high plateaus.

cd cover

Erick Manana loves to elaborate on other Malagasy musicians, preferably on amateur geniuses who are completely unknown in other parts of the world and probably always will be. He particularly mentions a young harbor worker he once met, who plays the jejy voatavo, a typical Malagasy string instrument consisting of a calebash body and a neck with varying numbers of strings. He repeats several times that this guy was so good that even the one and only Rakoto Frah took off his hat to pay reverence to this eminent musician, apparently an event that happened only once in a lifetime.

During his career, Manana participated in a number of well known bands: Lolo Sy Ny Tariny (in the early 80's), Tselonina, Mahaleo and, most recently, as an important member of Malagasy super group Feo-Gasy. As a solo artist, he has so far released five albums, including Taniko, a recording that features his most popular songs. The sixth one, currently being recorded and expected to be released in June, 2002, is rumoured to be a return to the very roots of the artist, to the traditional music from the Malagasy high plateaus, featuring typical instruments like the chromatic accordeon and the valiha, the famous Malagasy bamboo tube zither with its fragile, sweet sound.

Lolo and Manana The valiha is also present during Manana's concerts in Paris, played by Passy Rakotomalala, but there is no doubt that the predominant instrument is the acoustic guitar. Manana's picking technique is a mixture of sensitivity and ferocity, savagery and discipline. He often uses open tunings, preferably the so-called ba-gasy tuning with the D and B strings dropped to C and G. This strange and exciting blend is also reflected in his vocal capacity. Manana's voice spans an impressive range; he doesn't just sing his songs to the audience, it would be more fitting to say that he lives them. At the request of a frenetically roaring crowd, he had to perform "Tsy Ferana" twice in a row both evenings. This song is a strong and sensitive ode to the invincible force of love in its struggle against adversity. Manana is actually brought to tears while singing this beautiful gem, by both the ecstatic appreciation he receives from the crowd and the emotional potential inherent in this song.

Manana's repertoire gracefully alternates between lyric ballads (e.g. "Tany niaviako") and pop tunes with irresistibly wild and intricate rhythms (e.g. "Izahay tsy maintsy mihira"), and a grateful audience responds enthusiastically to every tone and syllable. Manana's lyrics often deal with the everyday life of Malagasy people. "Zoma," for example, laments the loss of the famous markets in Madagascar which have almost all disappeared. "Zakelina mama," one of the audience's absolute favourites, tells about a boy who eagerly awaits his mother's return from shopping, because she always has a surprise bag with her. Other songs, however, illuminate the "deeper" topics. "Tambazako" and "Any an-danitra any," for example, are brilliant and touching homages to life and the beauty of our world. Most of the Malagasy spectators among the crowd knew every line by heart and sang along with the band, and they sang sensationally. While the studio versions of Manana's songs are amazing in themselves, the live performance adds an extra portion of energy and driving force to their essence. If the studio songs resemble a botanic garden, the live songs can be compared to an untamed tropical forest. This effect is predominantly evoked by percussionists Franzy and Rivo, but also by the two-man brass section of saxophonists Nicolas and Modeste, and the choir girls Beby, Lalou and Lucienne, who display an interaction that is pure enjoyment for both ears and eyes. It is pure fun and improvisational zest with not a moment that seems routine. These musicians practice "playing" music in the literal sense. In this aspect, the double bass player Dina was particularly delightful. Additional guitar skills were provided by Rija Randrianivosoa who, over the years, has developed into a coveted studio and concert musician.

Each one of the two concerts lasted for almost four hours. After driving the audience to a frenzy, Erick Manana traditionally concludes his performances with the rendition of one of his most beloved songs; Malo'kila tells about the bitterness of having to say farewell, but leaves you with the hope for a reunion, reflecting the mood and opinion of everybody who attended these remarkable concerts. - Uli Niebergall

All audio links ©2001 and courtesy of Erick Manana. Visit his web site to get information on his concerts and recordings. Photos by Uli Niebergall, except the title portrait, which is from the CD Taniko.

Article ©2002 RootsWorld. No reproduction of any portion of this article or any content on RootsWorld can be made without written approval.

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