On her third album, The Road, Malagasy-born singer/songwriter Razia comes home to Antalaha, her birthplace in the vanilla-growing northeast of Madagascar. At age 11, Razia left behind an idyllic childhood in Antalaha to begin her world wanderings as a student, an activist and a musician, travels that would take her to Gabon, Comoros Island, France, Italy, Bali, New York City—where she established her musical career with two acclaimed albums, Zebu Nation (2011) and Akory (2014)—and now, to her current home on the island of St. Lucia. Razia’s music has pulled together a rich blend of Malagasy traditions, jazz and pop influences, and powerful messages concerning environmental destruction and the daunting challenges that young post-colonial nations such as Madagascar face today. Now on The Road, Razia turns to her personal story, and it proves every bit as compelling as the grand tales of avarice, corruption and devastation in the natural world that have animated her music in the past.  

In 2016, Razia was called home to Antalaha as her grandmother, the woman who raised her, was seriously ill and facing death. Upon her arrival, Razia’s grandmother, Tombozandry, revived, and it was clear she would be there for some months. So she invited her Surinamese drummer, Harvey Wirht, to join her and said, “Let’s make an album.” They called on a champion guitarist in the local salegy dance style, an energetic, celebratory music with a 12/8 groove and joyous local melodies. Though much in demand by top salegy acts, Raledey agreed to come to Antalaha and help with this album. The three musicians rented a flat and got to work.

The idea was to make spare, acoustic songs, to create a soundscape more suited to the delicate subjects Razia wanted to address, and one that would put her voice front and center. The result is a striking departure from the densely layered textures of Zebu Nation and, especially, Akory, which features a who’s who of Malagasy instrumentalists. The Road offers a warm, welcoming set of songs that take us deep into the emotional reality of Razia’s self-made, globe-spanning life.

Razia was born in 1959 to a 17-year-old mother, and a father who was unwilling to marry her, as the two came from incompatible branches of Islam. Heartbroken and shamed, Razia’s mother left the child in Antalaha with her own mother, Tombozandry, and left for Comoros Island. Although she returned for Razia eleven years later, the two have never been close, and Razia’s mother and father never speak at all. This history was ever present for Razia as she worked on The Road, since all of these people were still living in Antalaha. “My mother was living about five minutes from where I was,” recalls Razia. “My grandmother was about ten minutes away by car, and my father was about four minutes away by foot. So I had all the rest of my life around me!”  

This helps to explain the poignant immediacy that pervades The Road. “Tsy Lany (It Never Ends)” opens the album with a wistful reflection on loss. “It’s about the love that never goes away,” says Razia. “Even when somebody dies, the love remains.” Razia’s voice shifts from a velvety cool on the verse to a yearning cry on the chorus, as the feel shifts between 4/4 and 6/8 time, hinting subtly at Malagasy rhythms. There’s a sense of transcendence as we sway back and forth between these moods. Raledey’s gentle picking on Razia’s Gaudin nylon-string guitar—a departure from the electric sonority he uses in salegy—takes center stage in the music, reinforced by a small string section added in Paris by Francois Michaud, a long time collaborator of Razia’s. Harvey Wirht’s cajon and Michael Bowie’s upright bass played by serve to ground these nimble grooves, but just enough to tether them even as they breeze ahead, often lighter than air.

“Mbola Velogno (I’m Still Alive)” reflects on the end of a long term relationship, and the start of a young one: “Our story is over/Our roads have grown apart/I’m still standing/I’m still alive.” It’s ultimately a song of affirmation, buoyed by the ebullient spirit of Congolese music. The image of the road recurs often in this song cycle, most explicitly on “Lalagny Araiky: The Only Road,” a pulsing lullaby that traces the inevitable course of a person’s life, from childhood to experience to death. “Ayo (The Longing),” written during Razia’s 2016 sojourn in Antalaha, bravely explores the singer’s sense of loss at not having a closer relationship with her birth mother. “In this town,” says Razia, “She’s there all the time. Wherever I look, she’s there—walking on the road with something on her head, or riding her bicycle from the market. But at the same time she’s not there. That’s the paradox.” “Ayo” is also the first video from the album. Directed by Jonathan Gasse, it presents a dreamy black-and-white tour of Razia’s lush Caribbean surroundings in St Lucia.

Hearing guitarist Raledey’s smooth acoustic riffs and elegant arpeggios on songs like these, you would not guess that his specialty was kick-ass salegy music. But this is precisely why Razia chose to make him so central to this album’s sound. Razia was keen to take this brilliant guitarist outside his comfort zone. She told him, “That’s what’s great. I want you play like a Malagasy who plays salegy, but who can adapt. It’s going to give the music a different flavor.’” And it does. Of course, Raledey gets to show his true colors on two jaunty salegy numbers, “Antalaha” and “Nave (Here We Come),” both of which celebrate the live and spirit of the town that remains the home of Razia’s heart.

“Filongoa (Friendship)” changes the mood with tasty electric guitar work from Beninois jazz guitar maestro Lionel Loueke. The song celebrates friendship using a collection of Malagasy proverbs: “Separate we create sand/together we create stone.” Lyrical and ambling, “Remandreny (The Parents)” gives thanks to Razia’s ailing grandmother, and really, to all those who raise children and watch them face uncertain futures. Razia’s friend Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouthi—whose songs became anthems of the Tunisian Arab Spring—adds backing vocals here, and Malagasy guitarist and singer/songwriter Charles Kely assumes the central guitar role with his own distinctive finger-picking.

The Road was recorded in Madagascar, Paris, Baltimore and New York. But its exuberant, celebratory closer, “Nave,” was actually tracked live, in a single take, in that apartment in Antalaha, surrounded by all the ambiance and complexity of this bustling Malagasy town. For all the darkness and melancholy Razia conjures in these beautiful songs, she ends, as on all her albums, with whooping abandon, completing a difficult journey with characteristic optimism and hope.