When the Malagasy folk-pop band Tarika took some time off from touring in 1996, singer and main songwriter Hanitra could have taken the opportunity to relax a bit. Instead, she headed deep into Madagascar’s back country on a mission to shed light on buried history and old hatreds.
Her quest was to interview remaining survivors of the brutal suppression of a revolt in 1947. The ruling French had used troops from their West African colonies to put down the insurrection; estimates of Malagasy killed have ranged from 11,000 to 80,000, with many others wounded or tortured.
The incident is almost never discussed, says Hanitra (whose name is pronounced “anch”). “A lot of things have not been told. It’s almost like a taboo subject, a secret subject.” For many of the survivors, Hanitra’s visits were a first chance in half a century to talk freely of the experience. The interviews, she says, were highly charged, emotional outpourings.
“It was like I was giving life to people who wanted to tell these tales,” says Hanitra, who brings Tarika to the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library tonight and the Ash Grove on Sunday. “If I didn’t do anything, these stories would have died with these people.”
The tales helped inspire the new Tarika album, “Son Egal,” an ambitious record that weaves themes of old scores and new beginnings with pleas for peace and reconciliation. It delves into specific incidents--and criticism of the government--in a way that is almost unheard of in Malagasy music.
“It’s very, very unique. Normally, you have some happy, dancing music,” Hanitra, 32, says. “It has really made us quite a celebrity. People recognize us when we walk down the street [in Madagascar].”
The album is making waves outside their homeland as well: It has topped world music radio play charts in the United States for eight weeks so far. The record’s serious messages (sung mostly in Malagasy) are buoyed by Tarika’s sparkling synthesis of regional folk styles and understated pop influences.
Hanitra and her sister Noro first came to attention as singers in a band called Tarika Sammy before they went on their own in 1993. Their current bandmates are Donne, who creates shimmering arpeggios on a variety of Malagasy stringed instruments; Ny Ony on bass, guitar and vocals; and Solo on drums. (Professionally, all eschew their long Malagasy names in favor of shorter monikers.)
In a central “Son Egal” track, the sinuous “Sonegaly,” Hanitra sings of the Senegalese, who became Madagascar’s bogey men after the horrors of 1947. Hanitra’s research showed that although they were trained in Senegal, the troops sent to quell the rebellion came from all of France’s African colonies.
More importantly, Hanitra says, they acted under French orders--just as Malagasy troops had acted in other parts of the world. “Do you think,” she asks in the song’s lyric, “we blacks should fight against each other too?”
The song and the album are “a plea for reconciliation between the Malagasy and the Senegalese,” Hanitra says. “The Senegalese have been demonized, even to this day.”
That reconciliation was symbolized in the making of the album: Contributions were included from two prominent Senegalese musicians from Baaba Maal’s sizzling band, kora player Kauwding Cissokho and percussionist Massamba Diop. Although she hadn’t written specific parts for them, Hanitra says she knew all along that she wanted them on the album.
“They just played. They found their spaces in the music,” she says. “For so long now, we’ve been demonizing the Senegalese, and I want to show what we can do by working with them.”
* Tarika plays tonight at the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library, 31495 El Camino Real, San Juan Capistrano, 7 and 9 p.m. $3-$6. (714) 248-7469. Also Sunday at the Ash Grove, 250 Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica, 8 and 10:30 p.m. $15. (310) 656-8500.