2 Tarikas 2
The Music of Some Malagasy Artists

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?)

Brickbats and Poetry

Just a few months on the heels of a revived Tarika Sammy comes the new album by TARIKA, and this one will prove as controversial as anything to come out of the world music scene in its short history. The album is a rememberance, in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the exile of the Malagasy queen Ranavalona III by the French, and the 50th year since the put down of a popular rebellion on the island, in part by troops from west Africa recruited by the French. As with most nations' histories, the truth is a complicated and veiled thing, and the person seeking to lift the shroud is often going to hit a wall of resistance. This is the story of a recording and the artist whose research and writing made it possible.

Hanitra Rasoanaivo is now clearly the backbone of the band known as Tarika, from her face on the cover of the new album, Son Egal (Xenophile/Green Linnet) to the songs and liner notes contained within. Whether you have met her in person, seen her perform or just heard her on records over the last few years, you will have experienced something most folks, and especially the traditionalists of the world, don't like, particularly in women: strength, self-assurance, maybe even a little aggression or arrogance. Not that this is all that strange for an artist, but in the "all-one-happy-family" of the world music community, this makes Tarika and their music a moving target. Not content to deal with cultural phenomena, she has now taken on her own country's history and politics, making a recording of songs that deal directly and bluntly with issues of race, culture, government and Madagascar's place in the supposed "African diaspora." Neither progressive nor historical purist likes a women wielding a cultural brickbat, so my suggestion is that both sides should duck!

This is, of course, an album of music, and like many a band before them, Tarika have managed to fuse a difficult message into a joyous medium. Whether it was Bob Marley in Jamaica or the MC5 in America, the politics of dancing is a well travelled and honorable trail, and this band does it with style. The opening track, "Tsy Kivy" (it says, roughly, "Don't be discouraged, there are lots of good things in life.") is a buoyant collaboration between Canadian/Malagasy blues guitarist Madagascar Slim and his new found friends from home, played out on a ripple of valihas and a surprising thunder that emanates from a number of small drums and bass. The sultry, slow groove of "Sonegaly" belies its difficult message of racism discovered and the search for healing. The one English song on the album is "Forever." It deals bluntly with corruption and the difficulty of living in a corrupt system without succumbing to it, a near impossible task in ideal situations, and in Madagascar, seemingly impossible. But again, there is that positive drive to the music, a rhythmic determination that makes the message all the more potent. Throughout the album there is that combination of dramatic choruses, deceptively light strings and a steady, modern groove that grows out of rock and African pop. In addition to the band's arsenal of marovany, valiha, kabosy, guitar, bass and percussion, they have invited members of Baaba Maal's band from Senegal to add kora and tama.

Son Egal in French means "an equal sound" and Sonegaly (pronounced son-egal) is Malagasy for Senegalese, the name given to any blacks who might have come to Madagascar during the 1947 suppression. The album uses these mixed meanings as a jumping off point for it's message. Sound is what the musician is about. He or she can only deal with history as poetry, not dry fact. Perhaps that's what makes albums like this so effective. We can rattle off "facts" from books, but poetry and music can help us understand them, to find a truth that is easily clouded by the historical pedagogue; it's not always easy, and it ain't always pretty. Son Egal transcends the oft-experienced failings of the political song with sheer exuberance. - Cliff Furnald
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