After the innovations of Wátina and The Idan Raichel Project, it’s disappointing to discover that Cumbancha’s latest release is an album that asks to be tossed in the “Africans With Nice Voices Singing Nice Songs” drawer. It’s safe; the audience for it has already been buttered into existence by other women like Angélique Kidjo, and men like Habib Koité. It’s acoustic-sounding and comes with a modern folk-pop sensibility attached. When I asked my pet layman what it reminded him of, he said, “Tracy Chapman,” and explained that it was because Gnahoré sounds folksy. Well, I suppose that’s not such a bad thing.
Dobet Gnahoré was born in Côte d’Ivoire, where her family has connections to the Ki-Yi M’Bock Village, an artists’ community in Abidjan, the Ivorian capital. In 1999, she left the country with her partner, a French guitarist named Colin Laroche de Feline. The couple moved to France. “More stable and less dangerous” than Abidjan, explains Na Afriki‘s press kit. Côte d’Ivoire’s first post-independence leader had died some years before they decided to leave, and Ivorian society was becoming increasingly divided under his successor. In the year of Gnahoré and de Feline’s migration, the new president was deposed by a military coup. In 2004, nine French peacekeeping soldiers were killed by a government airstrike, and France retaliated by destroying the majority of the Ivorian airforce. Inhabitants of Abidjan rioted against the French.
Against this distant backdrop, Dobet Gnahoré sings kindly, happily. The press kit points out that she uses several different languages “and incorporates a variety of rhythms and styles into her music,” but she’s an interpreter, not a ventriloquist. The version of soukous she invents for “Ma Poô” is sweetly melodic where other soukous—say, Kanda Bongo Man’s soukous—has a glittery zap. When she makes those soukous exclamations—the ones that call for the dancers to strike an attitude and hold it for half a second—she rounds them out like plasticine, she doesn’t command us to stop.
The press kit lists Xhosa as one of the languages she uses and “Inyembezi Zam” strikes me as the song that she’s probably using it for—the title alone gives it away as a southern African piece, with that strong ‘bezi’ so different from the ‘ou’ that often appears in transliterations of West African words—but the almost-scatting passages that might be growled or roared in the south have been stroked into softness as they made their way north. Emphatic consonants have been tamed. It sounds French.
The idea of pan-African art appears in several places on the Ki-Yi M’Bock Village website (”village des savoir-faire panafricains,” it reads, ” … les esthetiques dramatiques panafricains pluridisciplinaires …”) and Werewere Liking, the founder of the Village, has commented on the importance of pan-Africanism to her work: “My first motivation is thus the awakening of consciences and desires for constructive action, spanning as broadly as possible in this African continent… I needed audacity to attempt to live out my pan-African ideal in daily life.” With her various languages, “rhythms and styles”, it looks as if Gnahoré has taken Liking’s ideas to heart. Her lyrics are socially engaged. They “address social and political issues… the struggles of women in African society, the exploitation of children, and the impact of greed and violence on the family.” Musically, however, Na Afriki is an idealist’s daydream of an Africa without friction. Here, the Central African pygmies whose distinctive yodel is imitated in “Pygmées” are respected rather than eaten, and Malinké lies down with Bantu like a lamb.
In “Pillage”, a thumb-piano plungs, she has a hitch in her voice, a chorus of women chants softly behind her. In “Loubou”, she sings with a sorrowful croon—something tragic has happened and she can hardly contain her anguish. By “Massacre”, she has brightened up. A fillip of percussion sticks a spur into the song, and a calypso rhythm swings in. “Issa” is sweet and beautiful, soft as a pillow, to a very simple backing: a guitar turning over, a plain drum, and Gnahoré‘s voice sounding roused and noble. “Yekiyi” is peppy, then smooth. In fact, some of the songs are so smooth they vanish into anonymity. “Palea” is one, “Telô dé” is another. “Khabone-n’Daw” seems to be going the same way, then Gnahoré‘s voice shakes with emotion. The sorrow is back again. “Jho Avido” skirts along the edge of squish and avoids it by introducing a backing chorus of chanting men.
It’s the softness that prevents this from being a great album. It verges on the bland: there’s too much of the coffee table in it, too much that you might find the equivalent of somewhere else, on someone else’s release. Still, I have little doubt that Gnahoré is going to be a success. Her voice is very appealing. It seems perverse to ask her to abandon this middle path for the fringes, and yet I’d like to, because it’s when she’s at her most extreme (the super-gentleness of “Issa”, the exaggerated sorrow of “Loubou”) that she has the greatest impact. It’s when she is most particularly her that her pan-Africanism becomes interesting.