Lala, you come from a large musically inclined family.
Lala Njava: "Yes, we're fifteen brothers and sisters, all involved in music and generally known as the Njava family. The first generation started performing in the nineteen seventies, when we all still lived in Madagascar. I'm part of the second generation myself; together with my brothers Dozzy, Pata and Maximin and my sister Monika we formed Njava and released two albums ('Vetse', 1999 and 'Source', 2005, red.) for EMI. Even my parents met through music: my mother was a chorine and my father was a street artist. We were a very poor family, but thanks to music we always found a way to survive."
The band formed by the first generation of your brothers and sisters was called Lucka-Razah and is much less known in Europe than Njava. Did both bands differ much in a musical sense?
Lala Njava: "Oh yes! Lucka-Razah was a pop band, whereas with Njava we focused on traditional Malagasy music. Lucka-Razah was quite popular in Madagascar though, playing somewhere almost every weekend."
The inspiration for the music of Njava was the antsa tradition.
Lala Njava: "Antsa is a vocal style from the southwest of Madagascar always featuring two lead-vocalists. My family is originally from the southeast of the island, but because that was a region often hit by cyclones, my parents decide to move and we grew up in the southwest. Traditionally antsa is only used in particular circumstances like ancestral or burial ceremonies. For Njava we decided to use the same formula with my sister Monika and myself doing the vocals."
As your musical influences you cite Miriam Makeba but also a certain Mama Sana.
Lala Njava: "Mama Sana was our neighbor in Madagascar. It was an impressive magical woman with a golden voice. She taught us singing techniques and the difference between the antsa and beko style. The time I spent with her was like spending time at conservatory and I still consider it that way."
Like so many Africans you and your family also migrated to Europe at one stage.
Lala Njava: "We came to Europe after we had won the RFI prix découverte in 1992. Soon after we were invited to play at WOMEX and there we were discovered by the big labels among which EMI."
With 'Malagasy Blues Song' you're presenting your first solo effort, but you still recorded it with the help of your brothers. Is Njava still alive and kicking?
Lala Njava: "Oh, very much so, but at the moment the different band members are all doing their own thing: my brothers Maximin and Pata play with Suarez, my sister Monika is giving her jazzy swing to Malagasy music and with ‘Malagasy Blues Song' I now also got the chance to tell my story. In fact there's a new Njava album ready and waiting to be released, but we really wanted to concentrate on our various solo projects first. Working surrounded by family members can get quite stressful at times and we all needed some breathing space! (laughs)"
If there's one song on 'Malagasy Blues Song' that everyone will recognize, it's 'Sweet Lullaby', a former worldwide hit for Deep Forest.
Lala Njava: "'Sweet Lullaby' is an Indian song I reworked extensively at the time I recorded it with Deep Forest. It's a song that means a great deal to me, as it made me discover my personal musical universe. Ever since I recorded it with Deep Forest I've always wanted to do an acoustic version. The song is about a mother singing her child to sleep and it always reminded me of my own childhood: in my family we often went without food and to make us forget our hunger and make us fall asleep our father would always tell us stories."
'Hasosora', a song about the issue of polygamy in Madagascar, is rather personal in nature as you've dedicated it to your departed sister.
Lala Njava: "I dedicated that song to my sister Pascaline who passed away in 2003. I don't believe she was ever happy with her life; she was caught in a polygamous marriage with a husband who treated her very badly. Her grief finally became too big a burden to carry. With 'Hasosora' I wanted to denounce polygamy which is still rampant in Madagascar, but no one dares to speak out against."
The name of Régis Gizavo, Malagasy musician with world fame, is clearly visible on the back of 'Malagasy Blues Song'. Was it important for you to be able to include him in this project?
Lala Njava: "Well, we grew up in the same neighborhood of Toliara, so we go way back and we've played together innumerable times over the years. Régis is part of my history, part of my music career, so I really wanted to include him in this project. Luckily he said yes right away!"
With your sisters Monika and Nicole you founded the Dames d'Amour foundation a few years back.
Lala Njava: "We founded the foundation after visiting my mother's birth village in Madagascar back in 2003. In the village there was a continuous stream of woman passing by with their heads bent down carrying something in weaved baskets. Very quickly I learned these women were carrying there departed children to their final resting place. That shameful situation shocked my sisters and me into action and thus Dames d'Amour was born. The women in the village have many skills but lack the resources to buy the materials they need. The foundation provides them with the materials they need and afterwards buys the finished products - clothes, children's toys, baskets - to resell them in Europe. Apart from that, we've also had a few wells dug already to try and reduce child starvation by providing the village with clean drinking water. The little help we provide really works miracles for the people over there."
Like many other Malagasy artists you also take a stand against the continuing deforestation of Madagascar by supporting the Graine De Vie organization. How does one resolve a problem that is rooted in a way of life that's been around for generations?
Lala Njava: "The problem of deforestation in Madagascar should not be underestimated. As you just mentioned, it is rooted in a way of life where poor farmers continue to cut and burn down parts of the forest (slash-and-burn is an agricultural technique that involves cutting and burning of trees and plants in forests or woodlands to create fields, but without the trees, the soil quality soon becomes too poor to support crops and the farmers have to move on to a virgin forest and repeat the process, red.) to grow a few crops to survive on. Apart from that, the wood industry which continues to see Madagascar as a limitless source of tropical hardwood is also to blame. Graine De Vie is a proactive organization that has already replanted millions of trees in Madagascar; it's a nonprofit organization that really makes the difference on the ground. We shouldn't forget that with the forests also many animal species are at the brink of extinction and as Madagascar has a unique fauna and flora, that is something we should seek to avoid at all cost! The forests are the heart of Madagascar and we have to keep that heart beating!"