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By Elijah Wald © 1993 (Originally published
in Sing Out! magazine)
(The reason I label this "Hanitra's version"
is that there was another version of Tarika Sammy that existed before
and after this one, led by Sammy himself. Shortly after this article
was written, Hanitra and Sammy split rather acrimoniously, and she
has since been leading her own group, called simply Tarika.)
Tarika Sammy are a sound man's nightmare. Like a Malagasy New Lost
City Ramblers, they change and rotate instruments constantly. All
the instruments are acoustic and the range of tone and timbre is
extreme, from guitar to concertina to a two-sided box zither. And
Tarika Sammy are not satisfied with a laid-back, folksy sound. As
the band runs through its sound check at Johnny D's Uptown Lounge
in Somerville, Massachusetts, lead vocalist Hanitrarivo Rasoanaivo,
known as Hanitra, is singing to the sound man that the volume needs
to come up. "We need it really loud, like heavy metal,"
she sings, dancing in time, her finger jabbing towards the ceiling.
"Otherwise the energy is gone out the window like the wind."
Tarika Sammy are part of a new wave of music from Madagascar, a
flood of varied and beautiful styles and fusions that incorporate
Malagasy traditions, outside influences, and individual inspiration.
The scene on stage is symbolic of the new approach. Samoela Andriamalalaharijaona,
or Sammy, and his cousin Solomon Ratianarinaivo, or Tiana, are playing
traditional instruments made from hand-carved wooden boxes, gourds,
and pieces of bamboo. Beside them, Hanitra and her sister Tina Norosoa
Raharimalala, or Noro, dance in skin-tight neon stretch pants and
t-shirts. Only their tall, colorfully-embroidered hats carry a whiff
of island exotica, and they bought the hats yesterday in Northampton.
"Before I came in the group, Sammy tried very hard to wear
the traditional clothes," Hanitra explains. "He would
sit and play his valiha and people would come from abroad and say,
'Oh, yes, a traditional musician.' But the truth is we're dynamic,
young, very modern--we've been studying at the university, we follow
fashion. We don't use modern instruments, but our music is modern
because we play it in the 20th century. We take the attitude of
people now, people like rock and roll, heavy metal. I always tell
my sound guy, saying 'Make us sound loud and punchy,' because that's
what it is. We stand up, we dance. It's not the folky traditional
musicians who just play classical things and sit around."
Though Tarika Sammy means "Sammy's Group," Hanitra is
the person responsible for the group's current line-up and much
of their musical approach. She writes lyrics, arranges vocal harmonies,
directs the stage show, and even designs the costumes with the help
of her older sister. The group's only fluent English-speaker, she
is also their spokesperson and a fervent crusader for traditional
Malagasy culture. She has written a Malagasy language instruction
book, and can hold forth volubly on the island's history and traditions.
Madagascar lies in the Indian Ocean, 250 miles off the East Coast
of Africa. Separated from the mainland some 160 million years ago,
it was not settled by humans until the 7th century and its culture
and language blend traditions from at least three continents. Looking
at Tarika Sammy, one would guess that they were from somewhere in
Polynesia. Photos of other Malagasy musicians suggest faces from
Central Africa or the Middle East. "There are so many people
who've been passing through Madagascar," Hanitra explains.
"Starting from the Arab settlers, the Indonesian, Portuguese,
then some African slaves have been brought and taken both to and
from Brazil, then French people came and colonized us, then the
Welsh missionaries came and translated our words into writing. Our
language has been discussed as being based on Malay-Polynesian languages,
and maybe Bantu from Africa too, and from Indonesia. So many things
are going on in it."
Madagascar has between 18 and 21 tribes or ethnic groups, all of
whom speak dialects of Malagasy. (Maybe the Welsh are to blame,
but Malagasy orthography is pretty strange. The final y's seem to
be silent, as are plenty of other vowels. Hanitra's name, for example,
sounds more or less like "Hant," Tiana's like "Teen.")
While the tribes can all understand one another, and there is quite
a bit of cultural overlap, each has its own musical style and even
its own instruments.
"Each tribe would concentrate on its particular instrument,"
Hanitra says. "For example, we are from the Merina tribe, and
therefore we should concentrate on the valiha. Now, what we've done
is to bridge these boundaries between tribes. We've taken all the
instruments, which is traditional instruments, and we've taken all
the rhythms, which is traditional rhythms from wherever Madagascar
started, and we've mixed it all together.
"Now, you must understand, it's not like a sampler of from
all the ethnies; it's a combination of them all. In other words,
if you take a song, say "Rabeza" for instance: "Rabeza"
is played on a jejy voatavo, which is an instrument from the Betvalihu
[note to the editor: please try to get the right spelling] tribe,
but the rhythm is from the Sakalava tribe, and the singing is the
harmony from our tribe. So the three combined together gives our
music. This is why I call our music semi-traditional, because there's
no other group in Madagascar who's ever done this. There's no group
who's gonna come up with all the different tribes' instruments and
play it all."
If Tarika Sammy's contemporary blend and flash comes from Hanitra,
it's musical foundation is Sammy's instrumental virtuosity. As he
explained, speaking in French, he started off playing flute, then
learned guitar and all the other instruments in Madagascar. He was
not able to travel and see all the regional styles in their native
locale, but since he lived in the capital he met musicians at national
festivals and was able to trade licks and ideas. If one mentions
any well-known Malagasy musician, Sammy can demonstrate their playing
style and explain the intricacies of their music. Though he talks
quietly and without any suggestion of self-promotion, he is confident
that he is the only musician in Madagascar who can truly play all
the styles and instruments. "It's a gift," he says. "I
can just pick up any instrument and play it. I can play with anyone,
jazz musicians, rock musicians, whatever." Asked about the
Malagasy guitar virtuoso D'Gary, he instantly took his guitar, re-tuned
it, and gave a quick demonstration of D'Gary's style. When someone
compared his playing to that of the West African griots, he used
his valiha to give a perfect imitation of the kora style of Demba
Konte, whom he met in London.
Like most traditional Malagasy musicians, Sammy also makes his
own instruments, though recently he has started to have some made
to his specifications by European luthiers. Except for the guitar,
all the group's instruments are unique to the island. The valiha
is a tubular stalk of bamboo with strings running lengthwise all
around it, played with one hand on either side of the tube. Sammy
says that traditionally valiha makers used strings peeled from the
inside of the bamboo tube, and later unwound bicycle break cables
and the copper wire coils from electrical motors, but now he uses
regular guitar or piano strings. His valiha is tuned to a diatonic
scale, but he says that traditional players all have their own tunings.
Asked if this means that musicians can only play their own valihas,
he smilingly says "I can play the others', but they usually
cannot play mine."
For the rest of the instruments: The marovany is a flat wooden
box with a zither-like arrangement of strings on both sides. The
kabosy is like a baritone ukelele, except that the frets are irregular,
some only extending under two strings. The lokanga bara is a three-string
fiddle. The jejy voatavo has a wooden neck and a gourd resonator,
and Sammy's is his own invention; he has changed the shape of the
neck, added frets and put an extra set of strings on the side, giving
himself two surfaces which he plays simultaneously. Most of the
instruments are diatonic, so the group carries several in different
tunings, and the variety of shapes, woods, and carving styles is
Sammy formed the first incarnation of Tarika Sammy in 1980 with
Tiana, who was originally a keyboard player, and a shifting group
of friends. "He kept having the different members of the group
changing, but Tiana and Sammy were always there," Hanitra remembers.
"Ever since 1980 he was existing, but not really seen, not
really understood. People did not really care about it that much,
because for us this music is just part of life. So what? It's not
novelty. So he never did shows or anything like that. But despite
all that, when people from the West went to Madagascar who were
interested in Malagasy music, they found it interesting to see all
these instruments that he was playing. So he always got one or two
tracks in different compilations."
The first recording was in 1986, two tracks of an anthology of
Malagasy popular music on the English Globestyle label. Next came
two cuts on Shanachie Records' critically acclaimed A World Out
of Time, which featured Malagasy bands playing with Westerners Henry
Kaiser and David Lindley. If the '86 recording gave Sammy the strength
to keep going, Hanitra says that by the time Kaiser and Lindley
arrived in 1991 he was thoroughly discouraged. "Just when he
was doing that recording, Sammy came up to me and said 'I'm Giving
up. I'm not going to do this any more.' I said 'Why is this?' He
said 'I can't earn my living, I can't have any money. Nobody pays
"I was very sad," she continues. "I was a translator
then and worked at the consulate of Madagascar in London, and I
said 'No, I'm going to give that up. I'm going to help you doing
this and we're gonna change the whole attitude of this traditional
music; I'm going to make it possible so that people will take us
seriously.' My sister worked in the post office and I said 'Give
that up and come with me.'
Their arrival changed the whole flavor of the group. "What
we are doing now is very, very different," Hanitra says. "In
fact, the group could have been called Tarika Hanitra, but I respect
man and I respect Sammy, so I keep the name like that." Hanitra
lives in England, and the new group's debut album, Fanafody, was
recorded there with help from John Kirkpatrick, Ian Anderson, and
two of the 3 Mustaphas 3. It features strong, four-part harmonies
and rippling, dancing string lines, as well as Sammy's lovely flute
playing. The songs are immensely varied, from ethereal, slightly
Asian melodies to bouncy dance numbers.
The English players blend in nicely, adding occasional accordion
or guitar, or the Mustaphas' Afro-pop bass and drums under the more
up-beat numbers. "I didn't want the whole idea of Tarika Sammy
to change completely, to become something like an electrified group,
rather than us," Hanitra says. "But I am happy with the
result, because it was a very light touch. When we play now, we
can be just us four doing the whole record, but that was like an
experience. In the beginning, the rhythm section didn't have an
idea what Malagasy music was all about. Even when to count, which
is number one beat, because we count in different manners. It was
nice, though, because they were really great musicians, and I think
it's a very good balance and it's just perfect to introduce us to
Most of the songs on Fanafody are written or arranged by Sammy,
but the group's newer songs tend to come from Hanitra. As she explains:
"When that was done, I just wanted to preserve all the music
that Sammy has written, with everything slightly rearranged from
the way he did it before. But the things we're doing on stage now
is basically all either written by me and I ask him to put the music,
or rearranged by me. Basically, how we create our music is I will
write a song, I will have a tune in my mind, and then I will sing
it and keep it on a tape and I will say to Sammy, 'OK, let's try
the valiha on this' or 'Let's try marovany,' and he will do something
and then we will combine us four and see how it works."
Although Hanitra and Noro had never considered a career in music,
they have sung together since childhood. "We belong to a singing
family, a harmony-singing family," Hanitra says. "We never
played accompanied with instruments, but very strong vocal harmonies.
My mom and dad sang when they met each other and we sing every day
in our life. Sometimes it's songs like what was my grandfathers
song; sometimes it's something that we hear on the radio, then we
repeat it, but we repeat it with harmonies. Mom and dad would sing,
and my brother would follow them and then my sister and then me
and Noro, and each one of us cannot stand singing without finding
a different harmony. So there are six of us and there are six harmonies.
We've performed for traditional ceremonies, wedding ceremonies,
circumcision ceremonies. Any ceremonies whatsoever, people always
call my family to sing."
Nonetheless, the idea of becoming professional musicians was completely
foreign. "When we said 'Mom and dad, we're gonna become a musician'
they just flipped," she recalls. "We said 'You know, we
can be paid by doing this abroad,' and they wouldn't believe it.
They said 'I don't understand that. How come do these people would
like to pay for you to entertain them? How come can't they just
stand up and dance for themselves, and entertain themselves?'"
Hanitra leans forward. "Do you understand? They are not understanding
of the concept of music as something to be paid for and to be played
in a place like this, with a special microphone. It does not exist
in Madagascar. There is not even one concert hall. It is not the
same concept here and in Europe and in Madagascar, because music
is like part of our life rather than something separate. Nobody
has ever earned their living by playing music in Madagascar. We
are the first ones."
While most African music is played and sung by non-professionals,
in many areas there are also musicians and musical families who
play sophisticated, "classical" styles developed for the
royal courts. Hanitra says that Madagascar is an exception. "There
was a king, and there were musicians who played for him, but not
really like professionals. They were good singers and they were
invited by the kings to be there and probably yes, because they
have been given their food you can call it a kind of profession,
but the music was not special. The musicians play whatever they
play and then the king says 'OK, I have a piano, you should now
start playing the piano and sing around that,' and so that's what's
happening afterwards. Still these days there's a lot of harmony
singing around the piano in Madagascar."
While there may have been no full-time musicians, certain players
became known for their musical abilities and respected as masters
of their instruments. Hanitra says that a special moment of Tarika
Sammy's American tour came in Seattle, where they appeared on a
program with Sylvestre Randafysan, a valiha master now living in
the U.S. "He is a famous player, an older musician," she
says. " He is of the same tribe as us, and he is a traditional
player, he doesn't play anything but valiha. I greatly respect him,
and he was there opening our gig. So when we were going to play
we prayed, said God, would he like us or would he not? Because there's
only two answers. He would hate us, because what are we doing? Something
totally different, it's so modern, and we are playing somebody else's
instruments, different tribes' instruments. Or, he's gonna like
"So he opened for us. He did what he did and it was beautiful,
people really liked it. Then, when we went up and played, after
that he came up to us and said, 'My God, I've never seen anybody
like you.' I said 'What do you mean?' He said 'You are extra good,
and I wish you good luck.' He was ever so appreciative and I couldn't
believe it. So we said 'Why do you like us so much?' And he said,
'It's the energy and the dynamism, the charisma. It sounds totally
different, but it sounds so good.' He was very happy, because he
had these students coming to the hall to see and he could prove
to them that there's so many things going on in Madagascar."
Indeed, Madagascar seems to be going through several centuries
of musical evolution in a decade. "Madagascar's been isolated
for a long, long time and it's only been opened up to the rest of
the world for maybe five years or so," Hanitra says. "We
hear radio, but only Radio Malagasy, which speaks for only twelve
hours and nothing but Malagasy music. People in the coastal area,
they can get the wave of Mozambique every now and then during a
certain time of night, and these are the guys who will play you
real African rhythms. They can do it, because they listen to the
radio. We in the center island, no, whatsoever.
"Right now, though, there's so many things coming up all together
at the same time, because we've opened up to everybody--South Africa,
America, Europeans, everything. So it comes: jazz, pop, heavy metal,
reggae, whatever, and everybody picks whatever they want to pick.
It is now a very hard time for Tarika Sammy to struggle out and
just keep on playing traditional music. But yet it worked. Suddenly,
people out here was interested more in the traditional music than
in the electric equipment. Now people like Rossy, a pop star with
all his electric equipments, changed to traditional music, because
of us. That is my big pride. And it's not only him. There are others
playing like heavy metal, like variete Francaise (sp?), and these
people actually come to us and say to Sammy 'Where do you get these
instruments? What's that song?'
"So we are winning now, we are really doing very well compared
to the others. And with all the other musicians in Madagascar, there
are so many great musicians, that really I'm impressed with my group.
But this is what we do, this is what Sammy does. If this doesn't
work, we will give up, because we can't do anything else. I can't
change and become a saxophone player, or blues player. Whereas in
other groups, in Rossy group for instance, maybe he can change and
become something like an African musician, play guitar like a Zairean."
To the non-Malagasy listener, Tarika Sammy's music seems to have
a strong African influence, suggesting Kenyan guitar styles and
South African vocal harmonies. Hanitra, however, views "African
music" as something completely foreign and different. "Our
music is not at all African, except one song that we've just invented
very recently," she says. "When people ask 'Are you Africans?'
we don't know really the answer. Especially the Merina tribe says
we are not. We don't really like being called Africans. We don't
see the similarities. We look at ourselves and we don't look like
them, and we don't think like them, so how come are we Africans?
It's a land that was once upon a time part of Africa, but we were
not born till the 1960s. We are totally different people.
"But yes, on the other hand, there are people now who have
never heard African musicians and who have never been to Africa,
who play something slightly African. We've created this one song,
one song just to make people even more confused, and to show people
how many varieties we have in Madagascar. I was walking around in
the southern part of Madagascar, and there is these two little boys,
one has a small kabosy and he plays with very nice rhythm. And I
thought 'How come? Where did he get it from?' I could not answer.
So that is too a kind of music which we have there and every time
we do that song people say 'Ah, that makes it clear. Yes, you are
Africans.' And we don't know, we are not sure of it, but yes, maybe
Meanwhile, Hanitra is amused by all the comparisons. "I have
been amazed at all the names people have been giving us," she
says. "They have called us Tahitian, they have called us like
the Voix de Bulgares. They all try to relate us to something. They
say 'Oh, you sound very much like the Zulus,' which I don't think
we sound like whatsoever, but they say so anyway. I've collected
all the names now, because it's so fascinating."
The one connection that she has found striking is perhaps the strangest
of all. "There is a harmony in Hawaiian music, which I didn't
know until I came here and they made me listen, and I said 'God,
our ancestors must have been Hawaiian too.' And right at this moment,
nobody knows where do we really come from, all the Malagasy, so
maybe there has been some Hawaiian people too."
Wherever Malagasy music may have come from, Hanitra is clearly
very happy with where it and Tarika Sammy are going. While other
countries have seen their local musics crushed under the juggernaut
of Western pop, Malagasy music seems to be flourishing in the light
of world attention. "It's like a big pride," she says.
"As far as we're concerned, we've succeeded in what I wanted
to do, which is to keep this traditional music going on. And I didn't
want Sammy to give up, I wanted to help him a lot. That's number
one thing. So I'm happy he's happy now. Number two, I wanted to
show to the rest of the world what real Malagasy music is all about.
And third, I wanted to teach the Malagasy people that traditional
things are good, so keep on to them. Which is now happening, and
which makes me really happy. Even if we give up now, I'm happy,
because people back home are now starting to do it."
And, for the moment, Hanitra has no intention of giving up. "I
can say now, because of the money we get here we can just go home
and live in the beach with swimming pool and all the nice life,
because we've got a lot of money in the Malagasy standard of living.
But no, I love it. After five years of doing this, or ten years,
I don't know. We're used to a sort of low pace of life in Madagascar,
no rush kind of life, so this rhythm could probably put my friends
off after a while, they will probably say, 'No, I don't want to
do a concert every night.' But then again, I have to admit that
all the family are very happy with the money that we take back home,
so there is no complaints. So it's a good thing, and maybe we're
gonna do it for the rest of our lives."
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