Ilya S. Savenok, Getty Images The sad news came across late Wednesday afternoon…
- Posted on Feb 2nd 2010 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
"It's all so global, where do you start?" she wonders, sounding truly uncertain.
The moment that it all came together, though, is easy for Razia to pinpoint. We'll let her tell the tale: "It started three years ago," she says of the East African island known for its vast richness of flora and fauna. "I went back to Madagascar to record. I was thinking of using some Malagasy musicians and instruments and record some songs in the tour bus. Had four other musicians with me from there. I was doing pictures and films and that, when I saw so much burning going on. Just smoke everywhere. I was pretty freaked out. 'My God! What's going on here?' And I said this whole album is now going to be about making people realize what's going on there -- especially the Malagasy people. Just the burning and the destroying of our wealth. So that's how it started."
What she'd seen was the slash-and-burn approach to agriculture, an ages-old practice that while having some short-term benefits ultimately depletes the land of the nutrients needed for healthy crops and exacerbates erosion problems -- in addition, of course, to putting a great amount of pollution into the air when done on a large scale. And the specific smoky epiphany is commemorated in a song titled 'Slash and Burn,' as well as a pledge to plant a tree in Madagascar for every copy of the Cumbancha Records CD she sells. (She's in talks with the Royal Conservation Society about some larger projects, also.)
The experiences recounted - and documented in striking photos and videos that can be seen by scrolling to the right from the main page of her Web site -- connected her not just with the environmental issues but with things much deeper and more personal. And that is the heart and soul of 'Zebu Nation,' captured poignantly in the song 'Omama.'
Razia Said, 'Omama'
"That's one from my childhood I sing for my grandmother," she says. "First song I ever wrote in my life. Just learned to play a few chords at music school here in New York and said let me try to do this. This is the first that came up and I really wanted to make it for her."
Razia -- she performs under just her given name -- had recorded this before on her first album, which had just a small independent release. But that version was in English. This one is in Betsimisaraka, her grandmother's born language, and the words are of Razia's childhood in their village of Antalaha on the island nation's northern Indian Ocean coast.
"I decided with this one I wanted it heard on her radio, going straight to her," she says. "The first time it was played there was a big deal for the whole family. As soon as I finished it, I sent something to local radio and asked them to call her and let her know it would be played. That was great. Emotional for me and for her. Thanks to Skype, I can call her, so of course I called and she was in tears. She had heard the song in English, but [it] didn't have the same meaning. That song is talking about what she did and how great a job she did with everyday things like washing the dishes in the morning. When I go back and want to sleep late, it's impossible. She's in the dining room, not making any noise but at 4:30 up washing the dishes. That's the way over there. And the song speaks about cyclones we went through as kids, still going on there."
And as Razia pursued the project, the ambitions expanded.
"These days not too many people do the traditional music," she says. "So that's another thing I was trying to conserve -- conservation of music there. Traditional Malagasy music is slowly disappearing. Nothing in the country gives that music that kind of importance for the people. But we have such amazing music in Madagascar, things that are nowhere else."
Now, she stresses that the music on 'Zebu Nation' is not traditional, per se, but draws on traditions. In particular are the contributions by the musicians recorded there, notably accordion player Rebesiaka Jean Medicis, and vocalists Remanindry (from the southern-located Antandroy people) and David Rajaonary. Other contributors were drawn from many cultures in Africa, Europe and America, but all built their playing around the Malagasy sounds.
"The beats, the clapping, certain things we recorded in the South of Madagascar are key," she says. "The accordion is totally a Malagasy way of playing. And we wanted to have backing vocals with people from there. Malagasy music is known for poly-vocals and harmonies -- but that will be more on the next album."
She cites the closing song, 'Mifohaza,' a call for the nation to "wake up" and build a brighter future, as a particular case where the roots are most prominent:
Razia Said, 'Mifohaza'
"Remanindry sings in 'Mifohaza,' we leave with him," she says. "It's a nice way to finish the album."
The sounds of that song have further meaning to her, evoking a style known as hosika, associated with the northeast region in which she grew up. But throughout the album she draws on several other distinct regional sounds and from a handful of the 60-plus linguistic dialects found on the island ("Slash and Burn" is the only song in English on this collection.) She cites the song 'Salamalama Aby' as inspired by the tsapika style, 'Babonao' by lively salegy, 'Yoyoyo' from the northwestern baoejoy.
"We go from one thing to another," Razia says. "'Lalike' has a guitar more like people would do in the south of Madagascar on ballads. I cover a few areas. Not intentionally, just happened to be like that. I love the styles in the south and the hosike is great. I have only tapes of that, no CDs. My husband thinks it's boring, but what does he know? This is the real stuff. You can go really deep there."
Having spent so much time in Europe and North America, she's gained some different perspective on her homeland. In the West, she notes, it's seen as a "Shangri-la," a land that exists only in fantasy. She says that until the hit animated film 'Madagascar') came out in 2005, a lot of people she met weren't even sure there was such a place.
There was a rash of Malagasy music released in the West in the late '80s and early '90s, including relatively high-profile projects in the 'A World Out of Time' series of collaborations between Malagasy musicians and David Lindley and Henry Kaiser, and the 1991 album 'Island of Ghosts,' by progressive Malagasy artist Rossy, on Peter Gabriel's Real World label). With that support, a few artists such as traditional sodina flute player Rakoto Frah (who was held in such esteem at home that he was actually pictured on Madagascar's 1,000 franc currency notes), were able to perform some shows in the US. And D'Gary, master of such stringed instruments as the bamboo harp known as the valiha, resurfaced to Western ears via banjoist Bela Fleck's Grammy Award-winning 'Throw Down Your Heart' journey.
But the interest did not build, and even Razia found herself something of an outsider to much of the music of Madagascar.
"I was coming back home," she says. "I was raised on this music. So, all of a sudden, to come to it was like digging even beyond my past. It was a very spiritual experience to be able to do that, be able to be surrounded by such amazing musicians I found on the road. I discovered things that even living there I was not exposed to -- one person that plays percussion, makes noises with a board and the feet. That's an art. I lived in the northeast, and there are different cultures in different places, different dialects. People that were raised there don't travel that much. We were doing OK but did not travel all over. We knew what was going on within one hundred miles of our little town. So when you get exposed to what's going on in the south, taking more from East Africa with a mix of African and Indian and Asian, we all of a sudden found out about these things. That was a deep experience for me, and I'm looking forward to more."
In fact, now Razia is working with a musicologist to explore further and ultimately hopes to bring some musicians over for a show combining Malagasy musicians with other sounds in a chamber-music setting at New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine. She's already started some explorations with cello and sitar, aiming at a cultural dialogue that will raise consciousness both in Madagascar and throughout the rest of the world.
"This is just the beginning for me," she says.