DOBET GNAHORÉ / “Dobet Gnahoré Mixtape”

I wish I wasn’t so internationally illiterate. Like most United Statesians I barely speak one language. Even though I’m from New Orleans, even French is foreign to me, notwithstanding that remnants of creolized French are all around me. We often consider ourselves the first world but it’s an arrogant assumption based on hegemonic power and military might rather than any real ability or willingness to communicate with and connect the world.

And don’t even start talking about Africa where most people speak at least two or three languages: their mother tongue, their neighbor’s language or the trade language of their area, and, depending on their access to education, anywhere from smatterings to full out articulation of a colonial language.
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All of which is to introduce Dobet Gnahoré from the Ivory Coast. I’ve been checking out her music for years. With the release of her third album, I thought it was time to feature her on BoL.

I should like to speak frankly about the difficulties. On my end, I don’t understand any of the languages she sings and thus I miss the social content of all her songs. It’s one thing to read summaries and rough translations, and quite another to understand the lyrics.
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There is also a problem for Dobet who wants to communicate with the world outside of Ivory Coast. Inevitably even if it’s only getting translators, she ends up expending a lot of energy to be understood by others. Undoubtedly this desire to be understood influences artists like Dobet to shape their music so that it is accessible to outsiders, which is not necessarily bad if that’s what one wants to do. And make no mistake, this is not a tongue-in-cheek reference to singing for white consumers. Africa is so diverse that unless one uses a colonial language the problem of being understood exists from country to country, people to people.

Indeed, when one sings in an African language one has reductively reduced the reach of the music as far as appreciating the lyrics. Is it not an ultimate irony that Dobet shares the 2010 Best Urban/Alternative Performance Grammy with India Aire for their version of “Pearls,” which is a cover of a Sade song? What do you think the industry wants to hear next from Dobet?
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I think, however, that Dobet is on a different wavelength. Her music is full of indigenous references, techniques and instruments. Her themes are socially relevant. But to make it on the international scene takes more and generally part of that “more” is shaping your music so that foreign ears can hear it.

I remember when I first heard Dobet there was a contradiction I didn’t initially resolve. Her album sounded very accessible but write-ups about her concerts described a “high energy” performer who drummed and danced vigorously. And then I saw video clips of Dobet in action. A lot of the energy doesn’t get transferred.
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Although women drumming is no longer a rarity in Africa, it’s still far from the norm. Dobet is a vigorous drummer. She doesn’t just do percussive touches and shakers and stuff, sister lady flat out brings the noise. You wouldn’t know that from listening to the record, not because there are no drums on the record but because you don’t see her playing the drums.
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Also some of her dance moves could earn her spot with Alvin Ailey or any other contemporary dance company. Again, she is not just stomping to the beat, we’re talking about full out leaps and choreographed steps. And once again, you don’t get that on the record.
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Add to all of the above the major issue any young artist must face: how to develop one’s individual identity within a field of music that is crowded with hundreds of others who sound similar.

In Dobet’s case what I like most about her music is the shape of her songs. It’s deeper than establish a groove and go with the flow. The songs are crafted and structured. Hers is not what we used to call “needle-drop instant party.” Yes, you certainly can party to this music but the effort seems to me to be on communicating, on making a statement, which brings me to where I came in.

I know because of my disabilities I’m not getting the full effect but I do affirm that what I am getting is mighty satisfying. Moreover, I really, really want to encourage Dobet and also encourage more artists to create music reflective of their experiences even as I understand these experiences must be transferred across languages.
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Give Dobet an extended listen. Our future and Africa’s future can only be fulfilled if we reach out to each other.

—Kalamu ya Salaam

Dobet Gnahoré Mixtape Playlist

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Ano Neko (2004)
01 “Intro Pygmé”
02 “Youne”
03 “Warabo”
04 “Nan”
05 “Mindilé”
06 “Intro Flute”
07 “Bété Djili”
08 “Amonbolo + hidden track”

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Na Afriki (2007)
09 “Dala”
10 “Inyembezi Zam”
11 “Issa”
12 “Khabone N'daw”
13 “Loubou”
14 “Mousso Tilou”
15 “Pygmees”
16 “Yekiyi”

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Djekpa La You (2010) - not yet available in the United States
17 “Boudou”
18 “Kokpa”
19 “Cote D'lvoire”
20 “Mouziguie”
21 “Wigue”
22 “Evigne”
23 “Nko”
24 “Chilouva”

This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 30th, 2010 at 12:34 am and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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