Lala Njava is a uniquely-voiced singer and guitar player hailing from Madagascar whose album Malagasy Blues Song is being released beyond the bounds of her native country. It’s an outstanding album, filled with committed performances and loping, hypnotic grooves. Njava is capably backed up by an array of musicians on bass, rhythm guitar and a range of handheld percussion. Most of all, though, it’s the voice that is the focus here, in service to the songs’ beautiful melodies and muscular arrangements. The excellent musicianship melds with the voice to create a powerful, mesmerizing musical stew.
The good news starts right away, with lead track “Soa Gnanay”, a haunting, minor-key tune that makes good use of the minimalist guitar accents and mournful harmony vocals. Njava’s voice is the centerpiece here, though, as her expressiveness carries the tune forward, by turns elegiac and defiant, determined and wistful. Njava sings primarily in Malagasy and French throughout the record, but English-only speakers need not stay away, as these tunes transcend language. There’s plenty of sonic variety on display to keep listener interest at a high level, and Njava’s voice, gritty and smooth at the same time, acts as the glue that binds it all together.
That sonic variety is well illustrated in the other two tunes that form the album’s opening trifecta. “Dinako” is a bouncy, uptempo number that features something that sounds rather like accordion (liner notes are sketchy), while “Sweet Lullaby” is exactly what is advertised. Singing gently over a solo acoustic guitar, this is a lovely song, as powerful as it is unadorned. Like a fine meal made from a few fresh ingredients, “Sweet Lullaby” is an example of how simplicity in music can be every bit as powerful as layered studio effects.
The balance of the album is equally virtuosic. Standouts are many, but “Blues Song” is a contender for best track on the album. Buttressed by a gently surging bass line, Njava’s husky voice floats above the foundation, while gentle guitar accents fill in the gaps, still allowing plenty of empty space for the song to breathe. “Blues Song” is by no means the only strong track here, though. Moods and approaches shift constantly from one song to the next, from the moody atmospherics of “Hasosora” to the jaunty bounce and stick-in-your-ear chorus “Pardon a l’Africa”.
Although the record as a whole is very strong, some tunes inevitably make less of an impression. “Kabary Seza” lacks the energy which is so evident in the rest of the set, while album closer “Mosera” tries to hit the simple-but-lovely mark again with another gentle acoustic number. This time, though, there isn’t the melody in evidence that “Sweet Lullaby” possesses, and the album closes on an oddly anticlimactic note.
Still, such criticisms are quibbles. Given the range of inventiveness and expressiveness on display, it feels petty to harp on one tune or another. Njava is a powerful performer and her material is first-rate; she manages to evoke the instrumentation and rhythms of much African pop music, while managing to create a sound entirely her own.