The first time I heard African popular music was back in the early 1980s when Peter Gabriel put out the first World Of Music And Dance (WOMAD) album. It was a double album featuring mainstream musicians like Talking Heads, Madness, The English Beat, and Gabriel himself, who all displayed world influences in their music. In the case of all those groups this meant Africa.
Each of the above groups had prepared a special re-mix of a song to represent them on the albums emphasizing the rhythm. In those days that didn’t mean just turning up the bass in the mix; they actually recorded extra tracks, or even redid the song in some cases to focus on the percussion and to release some of the tension from the beat that normally propelled the tune.
The overall sound of the song changed into some sort of weird hybrid of hyper urban-based music and relaxed rural African beats. Although it was rather odd sounding, especially compared to what these bands normally sounded like, it made a lot more sense when the first track from an African group was played. King Sunny Ade was a revelation with his guitar-dominated sound that was wonderfully infused with the rhythms of what seemed a virtual army of percussionists.
There was something so totally infectious about the music that it was probably the first time most understood that hips did more than just connect your legs to the rest of your body. From that time onward I’ve always associated African music with that call it exerts on your body to get on your feet and dance. No other musicians from any country, no matter what their nationality, (not even the best Reggae performers) seem to have mastered the seemingly effortless way the music flows in a river of sound.
Nearly thirty years and a generation later it was the first thing I noticed about Na Afriki, the newest release by Dobet Gnahoré on the Cumbancha label, the river has new pilots and captains who, while still sailing the same waters, have started to chart new territories. Of course I still can’t imagine listening to this music and not being compelled to move. While I was just sitting and listening to my player I was unconsciously moving my head and shoulders in time with the music. In fact, sitting here typing this is enough to bring back sufficient memory of the music to compel me to repeat those movements and to hear the rhythm in the sound of my keyboard typing.
But Dobet Gnahoré is doing so much more with her music than just giving us a means to unlock our pelvises. Since the age of twelve, when she convinced her father that her real schooling was to be found at home in the artist’s colony he lived in, she has immersed herself in the culture of Africa. Music, dance, and theatre have all been studied and incorporated and it shows in her broadened sensitivities to what can be accomplished with music.
In the traditional world of male, African storytelling singers, who know the histories of people and communities and are able to compose songs about them as required, there was little place for a woman to find inspiration. Dobet took as her example the woman who formed the artistic collective she grew up in. Wérewére Liking of the Cameroon teaches her charges to be cultural entrepreneurs who fan out across the globe carrying the heart of Africa with them
On Na Afriki (To Africa) Dobet sings in eight different languages or dialects representing countries from the extreme North, Egypt, to the Southern most tip, South Africa. She is truly pan-African not just in her choice of language but her subject matter. Along with her husband and musical collaborator, Colin Laroche de Féline, she has composed fifteen tracks that examine all aspects of contemporary African life.
A voice that is full of passion is hard to ignore no matter whether you understand the language that it’s singing in or not. Dobet Gnahoré’s voice is strong with the power of her belief in herself and the people of Africa. This is not the strident voice of politics, although politics are part of the mix, shouting hate and anger. Nor is it the naïve voice of a child singing about some never-never land of universal love and peace.
She is the voice of compassion for ears that have never heard anything but disdain and abuse and she is the sound of pride for people who have been bowed down by the indignity of poverty and bleak futures. She gives voice to the anger of people who have for too long seen their countries pillaged by the first opportunist who comes along and sees a way of milking them even drier. But most of all she is a voice of hope to spirits who have suffered drought as surely as the land.
She points her finger at the false Gods of money and commerce that have been raised at the expense of humanity, and rips back the veil on taboo subjects like incest. In a voice filled with anguish and so much pain you don’t want to listen she mourns all those who have departed, and remembers those who have been massacred by calling for a war without weapons. Evoking memories of Martin Luther King jr. she sings about the road to freedom and a rebellion of the black man without weapons because too many people have died already.
Obviously without the translations of the lyrics in the booklet enclosed with the CD I wouldn’t have been able to tell you the exact details of her song’s contents. So how much does a person who doesn’t speak the language of the song get out of the experience if they don’t sit with the lyrics in front of them? The combination of music and her ability to express emotion with her voice, no matter what the language, is sufficient to communicate the primary feeling behind the lyrics of a song to an audience.
Na Afriki by Dobet Gnahoré breaks new ground for African popular music as for the first time an artist reaches beyond the borders of her own country to speak directly to the rest of the continent. Bob Marley might have sung about Africa uniting, but Dobet sings to the Africa that will unite. With her in the vanguard that doesn’t seem quite as impossible as it used to.