African Electric

Though this year's International Festival has an Asian theme, the heart of the musical action is likely to once again be the World Music Stage, thanks to the indelible harmonies of Zap Mama, the insistent dance rhythms and celestial singing of soukous godfather Pap Wemba, Majek Fashek's take-no-prisoners fusion reggae, the coercive orchestral percussion of Adewale Ayuba -- and, perhaps most important, African folk-rockers Tarika. Though Tarika has less raw power than the other World Music Stage headliners, this is the band that may well deliver the most devastating musical punch of all.

Ever since sockets first appeared in walls, musicians from around the world have found a way to revolutionize their traditional music through electricity. Fairport Convention revamped British folk, Muddy Waters juiced the Chicago blues and in Madagascar, it's Tarika that has transformed Malagasy music into a global contender.

Madagascar's entry on the world stage was spurred by the landmark World Out of Time recordings compiled by David Lindley and Henry Kaiser, who toured the land of the lemur in 1991 searching for new sounds. To help find musicians for the project, Lindley and Kaiser employed singer Hanitrarivo Rasoanaivo as guide and translator. Rasoanaivo also teamed with her sister Noro and a rootsy innovator named Sammy for what was one of World Out of Time's most dynamic tracks.

That trio formed the nucleus of Tarika Sammy, which mulched various traditional Malagasy styles into a hopped-up and modern acoustic mix. When Sammy left the band in 1993, Hanitra (as she abbreviated her handle) and Noro recruited a trio of young, plugged-in Malagasy players, and Tarika started rocking the casbah.

As have other folk-rock innovators, Tarika took their culture's traditional instruments and melded them with basic Western bass and guitar. Madagascar's unusual array of indigenous gadgets presented a whole universe of new possibilities that the band has fully exploited: the marovany, a boxy zither strung on both sides that produces deep, resonant tones; the valiha, a bamboo tube with bicycle brake cable for strings from which issues a delicate, harp-like sound; the three-string lokanga fiddle; and the kabosy, a small, square, strummed stringed thing that rings like a dulcimer but packs a wallop when in high gear. As Tarika found, the instruments' odd combination of lightness and strength works especially well in an electrified setting.

While the playing could sustain a band of mutes, the group is gifted with two of the brightest voices on a continent known for its profusion of golden throats. Hanitra and Noro sing with the extra dose of conviction and guts it takes to succeed in their country's culture, where "professional woman musician" is almost an oxymoron.

Though only a few listeners are likely to understand Tarika's lyrics, they carry the same weight as the music. Son Egal, the band's latest release, explores Madagascar's dark history of colonialism, murderous juntas and repression. The title means "equal sound" in French, but it's also a play on the Malagasy word sonegaly, which roughly translates as "Senegalese murdering bastard," a reference to the French use of African troops trained in Senegal to put down a Malagasy uprising 50 years ago.

Tarika addresses other politically charged topics as well. Consider the hypocrisy of the global concern for Madagascar's endangered rain forests and their primate inhabitants, one song challenges, even as the nation's poor rural residents seek assistance to no avail. Their uncompromising conviction, delivered with a fierce urgency that's almost palpable, gives Tarika's already buoyant music an added, and memorable, dimension.

-- Bob Burtman

Tarika performs at noon Saturday, April 19, on the World Music Stage at the International Festival downtown. Tickets to the festival are $6 for adults, free for children under 12 ($2 donation is optional). For info, call 654-8808.

Lisa Germano -- Who would have thought that Lisa Germano had so much to say? Who'd have figured that when this fetching, earthy-sweet brunette was lending memorable violin accompaniment to John Mellencamp's crop of late-'80s hits, she was racked with bitterness? Actually, no one but Germano herself, had she stuck to her backup duties for the likes of Mellencamp and Bob Seger or, worse yet, abandoned music altogether, which she considered doing at one point. The acutely introspective offspring of classically trained musicians, Germano had already grown disenchanted with her instrument by the time she turned 20, and only a job offer from fellow Indiana native Mellencamp was able to pull her out of her funk. Solo work was simply a natural outgrowth of her renewed confidence. Germano has been an avid scribbler since kindergarten, jotting down poems, songs and journal entries with a near-religious fervor. Naturally, much of this acutely personal stuff seeps into her songs. Listening to the widely praised Excerpts from a Love Circus, Germano's fourth and latest release, is a bit like sneaking a peek at a stranger's diary, minus the guilt. Germano has never been one to censor her feelings, which means she has a tendency to be as off-putting as she is embracing. Consider that not just a recommendation, but a warning. At Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue, at 8 p.m Wednesday, April 23. Melissa Ferrick opens. Tickets are $15. For info, call 869-TICS. (Hobart Rowland


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Bob Burtman
Hobart Rowland