Although Wa-Zimba takes its name from the original inhabitants of the East African island of Madagascar and utilizes native instruments, rhythms, and vocal polyphony into its songs, which are performed in Malagache, the trio does not consider itself a traditional Malagasy group. The band members incorporate a host of world influences from free jazz and hip hop to techno and pop to Rai and raga into their repertoire. And on one song, “Sodine Key”, I swear I could even hear echoes of Jerry Garcia jammin’ country-style circa American Beauty. The results of this fusion are mostly interesting and inventive, although at times the mix threatens to slide into what is sometimes called sausage music, where the ingredients lose their distinctive identities and blend into something less than grand.
The album was recorded in France. French jazz guitarist Phillippe Robert founded the band, and serves as the album’s primary arranger and sound designer. He gives every song a lilting string foundation to which his countryman Pierre Acourt adds keyboard rhythms and percussions while Malagasy bassist and vocalist Julio Rakotonanahary simultaneously provides a pulsating beat and melody. A host of other musicians join in the fun on instruments that range from traditional Malagasy bamboo harps and drums to electronic synthesizers and keyboards to mandolin and dobros to melodicas, saxophones, and flutes. The songs continuously percolate with busy, danceable sounds and sound effects. Again, while this is mostly good, at times the result is, well…boring. The music flows and babbles rather than builds to climaxes and crescendos.
Consider the opening track, “Ela” (which is translated as “Such a Long Time”). The music begins pleasantly enough, but really doesn’t go anywhere. This may be on purpose. The liner notes provide brief interpretations/translations of the song. This five-minute/six-stanza cut is explained succinctly as “Would you give me a sign / Without acting like you don’t see me / If you have a heart, share it with me”. Perhaps the fact that the music tends to go nowhere fast is meant to mimic the anxious emotions of a person in love with an unresponsive person, but if so, the lover’s plea is unconvincing. It turns into more of a whine than a heartache. This doesn’t make “Ela” a bad song. The tune just starts out promising more than what it ends up delivering.
Incidentally, the short descriptions of the lyrics (provided by Chrisine Breton and Julio Rakotonanahary) are very helpful. The perky “Namana” (“Friends”) turns out to be a semi-paranoid tribute to friends (“Do you know who your real friends are”). The uplifting tune of “I Soa No Tiako” (It’s Soa That I Love” masks the declaration of a young man who plans to defy his parents’ wishes and marry a girl not of their choosing. And the spooky atmospherics of “‘Zaho Sy Ianao” (“Me and You”) reinforce the concept of a pair of lovers who no longer care for the other. As these examples indicate, many of the songs concern one-on-one human relationships. But the most compelling songs have larger themes.
The staccato music of “Vonjeo” (“S.O.S.”), with a melodica mimicking the sound of a telegraph sending an urgent message, highlights lyrics about villagers driven into exile by bombs and guns. The one song which contains every word translated is the gentle lament “Iza no homba” (“Who”) that tells the story of children exploited into work and prostitution to feed themselves. The tune asks who would take care of those who want to be taken care of, play, and go to school. In a world where childhood has no meaning, the rhetorical, unstated answer is no one—the “Who” of the title.
Mandy Wazy has great ambitions. It tries to combine many different musical styles into its Malagasy base and address personal and political concerns. The fact that the record doesn’t always succeed is less important than what it tries to accomplish. In an age where Madagascar has become a Hollywood cartoon, keeping it real has actual significance.
// Notes from the Road
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