Is Bangui Africa’s very own Detroit? Zonzambé puts forward a convincing case…
The last time I was tasked with writing an 'album of the week' for NoiseNomad, I discussed how Leonard Cohen opened my eyes up to the world of lyrically-driven music in his final album You Want It Darker. This was a revelatory experience for me, as I am not used to reaching this level of auditory climax via music that doesn’t rely so much on either incredible vocals or a soulful melody. Cohen’s style took me time to adjust to before I could fully appreciate the depths of his music. This experience, however, was the complete opposite of listening to Laetitia Zonzambé’s heart-warming sophomore album, Sanza Soul.
“...the fact that she transmits the same diva-like quality as Gladys Knight, Diana Ross or Etta James, full of genuinely believable soulful vigour that I had only previously ever heard from American singers who had been popular in the Motown era, was quite a shock.”
If there is one genre of music I could call my field of expertise, it is soul music. I rather arrogantly feel that unlike most genres, a soul album can be assessed accurately often within seconds purely upon impulse. I believe that more so than in any other genre, one can detect whether a soul album is going to have the capacity to blow its audience away for the duration of the album almost instantaneously as top-quality soul music is so reliant on the sincerity of the emotion that is expressed by the artist - its 'soul' so to speak. Any soul album worth its salt, whether it is more upbeat or more sombre, captures this immediately simply through both the opening beats of the music and the authenticity behind the artist’s first vocals. The greatest soul albums that come to my mind, from the likes of the more earnest side of the soul spectrum such as Donny Hathaway’s self-titled album to the slightly more whimsical end of the scale with the Four Tops Second Album, all kick off by setting the standard and revealing the artist’s X-factor within the first few seconds. In the case of Sanza Soul, within a mere 15 seconds of the opening-track Siriri, Zonzambé filled me with confidence that she was going to be the real deal, and she kept that consistency up throughout the entirety of the album.
Of course I knew that nationality is irrelevant in determining whether someone could have a voice as impressive as Gladys Knight, Diana Ross or Etta James; however, I must be honest and say that the fact that she transmits the same diva-like quality as the aforementioned artists, full of genuinely believable soulful vigour that I had only previously ever heard from American singers who had been popular up in the Motown era, was quite a shock. I have heard many soul and neo-soul singers perform whose music I have found pleasant but felt unmoved by as I always suspected they were just replicating or imitating one of the greats, rather than doing as the greats themselves did by conveying their own unique energy and story. Yet, Zonzambé immediately gets across what she is about and incredibly manages to do this without even singing in a language I can understand, as she sings mostly in her home nation’s lingua franca, Sango and tribal languages such as Yakoma.
Whilst some of the best soul albums of all-time, such as Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, receive acclaim for the legitimacy of the emotion behind the lyrics, understanding the meaning of the lyrics themselves of course help to tell a very pertinent and often political story within the genre. With my interest in all things global, I have been known to go to record shops in non-Anglophone countries and request to find soul music from that nation, in the hope of finding proof that powerful soul music that can move me without understanding the lyrics, much like bossa nova, devotional music, or foreign rock can. On the occasions I have asked, I am usually met with ‘that doesn’t exist’ or being presented with an often bizarre experimental fusion of styles, for example the vinyl, Gitano Soul, by El Luis I was once shown and then pestered to buy in a record shop in Madrid, as I may have been the only person in history to show curiosity in this weird album. Until I was recommended Zonzambé’s album, I had completely given up hope that it would be possible to find what I was looking for.
Whilst numerous comparisons can be drawn between Zonzambé’s music and Motown, it maintains a fine balance between American influences and its Central African roots. Even the naming of the album gets this intention across as a 'sanza' is a traditional African loincloth made of different pieces of coloured fabrics. The percussive rhythms in Ta Gni, Sanza and Dodo are like those one might hear in a typical afrobeat album, yet her soulful vocals elevate it to something different. For me though, I think Zonzambé is at her best when she veers to the more overtly soulful side on a musical level, perhaps best demonstrated in her cover of Otis Redding’s Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song) in Fafa.
Zonzambé’s music gets across a perfect balance between immense pain and optimism. Songs such as Siriri, Fuku Ti De and Wali that reek with the stench of optimism are in stark contrast to the sorrowful nature of tracks like Ye Ti Vundu, Kai To and Mbi Nze. However, given the recent history of her homeland that is only natural. At the time of release the sectarian violence that had arisen between Christian militias, the anti-balaka, and Muslim rebel groups, the Seleka, had only come to a close just the year before. Whilst the peace that had been found was of course a source of hope, the hangover from the civil war that Zonzambé and her fellow Central Africans were suffering from was of course was understandably still so raw. She seems to honour the incongruence of those two emotions masterfully in the record.
Resource-rich, the Central African Republic is sitting on a literal diamond and gold mine yet it remains one of the poorest countries in the world due to periodic legislative failures and societal in-fighting. One could perhaps argue that this is where Zonzambé gets her authentic soulful voice from, in much the same way as many soul legends from Detroit used the frustration and hope of a city with vastly unfulfilled potential as inspiration for their work. However, rather gloomily, one might suggest that music celebrating the potential of the Central African Republic might not change its fate. Since Martha Reeves and The Vandellas release of Dancing In The Street, in which she proudly proclaims ‘can't forget the Motor City’, Detroit has depopulated like nowhere else in the rust belt, and has gone on a stark decline due to poverty, job loss and racial tension, despite its immense potential to be a powerhouse in the States. One can only hope that Siriri, an upbeat call for peace addressed to her nation, does not contain the same false prophecy.