Asa’s debut album is built to a small, neat scale, like a breeze, or an easy ride through the country, or a novella, or a cat. There are no spikes, no shrieks, no crashes, no roars, no hard edges, no complications, no explosions of noise at the beginning to drag you in. It asks for your attention through a process of slow insinuation. In fact, the music almost wanders, and that almost is a tribute to the Nigerian singer’s talent for understated songwriting. Her soul-alto rambles along, cracking a little when she raises her voice. An R&B bob bounces in the background. Sometimes a guitar is strummed, or a reggae-gospel keyboard simmers. Everything is so lulling, so easily attractive, that it might as well have gone on like this forever, with no shape besides this ramble and this bounce, or this strum, or this simmer.
Instead, she constrains it, gives it verses and choruses, puts it in a mould, still retaining a feeling of wandering space. She’s not breaking new ground, but she works the ground she has very featly. Most of the lyrics are sung in English, with a few excursions into Yoruba. One commentator on Amazon worries that English-speaking listeners will be put off by the foreign language, but if the universe is playing fair then that shouldn’t happen. The African styles that she uses have all been fed through other countries long before they reached her—reggae, soul, gospel, R&B—so there’s nothing on here that should sound unfamiliar to a non-Nigerian audience except the Yoruban words themselves, and you can get by so well without understanding them that not even the fussiest of monolinguists should come away feeling affronted.
Asa was born in France. Two years later her parents returned to their homeland, Nigeria, where she grew up among three brothers. She was a dreamy child, says her biography, a lonely one, doing domestic chores, often singing to herself, imagining that she had a microphone in her hand and an audience in front of her. Years later she learnt to play the guitar. After embarking on music as a career, she released one single called “Eyé Adaba”, then another titled “Jailer”. Both of those songs are included on this album. ‘Asa’ is the only name her publicity gives her, a stage name that was also a childhood nickname.
As a child, she loved Michael Jackson and Bob Marley, and as an adult she liked Fela Kuti and Angélique Kidjo, but the proportions of her music are closer to the proportions of a Tracy Chapman song, being room-fillers rather than stadium-fillers, with a definite singer-songwriter feel about them. Even the ones without a guitar sound as if they were written by someone who is used to using one when she composes. The tenor of her lyrics is personal, with general messages of social benevolence: war is destructive, her mother is beautiful, God is great, and can lovers be trusted?
Asa is the kind of thing I imagine I’m reading about when I see a reviewer refer to the album they’re reviewing as a “gem.” From a distance the gem looks ordinary, like a little rock, then, as you get closer, you realise that the rock has a gleam to it, an interesting gleam that you hadn’t noticed before because you were standing so far away, and then you come right up to it and see how self-contained and bright that gleam is, how subtly coloured: you’re probably not bowled over or astonished but you appreciate the compactness of it, the way it fits itself so neatly into such a tidy space, you like the rock’s existence and afterwards feel pleased whenever you pass by.
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