Elijah WaldTarika Sammy (Hanitra's version)

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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 fascinating.

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 serious attention.'

"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 this world."

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 us.

"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 we are."

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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