We’re so familiar with many of the major African names, from Youssou N’Dour to Thomas Mapfumo, it’s easy to forget that a whole other generation is rapidly coming of age behind them. One of the leading young lights is Dobet Gnahoré from the Ivory Coast whose recent second album, Na Afriki, marks her not so much as a talent to watch, but one who’s already arrived, bearing a masterful slice of Afropop whose influences draw from across the continent.
From an early age, Gnahoré was schooled in music, percussion and dance. “I was taught a lot of different arts and how to express emotions, and that’s helped me a lot,” she recalls. “I’m used to having everything mixed into one—music, dance, singing.” One of her primary teachers was her father, percussionist Boni Gnahoré, who schooled her extensively in the traditions of the Bété people, which you can still hear in her sound. “I was born in a village and grew up in a city,” she says, “so I’ve always been very close to my parents and the people in the village.”
Like her father, she began training and performing in the Ki Yi Mbock company in Abidjan, which offered her grounding and experience onstage, evident today in her highly kinetic live performances and natural command of an audience. Additionally, it helped her pick up a number of African languages she currently sings in seven.
While working with Ki Yi Mbock, she met Colin Laroche de Féline, a French guitarist, and began working as a dancer with the Tché Tché company for a short while. In 1999, as Abidjan was surrounded by the strife of a coup, the couple moved to France. “It was actually purely personal,” Gnahoré insists. “I got pregnant and there were problems, so that’s why we moved to Europe. Then we went back, and now I go back and forth a lot.”
Laroche and Gnahoré began working and writing music together, touring and performing with others for a couple of years until their return to Africa. A 2001 performance at the illustrious MSA festival made people sit up and take notice of her abilities and stagecraft, and the pair began working with producer Marcellin Yacé, who sadly died in 2002. Then, in 2003, Gnahoré’s debut, Ano Neko, was released.
The album drew from the continent’s full range of sounds, pulling together Congolese rumba, pennywhistle jive from South Africa and even Cameroonian bikutsi all into one package, with lyrics that were very relevant to contemporary society. “The texts are from African reality, all over Africa,” observes Gnahoré. “Traditional music is my inspiration, and I tried to translate the environment and emotions that surround it and use it.”
Ano Neko got her noticed at home and abroad, and led to extensive touring, bringing her a nomination as Best Newcomer in the 2006 BBC Radio 3 World Music awards. She didn’t win, but it raised her profi le even higher, leading to more concerts abroad. “It’s been a very fulfi lling experience, getting different elements from everywhere I go and all the people I meet,” says Gnahoré. “It actually helps me when I’m writing material and gives me a lot of inspiration.”
Now, with Na Afriki fresh on the shelves, she’s really ready to break out as one of Africa’s new voices. “It’s more of a back to basics album with less instruments,” she explains. “There are more languages on this album, and it’s more to do with the songs. There are more guests on this new one, too.” Once again, the music was a family affair, with her husband playing guitar, and “my father helped me with a lot of the lyrics, and played on three of the songs.” Although there are traces of soul and even R&B on the disc, Gnahoré argues that, “for me, it’s purely an African album. It’s possible that I listen to soul and R&B, and there’s plenty of it in Africa, I don’t think it’s there, not from American soul, anyway.”
The album’s been out in Europe for a little while, and she’s been pr