This Earthy Island Music

The African worldbeat folk of Tarika is reputedly Madagascar's best export. In fact, Tarika has one of the most joyous sounds in all of world music, African or otherwise.

The island of Madagascar, more than twice as big as Great Britain, is African only by default of geography. After centuries as a trading crossroads 250 miles off the Mozambique coast, the Malagasy culture, including its lyrical music, reflects its complex roots. The island includes elements of African, Polynesian, French and Arabic cultures, as well as its own unique indigenous/immigrant population.

Tarika, led by charismatic female singer/songwriter Rasoanaivo Hanitrarivo, aka Hanitra (and pronounced "Anch"--see how complex this culture is already?), has won constant kudos on the world's stages. Headliners in Europe as well as in their homeland, their current U.S. tour includes the Kennedy Center and world music festivals in Monterey and Chicago, in addition to Tucson.

The quavering familial harmonies of Hanitra and her sister Noro shape Tarika's vocal sound. Another unique element is the valiha, a circular bamboo zither that gives a bright pleasant tone reminiscent of Celtic dulcimers or Andean charangos. Strong, relentless African rhythms, propelled by multiple percussion, including talking drums, anchor the sound, making it bold and danceable.

The band was founded in the early '90s as the more traditionalist Tarika Sammy. Under Hanitra, they expanded their appeal and material while maintaining allegiance to the sunny music of their island home. The subject matter for songs expanded, while their musicianship notched up to world-class levels.

Their latest album, Soul Makassar, goes a step beyond, exploring the roots of roots music itself. The first human inhabitants of Madagascar some 1,500 years ago were sea-faring Polynesian explorers from Indonesia. A few years ago, despite turmoil in Jakarta and East Timor, Hanitra traveled to her ancestral home, finding similarities in language, custom and cooking, despite separation by centuries and an ocean. Soul Makassar is a garam masala of love songs, soul food and pointed political observations, additionally spiced by guest Indonesian musicians.

Perhaps no single song introduces the band better than its ethnic version of the Ronettes' hit "Be My Baby." According to Hanitra, she grew up loving the local version by Les Surfs, a Malagasy French-language cover band. Much later she discovered the full history and sound of the Phil Spector-produced original. Tarika sings the song in English and French, with a chorus whose rich African harmonies makes the song otherworldly, foreign yet familiar. Like Tarika itself, the sound is strange, sensual and achingly human.