Madagascar and Pasadena are about as far apart as you can get on this planet, and not just geographically.
But they’re both on this planet. And that’s plenty to bring the cause of the former to the latter, which is just what singer-songwriter Razia Said is doing as she leads the Wake Up Madagascar tour, appearing at Pasadena’s Levitt Pavilion for a free concert on July 26. (See the tour video below.)
“We’re under the same stars and on the same Earth,” says Said, a Malagasy native who performs simply under her first name. “And everybody should care what’s going on in Madagascar.”
What’s going on, she says, is rampant destruction of forests and other environmental pillage, exacerbated by an unstable government and collapsed economy. It’s something she only woke up to about five years ago when, having lived most of her life Europe and the U.S. (she’s lived in New York for many years now), she returned to Madagascar to make part of her album, “Zebu Nation,” with local musicians. Driving through the countryside, she was horrified to see thick smoke from the fields, the result of slash-and-burn agriculture that, along with illegal logging and other practices, she soon learned was taking a great toll on the rich flora and fauna that had been the country’s greatest natural resource and international attraction.
That shock inspired much of the material that ended up on the album, as well as film and photography projects, not to mention Razia’s committed activism. The latter included a pledge to plant a tree in Madagascar for every CD sold (a total of 20,000) and culminated with a festival last October that drew more than 20,000 people.
“It was a series of four concerts — free concerts, because the people have no money, all communicating to people about raising their awareness, that they’re burning off their forests.”
The U.S. tour is a compact version of that event to take the cause global — though she already became a presence in that regard earlier this year, speaking up as controversies brewed regarding the U.S.-based Gibson Guitars company using wood from endangered forests, including those on Madagascar, prohibited by a law known as the Lacey Act, which went into effect in 2008.
“There were attempts to amend the Lacey Act, to make it more flexible,” she says. “We support the Lacey Act and want it to continue as it was set. That’s one of the reasons we are doing this tour in the States now.”
For the brief tour, which concludes with the Pasadena show, she’s assembled something of a Madagascar supergroup, topped by Jaojoby, one of the island’s icons.
“He’s been singing for 50 years or something and considered the king of salegy, the music that comes from the north of Madagascar,” she says. “It’s a 6/8 rhythm, quite amazing, pulsating, very danceable, get-into-a-trance thing.”
Jaojoby’s wife, Claudine Zafinera, is also on board, representing Saramba, an all-female group she founded five years ago.
“I didn’t fly all the women in, but she will play with the backbone of the Jaojoby band,” Razia says. “She does all kinds of rhythms of Madagascar, but sings mostly about women’s life, telling truth and the stories.”
Filling out the frontline is singer-guitarist Charles Kely, who worked on Razia’s album and then became a central part of her band. The four principals will share the stage in front of Jaojoby’s band, taking turns and backing each other through the concert.
“I’m really trying to do a show that you feel a lot of the music,” she says. “Not just salegy all the way, or acoustic all the way, but as interesting as possible. Trying to share music from the different areas of Madagascar. I have the music from my album, but also from my travels, Charles has a little more jazz to him. Saramba is the most traditional, I think, while Jaojoby has a bit more western structure.”
It all came together very quickly, with a week of rehearsals in her New York house.
“Quite an experience,” she says. “I feel I brought Madagascar here — my home in my home!”