What singer-songwriter Razia Said remembers about her native land in Antalaha, Madagascar, before leaving at age 11 is the thriving rainforests. But when she returned nearly 35 years later in 2005, Said saw her former home transformed by deforestation, caused by illegal logging and slash-and-burn agriculture. The experience inspired Said to change her music’s sound in order to raise awareness about Malagasy people and the environmental destruction of Madagascar. Monday, the Duke Lemur Center and the Kenan Institute for Ethics hosted a symposium to discuss conservation in Madagascar, where Said spoke about Madagascar and its influence on her music. After her discussion, The Chronicle sat down with Said to discuss deforestation in Madagascar and her music.
The Chronicle: Can you talk a bit about how you got started as a musician? Razia Said: My first album was six years ago—it was in English and was [rhythm and blues] jazz because I was going for the American market. I always tried to put Madagascar in my music. I had a guitarist that came from Madagascar and performed on some of the songs, but [the album] didn’t have a lot of Madagascar’s rhythm.
TC: You talked briefly about the trip you took to Madagascar and its influence on the sound of your second album at the symposium. Can you tell me more about its effect on you?
RS: I took a trip in 2007 to Madagascar and at that point, I had decided that after my first album I was not happy with outcome. It was time to dig into my roots and see what was going on there.
I left [Madagascar] when I was 11, and I knew I had to get back there. The trip I took in 2007 was after a trip in 2005 where I met a couple of musicians. On the  trip, I thought, ‘Wow, we have this great sound, and I need to use this.’ So in 2007, I decided to go record stuff in Madagascar, and then I toured Madagascar to get different sounds.
During the tour, I noticed there was smoke and burning everywhere. I stopped at a few of those places and they said, ‘Yeah we’re just burning it to improve our agriculture.’ And I asked them, ‘But did you know that after three crops, the soil will be depleted of its nutrients?’ and they told me they were aware of it.
Madagascar is such a big country that they took it for granted —they have so much land and could just migrate. But we started to tell people, ‘Look at these pictures—see how these mountains are bare now? What are we doing?’ They need to wake up to it.
TC: Is there any sign of Malagasy people taking more environmental precautions?
RS: People are really starting to get say, ‘OK, we need to take care of this,’ but it’s the poorest country in the world, and you have to feel for these people who are just surviving. When you need to survive, you’ll do anything, and the least of your concerns is what is going to happen to the planet in 300 years.
That’s the big contradiction—in countries like Madagascar that are really poor… where people are faced with just feeding their families—it’s a very difficult thing to go around and tell people to stop cutting the forest [unless] you come up with solutions for them. Because otherwise they say ‘Hey, this is easy for you to say. You live over there, you don’t have our pressure.’ But I say we need to think on the long term. We need to create some economies, some new ways of helping you feed your family. If we can have the forest intact, we can attract have agritourism. We need to build on these things that are endemic that only we can provide—where people come to see lemurs, or these beautiful native turtles or these flowers. People pay a lot of money for that—especially nowadays when nature is becoming more and more valuable.
TC: So the economic and environmental situation go pretty hand-in-hand?
RS: The Malagasy person doesn’t live on a lot of money—they live on a dollar a day. If there was a way we could show an example of a successful agritourism area in Madagascar and say, ‘OK—lets really set this up in a way where it’ll be actually protected, and you have to pay to get in and advertise it. Then let’s see how much money this brings in and how many people we can employ in villages to make it work.’ We could have people create artisan bags, clothes, [sell] vanilla. Lets make it work.
There is one successful forest called Ranomafana. This forest was taken in charge by this lady called Patricia Wright, who’s a conservationist that researches golden bamboo lemurs. She lives there half of the time and constructed labs and brings American students to do internships and study abroad.
They managed to actually contain the problem and make it touristy enough—there are roads that come through it, there are hotels that are comfortable that people can live in and the town is thriving on this national park. I would love to make this happen in the northeast of Madagascar, which has a much bigger forest.
TC: It’s interesting because the idea is that Madagascar’s forest can be the solution to Madagascar’s economic problems. Do you try and incorporate that theme in your music?
RS: Music is not just about saying, ‘That’s bad, don’t do it,’ because that’s definitely the worst approach. The best approach is saying, ‘What do you think would be a good solution? Do you think you could live like this?’ If they say ‘Yes, if we had a road already, my god that would change my world.” But to make a road, you need half a million dollars. We need big money to be injected in Madagascar, and that’s not most people’s priority.
TC: You also did a tour in America, was that trying to raise awareness about this predicament?
RS: Yeah the idea of tour in America is to tell people what’s going on and also target people with money to create help…. I’m really trying to see if there are any ways we can find some money in America. Without the money we can’t do anything—ideas are great, but we need money to support them. But first people have to be aware of problem, and that’s where I come in.
We did a whole reforestation program where we planted 20,000 trees when we did a concert in Masoala, and it was helped by a lot of programs and organizations. But six months down the road I got a phone call, and half of the crops we planted burned because someone did one of those slash-and-burn agricultural fires, and it and went into national park where we planted. That was heartbreaking.
TC: When will your next tour be?
RS: The next one will be in 2013 or 2014 in the United States. We’re not sure if we will do one in Madagascar again, but we’re concentrating in the U.S. There’s awareness that needs to be done…. In the States, we are hoping to get support behind it and—who knows—get something that is really big and can generate a substantial amount of money to create new business and industries and improve agritourism [in Madagascar]. That’s something we need to concentrate on.
TC: How has your music changed things both in Madagascar and also here?
RS: It has a parallel kind of impact. People in Madagascar are starting to know about me and why I’m doing my music, so they get a hint about why this is important. They’ll ask, ‘Why would this women do something about Madagascar when she lives in New York?’ and then they say, ‘Wow, I guess Madagascar means something to her, which means Madagascar must be important.’ So there’s that kind of recognition in Madagascar.
And [in the United States] people are saying, ‘What’s Malagasy music, I’ve never heard of that,’ and people are listening to what I’m doing and not just discovering Malagasy music but also a person from Madagascar who cares about Madagascar. It’s an interesting way to have them discover a country. I have a lot of women followers because women are like, ‘Right on, you’re doing something amazing.’ It’s very empowering.