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
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