Singer and songwriter Razia Said’s nomadic life has taken her across Africa to France, Italy, Ibiza, Bali and New York City, but despite these wanderings, her heart and soul remains inexorably tethered to Madagascar, the land of her birth. Her musical explorations have also been wide ranging, and over the years Razia has experimented with French chanson, rock, jazz and even smooth, Sade-style R&B. But it took reaching back to her cultural roots for Razia to uncover her true artistic calling as one of African music’s most promising talents.
With the album Zebu Nation, Razia has created an inspiring collection of songs that draw deeply on the music she heard growing up in the town of Antalaha in northeastern Madagascar. The source for the world’s most prized Bourbon vanilla, Antalaha is one of Madagascar’s wealthiest communities, although there remains a great gap between rich and poor. Razia was born on December 1, 1959 when her mother was just a teenager and not yet ready for the role of parenting. To diffuse the scandal, her mother was sent to the Comores Islands and Razia’s grandparents raised her in a bustling household filled with relatives. Razia first heard the infectious rhythms of local salegy music blasting out of the town’s ubiquitous radios. It was one of Razia’s older uncles that first introduced her to French music as well as The Beatles, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and other Western stars. Her uncle even invited her to sing the latest French pop songs on stage with his band when she was just ten years old.
Believing that her grandparents were her parents, Razia was in for a shock when she learned at age eleven that “Aunt Hassanatte” who regularly visited from the Comores was actually her mother. In fact, by that time Razia’s real mother had married a French architect and wanted Razia to join them in the West African country of Gabon. Suddenly, Razia was uprooted from the world she knew and traveled on an epic journey through Dar Es Salaam, across the Congo River to a new life and family. In Gabon, Razia discovered that the local church had a choir, but one had to be Catholic to join, and Razia was raised a Muslim. Music was far more important to her then the details of which God she prayed to, so she begged her mother to allow her to convert…which she did. Razia was also exposed to the funky grooves of Fela, Pierre Akendengue, Papa Wemba and other African artists who were popular in Gabon at the time.
After three years in Gabon, Razia was sent to boarding school in southern France, where she first started learning to play guitar. Seeking economic stability, Razia received her doctorate in Pharmacology and moved to Paris. But her passion remained with the arts, and in Paris, Razia made a living through modeling, acting and occasional music gigs. In 1987, Razia moved with a lover to New York City, and they worked odd jobs in order to earn enough money to spend three months a year living in Bali, Indonesia. Over the years, Razia also lived in Ibiza and Milan, working as a stylist, an actor and in fashion, struggling all the while to find her own musical direction.
Eventually, Razia met and married Jamie Ambler, a musician, filmmaker and advertising creative director, and he worked with her to record her first album. While Razia was happy to have gotten some of her songs recorded, the pop-oriented, English-language R&B and jazz direction left her unfulfilled. Razia had been traveling often to visit her family in Madagascar, and after she had a chance meeting with members of Njava, one of the country’s best bands, she decided that she needed to record songs in the Malagasy language and inspired by the rhythms, melodies and instruments she fell in love with as a young child.
Thus began the long and challenging process of recording Zebu Nation. Work began in 2006 In Belgium, where Njava was based, but Razia felt that the only way to truly capture the sound she was looking for was to bring the producers to Madagascar to record with local musicians in the right setting. For six weeks, they traveled around the island, and discovered along the way the environmental damage taking place as the result of unfettered slash and burn agriculture and climate change. Razia’s longing to protect and preserve the environmental and cultural heritage of her homeland permeates the songs on the album, and gives Zebu Nation a powerful, real-world significance.
But even after the trip to Madagascar, there was much work to be done to finish Zebu Nation,
and Razia and Jamie spent the next couple of years working with a range
of producers and musicians, such as Malagasy guitarist Dozzy Njava,
accordionist Regis Gizavo and a number of top New York-based musicians
to craft an album that captured Razia’s particular musical vision.
Thanks to an intense attention to detail, strong sense of style and
unwavering devotion to the craft of Malagasy music, Razia created an
exceptional album that will surely catapult her to great international
renown. While it has taken her many years and life detours before she
arrived at this musical destination, with Zebu Nation, Razia Said has finally returned home.
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