One Song, One Story: Niu Raza, 'Madagascar'

Drawing from traditional Malagasy music, island grooves, and Western pop, Raza's song reflects her own definition of home.

February 2, 2021

In our new series, One Song, One Story, Berklee artists share a piece of their lives as seen through one song. Here, Niu Raza investigates her relationship to the word “home” in her new single, “Madagascar.”

“You make me feel like home.”

This is the refrain in the song “Madagascar” by singer and songwriter Niu Raza B.M. '18, off her new album, Mm-Hmm. On a quick listen, the line feels like a standard declaration of how a partner’s love can be so comforting, it can feel like a refuge. And certainly that is one way to interpret that line. However, consider the fact that Raza was raised in the song’s titular country—by parents who worked for Doctors Without Borders—lived in New York City for a time, and is currently based in Boston. The album was recorded in both Madagascar and Boston. “Bits of my life are in all these places,” Raza says, “and I tried to translate that into the whole album.”

So, when she sings “home,” you have to listen to more than the word to hear just how much the song offers a vibrant redefinition of the concept of home.

At the very opening of the song, those metallic plinks come from the valiha, a traditional Malagasy harp. Other Malagasy influences in the song include the use of an accordion and African percussion patterns. But there is also an island flavor to the groove; and the melody, sung in English, is rooted in Western pop. “For the music itself…the key was to make people travel in a way that they’re not moving [physically], but [moving] sonically,” Raza says of the song’s arrangement.

Image of Niu Raza's album cover

Niu Raza's new album, 'Mm-Hmm'

The song may be fixed in its run time of three minutes and 12 seconds, but listening is also a form of travel, and this is where Raza starts to push the idea that home is one thing or another. The song stays where it is even as it moves us, in the same way that home can be one thing or many things, such as people, places, cuisines, and music.

“We all leave home to find some better purpose, to create our own path, and we always look back for comfort and security,” Raza says, suggesting that once you leave home, you begin the process of finding new ways to connect to your sense of comfort. For her, music is the connecting point. As she began performing in the United States, she found that audiences related to her music, even if she was singing in Malagasy. Her shows, she says, felt “more like a family gathering, rather than a show where I was performing and they [the audience] were watching. That created a sense of home for me.”

“At the end of the day, we want to belong somewhere, not just where we live, but in our emotions.”

—Niu Raza

“You make me feel like home,” she sings in the chorus of “Madagascar.” But there’s a second, overlapping lyric, “You remind me of Madagascar,” and the two lines weave around each other, at times becoming indistinguishable, as if they were one thing. Madagascar is home and reminders of Madagascar are also home. It’s not about one or the other. “At the end of the day, we want to belong somewhere, not just where we live, but in our emotions,” Raza says. “We don’t really have to choose where home is. In general, it’s so easy to pinpoint our differences. But the whole point of the album is when you bring two things together, you come up with something beautiful, and you bring balance to everything.”

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