“I feel at home in Asia,” said Hanitra, leader of the group Tarika, during a recent visit to Tokyo. “Africa is more foreign to me.”

This might seem a bit odd, coming from a native of the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar off the southeast coast of Africa. But it was this feeling that led Hanitra (pronounced Anch) to explore her roots — and their connectedness with the Southeast Asian nation — on the group’s latest album, “Soul Makassar.”

“I saw a documentary film about Sulawesi [an Indonesian island] that included a ceremony that looked very much like the one we call Famadihana, in which we exhume dead people and put them in a new cloth. I thought this was only in Madagascar,” she said. “It’s [a link between the Malagasy and Indonesians] often talked about, but nobody went and searched it out. I wanted to find out and meet the people.”

Hanitra traveled to Sulawesi and met the Torajan, Bugis and Makassar tribes. Perhaps these were the distant descendants of those who are believed to have settled on Madagascar some 1,500 years ago.

“The Makassar people looked like me,” she said, shedding light on the title of Tarika’s latest release, which is also a pun on Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa.” “They believed I was one of their tribe. Their language, too, is close to Malagasy, and it is also based, like ours, on Malayo/Polynesian origins.”

Hanitra also found several similarities within the traditional instrumentation, although the instrument she most wanted to track down was the sasandu, a close cousin of the Malagasy valiha (a tube zither) on the island of Roti, near Timor. But due to political strife in the country, she was unable to get there to conduct research.

She did, however, meet and record with some Indonesian keepers of local musical traditions. “As in Madagascar, in Indonesia all the traditional musicians stay in remote places, with no recording facilities,” said Hanitra, “so we went to Bandung [the capital of Sunda, west Java] to record the album in a studio.”

There she joined up with various local musicians under the guidance of British producer Sabah Habas Mustapha (of 3 Mustaphas 3), who had recorded his solo albums at the same studio with some of the same musicians. “They were the most friendly and professional musicians I’ve ever met,” said Hanitra.

“I didn’t know if the Indonesians would think our music was a bit crazy, but they really enjoyed it and some would come early to try things out and to listen. The last song on the album, ‘Madindo,’ was recorded not with my band at all, but only with them.”

The result is an extraordinary Malagasy rap of Hanitra’s Indonesian experiences set over a Sundanese backing. Once again she found similarities in the Sundanese instruments. “The suling (flute) is our sodina and the sasandu our valiha, but in a smaller size.”

Many of the songs on “Soul Makassar” were written in situ in Sulawesi and Bandung, including “Koba,” the album’s infectious opener.

One song that would definitely be familiar to most people is “Malalako (Be My Baby).” Hanitra grew up thinking this was not a Phil Spector-produced, Ronettes song, but a Malagasy tune.

“From 1968 until the ’70s, it was a famous song by Les Surfs from Madagascar. I created new Malagasy words, and recorded the song in French and English as well, with just a drum, violin and kabosy [a Malagasy small guitar],” she recalled. “I believed the song was from Madagascar until 1990, when I was told it was American. To find out the truth was not so good for me.”

The globalization of culture and the updating of tradition is a recurring theme in Hanitra’s lyrics, most potently heard on “Aretina (Disease).”

“Before, Madagascar used to be isolated, but we’re now open to everybody. Especially, America influences the beliefs, and there is a ‘want to be an American’ culture. With globalization and everybody getting mixed up in a big soup, Madagascar will not be an interesting country anymore.

“In Japan and Indonesia, they should also stay true to their culture, so we will be interested in discovering each other. Tradition is something that has to be kept alive. I can’t pretend I can play traditional music, because the oldest recordings I can find are from the 1940s, but what about before then? We have the traditional instruments and we create music using these.”

Tarika’s songs have been played regularly on the radio in Madagascar lately, although the group has only recently started to perform there. She, however, admits that generally “the Madagascar people are not proud. There are a lot of musicians who, when they see the American hip-hop clubs are making money, go there too.”

Hanitra is putting her money where her mouth is, with the building of an arts center in Madagascar. “I am making a place where the young people can come and play with microphones and a P.A. system, without paying, and be proud of their culture. I give children from 8-15 a free valiha and free lessons for a month.

“My long-term plan is to have a recording/rehearsal studio, art exhibition space, instrument-making workshop and Internet facilities.”

Her prognosis is promising. “In Japan, the natural sounds have been replaced by the electronic. If I sit here, I hear the sound of the telephone and machines, so that’s what influences people,” she said. “If I sit in Madagascar, I hear birds and lemurs. So, if we don’t replace the natural by the machine, we’ll be OK.”

Unfortunately there are no fixed dates yet for Tarika to play in Japan. The nearest they’ve gotten is Hanitra singing with guitarist Takashi Hirayasu from Okinawa (another island’s music she feels a close affinity with) on the TBS program “News 23.” They played two songs, “Tovavavy,” from Soul Makassar, and the Okinawan song “Tinsagu nu Hana,” with lyrics in Malagasy.

Her experience here has heightened Hanitra’s will to bring the rest of her group to Japan next time — and has also set her thinking about some kind of Japanese collaboration for the next album.

“If we can perform here,” she said, “I hope that might make Japanese people think more about their own culture, tradition and instruments.” Hanitra is not afraid to set her sights high.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.