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Tarika Sammy
by Chris Flisher © 1993 /
(first published October 1993 Worcester Phoenix)

Tarika Sammy
Tarika Sammy is a group of musicians from the distant island of Madagascar. Wielding string and percussion instruments carved from the exotic wood of indigenous trees, this youthful quartet are carrying the sound of the mysterious island across the globe.

Until recently Madagascar was known primarily for its unusual flora and fauna. Renown among biologists and scientists, the tropical island is home to thousands of species of animals and plants not found anywhere else in the world. A difficult terrain combined with strong surrounding currents and an indomitable neighboring continent have left this, the fourth largest island in the world, remote, inaccessible and culturally isolated. Under the rule of a repressive government that prevented the import or export of different cultures, the isolation grew. Separated from the southeastern coast of Africa by 250 miles, Madagascar evolved as a self-sustaining, self-generating culture — a world unto its own.

As a result, the people of Madagascar, called the Malagasy, developed a culture relatively free from external influences. Language, clothes, customs, art, social mores, and music are expressed in the work of 18 tribes of people that make up the island's population of over 10 million. One of the most visible components of this unusual culture is their music. Based on shifting rhythms and layered drum patterns, Malagasy music is a heady mix of string-driven folk melodies and harmonies, propelled by an unrestrained joy of movement.

Although the music and dance Tarika Sammy perform is unique to western ears, it also possesses an unusual slant for the people of Madagascar. Combining the instruments and songs of the many tribes of the island, the group has created a cross-tribal patchwork representing the music of Madagascar.

Singer, group spokesperson, and English translator, Hanitrarivo Rosaonaivo (also known as "Honsh") explained in a recent interview from San Francisco, the first stop on the group's international and North American tour, "Each of the 18 tribes has an instrument and a sound that is their own. We have taken the instruments and songs and mixed them up with the music and harmonies of the different parts of the island. So every part of the island is in our music, a true representation of Madagascar."

Gathering the instruments and songs was not an easy task due to inadequate roads, poor communications and rampant poverty in the country. Honsh continues, "Madagascar is a huge island and there are few radio stations. We have bad roads and no one can afford to travel. There is little gas and few 4-wheel drive vehicles, so people do not leave their places on the island. That is why there are so many individual tribes. The people never mingle. I was a tour guide and so I had an opportunity to get around."

The instruments the group uses may sound vaguely identifiable, but they resemble little familiar to western ears and eyes (imagine an array of strings, plucked and strummed over layers of high-pitched, cracking, shaking percussion and bubbling bass lines). Aside from the percussion, which has well-defined roots in Africa, the group plays a variety of instruments gathered from the various indigenous tribes. Although there are instruments that represent each tribe, the most predominant ones are; a long-necked, sitar-like piece with two sets of three strings stretched across a large open gourd, called a jejy voatavo; a two-sided box zither, called a marovany; a three-stringed violin called a lokanga bara and a simple wood flute called a sodina.

Unable to receive radio signals from other countries, Madagascar evolved in a musical vacuum. As a result, their music has been the sole creation of the people of the country and the resources of the island. Shedding insight into the ways and customs of a removed tribal-society , Honsh continued, "The Malagasy people have been removed for so long. It is a very mysterious place. I cannot explain why. We are not even sure of our heritage. We have few historians and because of our poor communications we have little recorded heritage of our past."

The lack of contact with the rest of the world, has given the Malagasy a unique attitude which pervades the spirit and character of the people. Laughing, Honsh recalls audiences reaction to their performances, "People, westerners, think we are crazy when they see us perform. We are not afraid to express ourselves in music and dance. We are a very happy people, we dance and sing all the time."

In their homeland they are revered beyond comparison. No one in Madagascar has ever made a career out of music. It is not a business. Music has always been viewed as one of life's simple pleasures, like eating, loving, and laughing. For the Malagasy, music is a form of expression and a primary form of recreation. Honsh continues, "Everybody in Madagascar loves music. It is a way of life, but it is something you do for fun, like telling jokes. You don't get paid for it. You just do it."

As ambassadors for this exotic island, Tarika Sammy are bringing attention to the culture and music of Madagascar. Honsh described her mixed feelings on the subject , "I am saddened and overjoyed by Madagascar. By bringing publicity to the country, more people will want to come and visit and that will bring more work, but it will also bring industry, pollution, and corruption."

After generations of isolation, Madagascar and the Malagasy are finally entering a modern world. Poverty, over-population, and a lack of political direction have left the island nation awash in social problems. But the attention garnered by the exotic music of this society removed will bring more than just scientists. Honsh concludes, "Madagascar is one of the last places on earth. We have only been talked about because of our rare wildlife, but now it is being talked about because of its music. If this helps the Malagasy it will be worth it."
Chris Flisher

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