Dobet Gnahoré's music knows no borders
Friday, 07.09.2007, 10:09am (GMT)
When it comes to politics, the Pan-African ideal has precious little to show for itself in the post-Colonial era. But in the performing arts, the movement seeking to bring together the traditions of various sub-Saharan peoples has generated brilliant results.
Dobet Gnahoré is the quintessential example of an artist whose work blissfully ignores ethnic and national boundaries. The product of a bold experiment, the 25-year-old singer, dancer, percussionist, and songwriter from the Ivory Coast grew up in a diverse artists' colony where she spoke several languages and mastered the movements and rhythms of a wide array of peoples.
Her new album, "Na Afriki," came out in February on the new Cumbancha label and hit the top of the world-music charts last month. She makes her headlining debut in Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts on Wednesday as part of a 13-city North American tour.
A riveting artist who creates an entire concept for each piece complete with choreography and lighting, Gnahoré is a whirl of motion on stage, her dreadlocks flying as she dances around the bandstand, then sits to tap out intricate rhythms on hand percussion. Singing original material in seven languages - including Dida and Guere from the Ivory Coast, Wolof from Senegal, Malinké from Mali, Fon from Benin, Lingala from Congo, and Xhosa from South Africa - Gnahoré possesses a rich, flexible voice that moves easily from a high, pure girlish timbre to a stern, throaty cry. Her lyrics alternate between direct, declarative verses addressing thorny social issues such as polygamy, family dissolution, and incest, and poetic accounts of love and filial devotion.
Working with her husband, French guitarist and composer Colin Laroche de Feline, she doesn't limit herself to African styles. Living in France for the past seven years, she has absorbed sounds from the polyglot scenes in Paris and Marseilles, while incorporating influences from her quartet, which features a percussionist from Togo and a Tunisian bassist. It's a concept that flows from her upbringing in Ki-Yi M'Bock, an artists' colony founded in 1985 by the visionary Cameroonian novelist and painter Werewere Liking, who gathered together a continental cast of artists, including Gnahoré's father, the master drummer, singer, and actor Boni Gnahoré.
"In the village we danced the traditional dances of each country from where the members came from, and we sang in different languages," says Gnahoré, speaking in French through a translator from her home in Givet, near the border of Belgium. "When I was 12, I began to sing in Zulu, Malinké, and many traditional languages. I started to play Pygmy music. So this all became part of my Pan-African musical, theatrical, and dance culture. I wanted to continue this in my songs because this is my personality. I didn't really accentuate this on my first album. But for my second album, 'Na Afriki,' I took the time to work with the translators, to feel it and to live it throughout the recording."
Appropriately enough, Gnahoré made her US debut last fall as part of the Putumayo label's hugely successful Acoustic Africa tour with Malian guitarist Habib Koité and South African vocalist Vusi Mahlasela. Though she was the young, unknown artist sharing stages with two of Africa's brightest stars, she made a powerful impression with her dynamic performances. "She is so talented in so many different areas," Koité said after a concert in Berkeley, Calif. "With her voice and dancing, she brings energy for everybody. When she moves, we all feel old."
While Putumayo included Gnahoré's "Palea," a gentle, lilting love song in Dida and Arabic, on the "Acoustic Africa" album, "Na Afriki" is her real introduction to US audiences. The fourth release by Cumbancha, the CD is a sumptuous production, with pristine sound, informative liner notes, complete lyric translations in French and English, and gorgeous photos of Gnahoré.
Founded by Jacob Edgar, who did much of the research for Putumayo's international musical anthologies, Cumbancha became his pet project when Putumayo decided to focus on compilations rather than artist development. Edgar knew he wanted Gnahoré to join his global roster of musicians such as Andy Palacio and the Garifuna Collective from Central America's Caribbean coast, the Idan Raichel Project from Israel, and Ska Cubano, a Jamaican/Cuban hybrid from London.
"She's one of those amazingly charismatic artists," says Edgar from his home in Charlotte, Vt. "I saw her perform for the first time in Holland, and it was incredible, a real Pan-African aesthetic not pegged to one particular tradition or culture. Her husband is an amazing story, too. Colin grew up in rural northern France and fell in love with African music. He showed up at her village with a guitar on his back and spent several years studying various styles. When I decided to start my label, she was one of the first artists I set out to sign."
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