Dobet Gnahoré: Na Afriki

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.

Dobet Gnahoré

Na Afriki

Label: Cumbancha
US Release Date: 2007-06-26
UK Release Date: 2007-01-05

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.