Music runs in Dobet Gnahoré’s family.
Her father, Boni, was a famous Ivorian percussionist, who played gigs across West Africa throughout the 1980s and 1990s. One of his greatest achievements though was co-founding Ki-Yi M’Bock, a music ‘village’ in Abidjan. Ki-Yi M’Bock seeks to provide a launch-pad for African musicians and artists from the Ivory Coast and its neighbors – and has incubated over a thousand young creators to date. Proximity to, and involvement with this artistic village meant that Dobet was exposed to a dazzling mix of voices from a very young age.
It makes sense then that Dobet Gnahore’s own music demonstrates an exhilarating pan-African cosmopolitanism. If her debut album, Ano Neko (2004), crisscrossed Ivorian dialects and melodies with Ghanaian highlife instrumentation, her more recent work traverses the entire continent, borne from frequent touring across sub-Saharan Africa. In her latest release, Miziki (2017), Gnahoré cycles through genre as diverse as Zimbabwean chimurenga blues and Congolese rumba, counter-pointed with intricate guitar riffs and intelligent vocal harmonies. Gnahoré draws on a range of percussion types in her songwriting too, but her arrangements are emphatically focused on melody. ‘Djoli’ is particularly sumptuous songwriting, the highlight being its buoyant chorus that demonstrates Gnahore’s sonorous alto vocals at their best.
Gnahoré matured her sound in Marseille, having fled to France from civil war in the Ivory Coast in 1999. And indeed, the vibrant diaspora in the Marseillaise arrondissements served as fertile ground for her to meet and work with a range of instrumentalists from North Africa and Europe. However, one of her most noteworthy collaborations came through transatlantic communication. In 2010, Gnahoré worked with American R&B singer India. Arie on a cover of ‘Pearls’ by Sade, which would go on to secure a Grammy for Best Urban / Alternative Performance. This was a momentous achievement for both Gnahoré and her country – as she became the first Ivorian to win the award.
It’s hard not to get excited about Dobet Gnahoré. Her technical ability, linguistic versatility, and natural talent combine in her exuberant live performances. She is an undisputed virtuoso, who surrounds herself with similarly talented musicians in her backing band, Na Afriki. Armed with a dizzyingly diverse discography, Gnahore is committed to the continuous development of her sound. Look forward to its latest iteration at WOMAD.
Words by Matthew Hacke
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