A Long Way from Home...
Tarika's Hanitra Rasoanaivo talks with Michal Shapiro about music, politics and life in Madagascar.

"My God, I have so much to tell you! I just got back from giving a concert in Madagascar, and I'm still trembling from it!" Hanitra was not trembling, but the intensity that she projected was enough to make one feel as if the hotel room was hyper-charged with raw energy. The leader and lead singer/songwriter of Madagascar's Tarika is a striking woman, with close-shaved hair, and a spare, muscular frame. Words and thoughts came tumbling out of her as if they could not wait to be expressed. Despite her youthful image, she has survived ten years in the World Music community and she could well be considered to be a "grande dame" of Malagasy music. Reacting to this observation, she exclaimed "I DO feel like that! I do!" She went on to explain "And I'll tell you why: it has to do with this concert we did. Since we had become a big thing in Madagascar, the French Cultural Center decided to give us a real place to perform, but something else developed from it, and my feet are still in the air just thinking about it!

"We were supposed to do three shows and they were completely sold out. There were people in the street still trying to get in, all very eager to see us. So after seeing the reaction to those shows, the Embassy decided to invest in an open air concert, and within the space of two days, which is unbelievable for there, the concert happened, and about five to six thousand people came.

"And while I was on stage, looking at all those people, it hit me that I had done it! I had made it happen. I had always wanted to bring back to the people this traditional music and I had wanted them to be proud. I wanted the Malagasy to wake up and walk with their heads high, feeling good about themselves and their culture; and they were. And you also have to imagine this: for ten years I have been singing about Madagascar all over the world, in the Malagasy language, but here I was singing in front of all these people, in my own country, and singing to people who knew the songs and understood the words, who were reacting to the songs while we were playing them, not just at the end, because they did understand, and it shook me so! If there is such a thing as success, that is success, the biggest of all. And I didn't know that that was what all those years had been building to, I didn't know it until that night."

Hanitra is a woman with a mission, and a definite agenda of causes, and for whom national identity is an obsession. One couldn't help but say "It sounds as if you did something that most politicians would be envious of. You got all those people together, and you unified them in an event. You obviously love your country. If you were a politician, what would you do for Madagascar?"

She responded without skipping a beat. "It occurred to me that I could become a politician, but that is a difficult question. It requires a lot of energy; educating people, and rebuilding the pride and dignity of the Malagasy people; that's the first thing that I would do, because the Malagasy people are really very strong deep down in their hearts and brains, but somehow with politics and colonization it has been hidden. But I could tell from that show that there was a space inside themselves where they had kept this pride, it was still there. The Malagasy had created things years and years before the colonizers came there. We had kings and queens that ruled Madagascar well before other African countries. Yet starting in the 1890's colonization buried all that. So now I ask why are we all just workers for other people? We used to do things for ourselves, and we still can. Now I'm drawing more and more to these old histories, to remind these people that we used to be strong, and we can be again. Just reading about my kings and queens gives me the energy that I need to do what I do."

The mention of the past kings and queens of Madagascar brought up the subject of the burning (for political reasons) of the Royal Palace several years ago. The bodies of the ancestral kings and queens were destroyed, and for a society which is renowned for its ancestor worship, specifically as manifested by the remains of the deceased, this could not be anything but a mortal spiritual blow.

"Oh, it was such a disaster! I was furious, and I wrote a song called " Avelo" which is about evoking the spirits of the ancestors to come out and punish bad politicians. I meant the song to be scary, and it really did work. When we did the show in Madagascar, they requested that we shut all the lights when they heard I was going to sing it. They closed all the lights, and the audience started singing it before we even started. They started singing the riff line, which says "How dare you!" which is a reference to what a crime it was to burn the palace. The burning of the palace was "un affair classe," hidden just like when I dug up all the history of what I wrote about in "Son Egal" in 1947 when hundreds, thousands of Malagasies were massacred , and yet there was no public record, no documentation, nothing you could read about it, it is all kept secret somewhere in France."

"I am very outspoken about politics and life in general in Madagascar. The local paper once ran a picture of me, and the caption read "Here is Hanitra, she is an activist/feminist but she doesn't know it yet...." That's because the condition of women in Madagascar has always been terrible, and I won't be silent about it! Women are enduring a horrible plight. They have always been considered to be lower then men, and they have to bear 14 children, and if they don't they are considered to be worthless. In 1992, I wrote a song which addressed this. And after this concert judging by the reaction I got when I sang this song, I have the feeling that more women will assert themselves.

"But I have actually recorded a love song, very recently. It's on the new CD D, and it's called "Raitra." I've never felt that love needed to be talked about or discussed. Love is just there. It's something you do. But one day on a plane on the way from Finland that I imagined writing a love letter, and I wrote it down. It turned into a very big hit in Madagascar. And it's so unusual for me to write a love song that people had no idea it was Tarika!"

And what does a Malagasy woman in London do when she is not being a mother, and not touring with her band? And what could be the next step in the evolution of this musical crusader?

"Because my group is all in Madagascar and I am sometimes all on my own in London, about a year ago I started making music in Britain with women who are classically trained in violin, vibraphone, bass clarinet and saxophone. We wanted to see if we could bring all the various influences of our music together. And I wrote a lullaby. In Madagascar when we want to cuddle our babies, we have a song which says "Mr. Bird, please take my baby away , and when it stops crying, bring it back." I incorporated this into my lullaby, and the more I developed it, the more it became a reflection of my life. Because each time I go back to Madagascar everybody wants my time. My friends want me and there's business, and rehearsals and recording and research, and I see my mom really very little. In my song a plane drops me in the jungle in Madagascar amidst all the animals and you can hear in the distance the old lullaby as if my mom is singing it, but she can't hear me, because the forest is so dense. And so we never meet up. The plane is like a big iron bird which has taken me away, but it has never brought me back, which is why I am still crying out there."

Michal Shapiro is a freelance writer and producer.

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