WHAT THE GALAPAGOS Islands are to wildlife, the huge island of Madagascar (one-and-a-half times the size of California) is to music: a tropical hothouse of exotic evolution. With African, Arabic, Indian, Indonesian, and various Western musical cultures giving tints and depth to the island's sonic palette, it takes an ensemble as versatile and amiably open-minded as the quintet Tarika to represent its musical possibilities. Last time out, on 1997's Son Egal, Tarika worked to debunk the myth of Madagascar's exploitation by the Senegalese, healing old wounds without losing the lyrical lilt of their female vocal harmonies and string-driven rhythms. On D, the quintet's more musically challenging mission is to reimagine the island's unifying commercial dance craze of the late '70s and early '80s, when a strong economy made the raw materials for making 45s affordable for the first and only time in the country's history and the dance styles of the island's 18 tribes bled into one.
The heart of Tarika has always been the harmonies of vocalists Hanitra and Noro (last names in Madagascar can be extremely long and are rarely used by performers). Here the two vocalists invoke the somber splendor of the Roches on the love ballad "Raitra" and follow it up with the beaming coquetry of South Africa's Mahotella Queens on the township bustle of "Mihetsika." But it's the virtuosity of Donné on the zitherlike valiha and marovany, the smaller, guitar-oriented kabosy, and melodeon that gives the band its soulful, stylistic elasticity. Add percussion and guitar and the odd guest on sax, violin, or harmonica, and you've got a group that can punch up all manner of international hybrids.
Thus, the island hit "Matata" is faithful to their homeland's watcha watcha style--a guitar-driven cousin of Kenyan benga and Congolese soukous--even when Tarika throws in a twangy Hawaiian-flavored guitar intro and a little blues-harp for good measure. On another radio staple, "Samy Mandeha Samy Mitady," the phrasing of the strings starts out brittle, like a West African kora reverie, then gradually undulates with an East Indian sensuality. Inevitably, the listener gets caught up in connecting the cultural dots. The melodeon on "Ditra" approximates the squeezebox buoyancy of creole music, topped by frenzied fiddle accents that sound like the work of Turkish gypsies. Hanitra's ancestrally based dance composition "Ilahikolo" is framed with the courtly acoustic formality of traditional Cambodian songs, and the polyrhythmic rumble of "Revenay" is a caravan from Africa via Trinidad.
Any doubts that Tarika has supplanted the equally successful Rossy and Tarika Sammy as the premier band in Madagascar are dissolved by the group's ability to transform this musical cornucopia into an identifiable sound of their own. The liner notes from D proclaim it to be "Roots dance music from Planet Madagascar!" But in Tarika's hands, even "Cocorico," a novelty hit in praise of roosters, is imbued with a silky-funky liquidity that delivers the beach without the burn.
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