It’s a gentle but beguiling song, Sonegaly. It flows like a lazy, sun-dappled river with ripples of exotic string instruments and rhythmic bassline waves. And then, through the surface into the sunlight, bursts the clearest, purest voice. It belongs to Hanitra Rasoanaivo, the singer-songwriter and percussionist of the five-piece Malagasy band, Tarika.
That one song, six minutes long, is many things.
Sonegaly is undoubtedly a pop song. It comes from Tarika’s hugely popular second album, Son Egal, which was released in 1997 and topped the hit parades at home as well as World Music charts across the globe.
Sonegaly is very much the sound of Madagascar. Tarika’s music, with its blend of regional folk styles, has always been reflective of the band members’ expansive motherland, the fourth-largest island in the world.
As musicologist Ian Anderson rightly wonders in The Rough Guide To World Music about “the myriad of other connections to anywhere and everywhere” on display in Malagasy music: “Has all the music in the world bumped into Madagascar at some time in history? Or did it all start here and wander off somewhere else?”
Even though Madagascar is only about 400km off the southeast coast of Africa and officially part of the continent, its people are primarily related to those of Indonesia, 4 800km to the east.
You can hear those roots in Tarika’s music, but also a trace of the later settlers from East Africa and Arab traders, followed by the influence of French colonisation. And with Tarika firmly in the global music firmament, they sound modern and contemporary without being too sanitised for Western ears.
Sonegaly is also a historical document. It and other songs on the ambitious and deeply political Son Egal deal with the pro-independence Malagasy Uprising of 1947 in which nearly 100 000 lives were lost.
Revolt against the French
On Saturday 29 March 1947, just before midnight, Malagasy nationalists started a revolt to overthrow their French masters, who had officially colonised Madagascar the year before. The insurrection against the French army quickly spread over one-third of the country. The French did what many colonialists would do: not only did they use their elite forces from the Foreign Legion, they also brought in thousands of African soldiers who were under their command in Senegal to help quell the rebellion.
The French military were unspeakably brutal, carrying out unprecedented atrocities such as mass executions, torture, war rape, burning villagers and even throwing a group of live prisoners out of an aeroplane. The rebellion ended in December 1948.
Sonegaly is also quite unusual for a pop song, or any song for that matter, in that it’s a piece of properly researched journalism. In 1996, when Tarika took a break from touring, Rasoanaivo didn’t just do some desktop or library research into her country’s difficult Malagasy Uprising history, she went to Madagascar’s rural areas to uncover “buried history and old hatreds”.
As she explained in an interview with the LA Weekly newspaper in 1997, her quest was to interview the remaining survivors of the brutal suppression of the revolt.
“A lot of things have not been told,” she said. “It’s almost like a taboo subject, a secret subject.” The interviews, Rasoanaivo said, were highly charged, emotional outpourings. For many of the survivors, it was their first chance in half a century to talk freely about the ordeal.
“It was like I was giving life to people who wanted to tell these tales,” she said. “If I didn’t do anything, these stories would have died with these people.”
Those tales and research became the songs on Son Egal.
Sonegaly is also a one-song truth and reconciliation commission of sorts for Madagascar.
Sonegaly is the name for the Senegalese, who have been demonised to this day in Madagascar after the horrors of 1947. Although they were trained in Senegal, the troops sent to suppress the rebellion came from France’s African colonies. They acted under orders.
“Do you think we blacks should fight against each other, too?” read Sonegaly‘s lyrics, translated from Malagasy.
The song and the album are “a plea for reconciliation between the Malagasy and the Senegalese”, Rasoanaivo told the Los Angeles newspaper. “The Senegalese have been demonised, even to this day.”
Smartly, Tarika went a step further towards healing those historical wounds on behalf of the two countries. Two musicians from Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal’s band, Daande Lenol – kora player Kauwding Cissokho and percussionist Massamba Diop – recorded Son Egal with Tarika.
Son Egal is also a wonderful pun. Literally “equal sound”, it plays on the “Sonegaly’s” contribution to the album.
Sonegaly can be deemed worthy history, thorough journalism, inspiring politics or sparkly pop. But it is more than that. It is beautiful, compelling and engaging art.