|Malagasy Miary Lepiera's debut release on Tinder seemingly splashes on the scene like a giant meteor appears from the blackness of interstellar space: Out of nowhere. But as the meteor's already traversed light years before becoming visible on our planet, so has Lepiera travelled a long ways to now present us with his master piece Soro. Separated from his physical parents at birth through adoption, it wasn't until his 16th year that he reunited with his father who turned out to be a professional musician. The prodigal son had in the meantime become self-taught on mandolin. The reunification merely confirmed his intuition that music was predestined to become his life.
After touring Europe with the band Njava, he stayed in Brussels where he continued playing Jazz with Chris Joris, Funk with Augustin Foly and Afro Jazz with Ben Ngabo while absorbing encouragement and mentoring from Belgian guitarist Philip Catherine. With the formation Sairy, he released Bitsibitsiho in 1999 but only now feels he's come full circle to creating a contemporary vessel for Madagascar music with Soro. And has he ever. Clearly rooted in African soil, we hear the jubilant yodeling of Pygmies; the question/answer chorus tradition of Central Africa; James Brown-style power funk; complex Asian bhol percussion patterns; Jazz/Pop influences; and European string arrangements.
The most surprising element? The sheer variety of styles, the density of the individual tunes, the polished completeness of every little detail that's usually the harvest of many failed efforts and challenging seasons. The only common thread that unites the very diverse songs are the infectious sense of life-affirming joy and the very high level of sophistication, both compositionally and how tightly the complex tunes are performed. The musicians responsible come from Togo (Boris Tchango on drums); Burkina Faso (Désiré Somé on guitar); Angola (Gato Bedseyele on percussion and Ket Hagaha on keyboards); Cameroon (Didier Likeng on bass and organ); Madagascar (Pata Njava, percussion, Lala Njava on backing vocals); and Greece (Mariana Toutziaraks on second and backup vocals);
Highly percussive, rollickingly rhythmic, Miary's vocals on Soro are so fleet that one thinks of a happy bird fluttering through a huge tree, chirping his heart out from different vantage points while showing off his bright chest feathers. Skillful choral harmonizing, fluid guitar solos, clever mid-tune time gates, Pop hooks - when you begin to analyze the colossal wealth of material present, then attempt to gauge Miary's age from his artist mugs, you begin to scratch your head. Give up and just predict a glorious future for this young, preternaturally gifted singer/songwriter/guitarist. It's not only easier but also more rewarding. Marvel at the high-speed perfection instead whereby Rapping and scatting tongue and vocalcord twisters are performed as choral song, following zigzagging melodic lines while clearly enunciating story-telling lyrics.
Not since Cheikh Lo first crashed onto the Afro-Pop scene has the appearance of a new talent seemed so explosively exciting. And before you peg Soro in the wrong category - it's not Afro-Pop, at least not like any you've heard before. It's the next level of popular Madagasy music - whatever that means to anyone not grown up there. But one listen and you'll be hooked. There's a pervasive element of dense foliage, bright flowers and colorful plumage peeking through from behind the notes. There's also the playfulness of parties on black-sanded beaches, telegraphing that this is tropical, dark-skinned muscular music with bright smiles. I'd call it happy music if it wasn't simultaneously so damn complex and sophisticated. Regardless, it's my current early vote for Recording of the Year 2003 - and it'll take a lot to displace it by the time the year closes out in earnest!
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