Monday, May 21, 2012

Monika Njava: Darkness with a Silver Lining

I do believe music “has charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak” (William Congreve, British playwright, 1772-1828). It certainly works for me.

Lately I’ve been soothed deeply by Russian choral music. One of the reasons I find it so comforting is that I can’t understand the words. Most of what I’ve been listening to is religious material or Slavic folk songs. The very fact that the words are unintelligible makes them seem more transcendent somehow, like they go directly to the amygdala in my brain, bypassing the cerebral cortex, and induce a rare peace of mind. I once heard a small choir of Slavic teenagers sing a cappella in an Orthodox church in Kotor, Montenegro, and nearly passed out from the beauty of their voices.

Listening to Madagascan musician Monika Njava has something of the same effect, only it transfers more energy. On her new album, Haizina (“Darkness”), Monika sings in several Malagasy dialects, such as those of the Antandroy and Mahafaly peoples of south Madagascar whence her family springs, and in French. Not only do I not speak any Malagasy dialects, I don’t even speak French, so for aid in understanding the lyrics I have relied on Monika’s husband, Daniel Brandt, another ex-Portland musician who was the keyboard player in my first real band, Moonstone, back in the last century. Daniel co-produced Haizina. The strings were arranged by still-Portlander Cal Scott, who was also in Moonstone. We were so eclectic in that band we used to do tunes combining Appalachian dulcimer, tenor sax, recorder, conga drums, electric guitar, and more.

So through Brandt and Scott, this catholic (small ‘c’) approach may have influenced the album, although Monika is plenty adventuresome herself. In the late 1980s she and rasta/reggae singer Backom (Youssouf Dahome) recorded a duet of his song “Mausolée” (Tomb) which drew the attention of the rather repressive Madagascar government at the time. The song was banned from radio play, which made it into a big hit. Here’s a transliteration:
When you are too obsessed by money, you ignore what really counts. You can’t buy life with money. Rich or poor everyone will die. It won’t be your money that will carry your body to the tomb, but the people who you’re ignoring now.
Monika’s new album features her solo rendition of “Mausolée,” as well as another pointed political statement, “Reolo.” Here are excerpts:
Oh, Madagascar, give us clarity. You have so much sunlight, so much wealth. But the people keep suffering.

Police, ministers, judges: apply the law, because with envelopes under the table the country is being sold. You, the leaders, selfish dictators – all you do is fill your pockets, ignoring the people.

This must stop because the people have had enough. Our Madagascar is a democratic country. We are a free people, free to criticise.  People, dare to raise your voices.
Monika and four of her fourteen siblings moved to Europe in 1991, forming a family band called Njava which won a prestigious Radio France Internationale award a mere year later. Monika and two sisters also formed the vocal group Dames d’Amour, which released a CD several years ago. Dames d’Amour continue to run a shop in Brussels selling Madagascan handicrafts, the proceeds of which go to aid Madagascan women and children. Except for "Mausolée," all the songs on Haizina were written by Monika or co-written by her and the other musicians. Daniel blogged Monika's recent tour of Madagascar, posts available here.

Monika has a full, torchy alto voice with a bit of rasp on the edge. She reports that her three top influences are Miriam Makeba, Tina Turner & Aretha Franklin. One could not aim any higher. You don’t hear these influences very obviously because Monika has her own distinctive style; I almost hear a little Delaney & Bonnie on “Mampirafy,” a song about the horrors of polygamy (U.S. voters, take note!) and “Alaheloko” (“My Sorrow”).
"Reolo" has a dark reggae feel, combining chunky, tremulous rhythm guitar with muted trumpet and ecstasy-inducing hand drums.  “Sahira” features the lokanga, a type of three-stringed lute made from a wood fingerboard and a gourd for resonance. It produces a shreddy violin-like tone. “Jiny Karokaro” is an a cappella frolic about a pair of jeans, which fans of Zap Mama should enjoy. 

You could call Haizina a fusion album. It blends the deceptively simple approach to melody and deep rhythmic ecology of indigenous people with a rather frothy European pop influence, thankfully rescued by a strong shot of American R&B.

Daniel points out to me the dangers of liking songs whose lyrics are unintelligible; he says Monika, whose English is not fluent, was horrified to learn that one of her favorites, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” was a reactionary response to Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” which was itself an indictment of American racism. But on Haizina, Monika’s fierce commitment to liberty pushes the meaning of the words through the language barrier.

The recording is crystalline. The sound of the hand drums alone transports me to someplace like the Altamira caves or an ancient civilization hidden behind a massive waterfall on an undiscovered continent.  It brings that same trancelike peace I get from the Slavs, but with more hope and less fatalistic acceptance. 

Haizina sidesteps a common failing of world beat music: what Daniel's & my mutual friend Dave Storrs calls "anthropology," in which styles are slapped together in a pastiche that strips the integrity out of all of them. I have always detested string sections playing bluesy lines for the same reason. It's just wrong. But Monika Njava is right, and Haizina reflects the true fusion of cultures that she embodies.

NOTE: Haizina is not available in the U.S. yet. Song samples are available at has two Njava CDs available but no mp3 downloads. There's a video at YouTube, but to get the Monika Njava CD, alas, you will have to be in Europe or Madagascar or have a friend there who will buy it and mail it. If it does become available in the U.S. or via download, I will post the relevant info.

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