IVORY COAST: Djekpa La You - Dobet Gnahoré
An unorthodox musical education and a fiery natural talent make for an album that mixes a wide range of African styles within a modern sensibility
When thinking about what to write for this review, I kept thinking back to a question I have asked myself several times. What makes an album good enough to occupy the album of the week spot? In some ways, it’s an unanswerable question. Very often, we kind of just know when we hear it. Maybe it’s fabulously inventive and catchy on a music level, like last week’s album of the week, Clics Modernos, by mercurial Argentinian rock star Charly García, or maybe it’s a vehicle for a truly showstopping vocal talent, like we have seen on Gurrumul’s self-titled debut, Cesária Évora’s Miss Perfumado, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Michael Brook’s collaboration on Mustt Mustt. However, that’s not always the case. Sometimes an album of the week is elusive, like a will-o’-the-wisp, and either Danny and I don’t realise why an album should be album of the week until its too late (apologies, Rachid Taha, Aziza Brahim, Khaled, and Ramy Essam, among others), and sometimes, you just can’t elaborate why or pinpoint what makes it great for a good while. That’s how I felt about Djekpa La You by Ivorian singer and musician Dobet Gnahoré. While it is undeniably a strong album with many excellent songs, Danny was always somewhat puzzled (in a good way) as to why I liked this so much, and I could never give him a satisfactory answer. Well, after several extra listens, I think I know.
“The album has a fascinating energy to it, where it has a relaxed atmosphere with a quasi-improvisational feel and the songs feel free to go from one musical idea to another within a defined structure.”
Gnahoré was born into a musical environment. Her father is the noted Ivorian percussionist Boni Gnahoré, a co-founder of the Ki-Yi Mbock artistic collective based in Abidjan that encourages participation in tactile arts and performing arts, and it was in those idiosyncratic creative surroundings where the young Dobet was raised. In her interview with the Cumbancha label founder Jacob Edgar, for the World Music Institute, she described an almost military experience living in this collective where they would sometimes wake up at the crack of dawn and go running in the mountains with her cohort, djembes strapped to their backs, singing as they went. Nonetheless, she views it as a deeply beneficial experience not only because it taught her how to play and set up a stage, but also it gave her the work ethic and confidence to perform. It also inspired her pan-Africanism, an influence which is felt throughout this album. Having had to move to France due to the Ivorian civil war, she further honed her craft in France under the tutelage of Congolese musician and songwriter Ray Lema, whom she credited as teaching her the basics of music composition and how to construct a song.
It is therefore hardly a surprise that Gnahoré would then go on to pursue a career in music, and it is that confidence and skill that she was picking up from an early age that makes the album shine for me. The album is brimming with an easy self-assuredness and infectious energy that makes listening to it an absolute breeze. The album takes from many different styles from across Africa and beyond, for example soukous on Evigne, Malian blues on Nfletoun, and the East African kalimba shows up on Samahani, but Gnahoré has enough skill as a musician to fully form it into a sound that is her own. It is not simply a trip around the musical genres of Africa, rather it is Gnahoré assimilating all those influences and styles she has been exposed to, and repurposing it as her own. By taking on the skills picked up from Ki-Yi Mbock, by centring performance and tradition, as well as Lema’s pop song-writing skills, the album has a fascinating energy to it, where it has a relaxed atmosphere with a quasi-improvisational feel and the songs feel free to go from one musical idea to another within a defined structure.
One of the hidden gems of this album is the appearance of South African legend Vusi Mahlasela on the track Kokpa. He is known as 'The Voice' in his homeland, and for very good reason. His voice is unique in its timbre with its almost harsh strength and naturally high pitch, it is extremely evocative and a perfect foil for Gnahoré’s more honeyed and calm vocals. Their vocal interplay is a gorgeous highlight of an album that features many interesting and enjoyable vocalisations, and as such remains a glorious highpoint on the album. Gnahoré is very capable of holding her own, however, and her solo vocal performance on the aforementioned Samahani is brimming with power and emotion. Songs like Wigue and Salde are a nod to not only her roots in a pan-African artistic collective (the eagle-eared among you might have noticed the pygmy flute popping up on Salde, perhaps in a nod to the Cameroonian electro pioneer Francis Bebey), but they also hark back to her roots performing traditional music. One can easily imagine Gnahoré performing those songs live on stage as part of an ensemble. Overall, one gets the sense that Gnahoré was freely expressing herself and her creativity in the way that made most sense to her.
Djekpa La You is certainly one of those albums that is a consistent whole piece of music rather than a selection of several great high points. I would have a harder time picking a best song were it not for the esteemed Mr Mahlasela, though regardless there are still some stand-out songs on the album. However, that may be missing the wood for the trees. Rather, what I love the most here is the vibe, that relaxed feeling the album gives me when I listen to it. I enjoy her voice, the collaborations, the wide range of genres, but more than that, there is a consummate professionalism in the creation of the music that allows it to be so tightly constructed but still sound so loose and vibrant, and that is why I think it resonated with me so much. There’s talent on show, sure. But plenty of people are talented. What Gnahoré shares with the rest of the greats is that little spark of ingenuity.