Douglas Heselgrave's #10 album for 2007
First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2007, Volume 14, #9
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Fri September 14, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT
Na Afriki is the second full-length album released by Dobet Gnahore, the astounding singer and performer from Africa’s Cote D’Ivoire, and it must be heard to be believed. Though she is only 25-years-old, Gnahore is blessed with one of the most powerful and expressive voices in Africa, if not the whole planet. The vocal skill and mastery she demonstrates throughout the disc’s 15 tracks make one wonder if she is, indeed, of this world or if she is not, instead, a lost traveler from some distant, celestial realm. Surely no human being could possess a voice that is so supple and pure. Listening to Na Afriki is enough to make a person believe in angels.
Born into an artistic family, Gnahore has been studying music and performance full-time for over half of her life. Her father Boni Gnahore is a master drummer, singer, and actor, who is well respected in his homeland. The elder Gnahore was an original member of a legendary artist colony called Village Ki-Yi M’Bock that was established in Abidjan, the capital city of the war-torn Ivory Coast. This colony or "village" was created as a safe and supportive environment for artists who wanted to collaborate and create. More than 50 residents of diverse traditions, ages, and nationalities live there, and they practice dance, theater, puppetry, sculpture, visual art, and music in an effort to develop and preserve the continent’s art forms.
At the age of 12, Gnahore dropped out of school, convinced that she wanted to devote her life to exploring music, dance, and theater. She might have stayed in Village Ki-Yi M’Bock, if she hadn’t met Colin Laroche de Feline, a young French guitarist who visited the colony in 1996. The pair fell in love and married before moving to France together so that they could raise their young child in an atmosphere that was removed from the violence and war that has plagued much of Africa during recent decades.
While still in Cote D’Ivoire, Gnahore and Laroche de Feline formed a duet called Ano Neko, which means "create together" in the local Dida language. Upon moving to France, the pair formed a band, which was taken under the wing of Contre-Jour, an influential world music agency that has helped a number of fledgling acts from the Third World develop their careers. The group began touring Europe and playing festivals where Gnahore’s hypnotic voice and powerful, theatrical performances began to attract attention. In 2006, she was nominated as the best new artist in world music by the BBC, and Ano Neko began to receive favorable notices worldwide. Last Fall, she first played in North America as part of the Putumayo Acoustic Africa tour. Though she was ostensibly on the bill to support South Africa’s Vusi Mahlasela and Mali’s Habib Koite, both of whom are icons of African music, she astounded audiences everywhere, often stealing the show away from more established performers.
Essentially an acoustic album, Na Afriki is very approachable. Even for those whose ears and personal aesthetics have been shaped by western music, it is remarkably listener-friendly. Aside from the indescribable beauty of Gnahore’s voice — imagine the love child of Sam Cooke and a young Aretha Franklin singing African madrigals — the songs’ musical accompaniments are absolutely lovely. A mixture of African and European musicians, her band never misses a step. The ensemble supports her voice as it gorgeously ululates and journeys through a wide array of stylistic expressions. Tasteful acoustic guitar and sympathetic percussion carry the melodies that she offers from the deepest places within herself, and the result is music that truly is of unrivaled beauty.
In short, Na Afriki is an immediately likeable album. Listeners do not need an extensive background in African music, and an understanding of French — or any of the other languages that Gnahore sings — is not necessary for falling under the spell of this seductive set of songs. In the past, iconic composers and performers such as Fela Kuti recorded some of their most accomplished works under conditions that made the beauty and complexity of their music difficult to appreciate. Fortunately, the increasing popularity of world music has meant that fans no longer have to satisfy themselves with poor sounding, muddily mixed albums that were created in primitive studios. Like all of the releases by the Cumbancha label, Na Afriki is flawlessly recorded and beautifully packaged, and included in the attractive booklet that accompanies the endeavor are English-language translations of the lyrics. It is hard to imagine anyone resisting the sway of these intoxicating and powerful tunes. Dobet Gnahore is an important new voice as well as an artist to watch. Not only is Na Afriki one of the best albums of the year, but it also is destined to become a classic.
Of Further Interest...
Na Afriki is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box