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Musical Activism: Wake Up Madgascar

07/13/2012 04:28 EDT | Updated 09/12/2012 05:12 EDT

When most North Americans think of Madagascar, they think of the adorable animated creatures who inhabit the DreamWorks Madagascar film franchise, currently into its third installation with the recent release of Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted which hit movie screens last month. Setting aside any issues of biological accuracy -- lions, hippos, giraffes and zebras do not actually make their home on this island nation -- New York based, Malagasy born singer Razia Said is hoping that she can attract at least a little of the interest in the film to the real Madagascar, a land where serious environmental issues threaten its unique collection of endemic animals and plants.

She's using music to spread the word in launching a North American tour of Malagasy musicians called Wake Up Madagascar, set to take the stage in Toronto in Toronto and Montreal on July 17 & 18 along with a number of U.S. dates. With its upbeat melodies and danceable rhythm, the music itself isn't a hard sell.

"The tour is making people aware. All we can do as artists is to make people aware. Talking about our problems with our musical culture is the best way of getting our message across -- people are willing to listen."

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It was on a trip home to record music for her 2010 release Zebu Nation that Razia saw the declining forests of her beloved homeland with her own eyes. The tradition-honoured practice of tavy or slashing and burning the forest to plant rice fields along with the illegal harvesting of rare hardwoods that has flourished in recent years has decimated the already fragile forests. Deforestation leads to a host of other problems including soil erosion and desertification.

"Madgascar is known for its biodiversity and endemic species," she points out. As the fourth largest island in the world, its natural environment has evolved along entirely unique lines with fully 80 per cent of its animal species endemic to the island.

On its release, Zebu Nation featured songs with titles like Slash and Burn, and Ny Alantsika (Our Forest), and the experience fuelled Razia's interest in taking an active role in trying to protect her homeland. She contacted well known fellow musician Eusèbe Jaojoby, considered king of salegy dance pop along with his band and singers Charles Kely and Saramba. Wake Up Madagascar was born with the initial goal of raising awareness of the issues locally. "We have to explain to people that we have to stop burning the forest."

The illegal logging, however, has powerful friends and resulted in a touchy situation for the musicians.

"Everybody's afraid to express their thoughts. It's a delicate subject there -- some of the ruling groups are involved," she says. "I was a little bit disturbed. We have to make sure we aren't going to be 'heroes'. I want to live!" she laughs. It's no joke, however. There are sections of forested national parks where the government itself has abandoned efforts to police the rampant illegal logging for periods of time.

That first concert took place at the Masoala forest in northeastern Madagascar, the area that is home to both Razia and Eusèbe Jaojoby. It brought 20,000 to the area largely on word of mouth to spread its message of forest conservation. "It's a very peaceful country," she says of the people and traditional culture. "But it is still very dangerous. It's a very poor country," she acknowledges of this nation where the average wage is less than $2 per day. "Sustainability isn't always on the minds of starving people. It's a very complex situation."

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Eco-tourism was a flourishing industry before a 2009 political uprising that overthrew elected president Marc Ravalomanana and handed presidential power to Andry Rajoelina. Widely seen internationally as a coup d'état, the aftermath has seen an exodus of foreign investment in a country where about half of the federal budget depended on donations from outside. Tourism revenues dropped 50% in 2010 and foreign agencies withdrew. The dramatic downturn has hit the already poor the hardest. "The politicians manage - always. It's a retaliation on the population." Widespread corruption and grinding poverty led to a situation where organized crime stepped in and illegal logging began in earnest - and this after a decade that had seen real progress on the front of protecting Madagascar's dwindling forests.

"It's a huge business. They make a lot of money from exporting this wood." The market for exotic hardwoods is indeed large. While most of the illegal hardwoods are said to be shipped to China to create furniture that will eventually be sold worldwide, exotic rosewood and ebony can end up a lot closer to home. In 2009 and again in 2011, U.S. federal agents raided the legendary Gibson guitar factory for violations of the Lacey Act which requires companies in the U.S. to obey the environmental laws in other countries. In the 2009 raid, they seized ebony from Madagascar.

"It's a big battle," she acknowledges. "I'm trying to get as many people on our side as possible."