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- Posted on Sep 25th 2007 1:00PM by Steve Hochman
"You see a show like that, and you wonder how Britney Spears can be famous," quipped a friend's wise-beyond-her-years 15-year-old daughter after seeing Gnahoré in Chicago recently.
Sooooo ... when should we look for her to be receiving some big MTV award? That may take a while. Gnahoré doesn't exactly fit the profile. She's from the Côte D'Ivoire in West Africa and barely speaks -- let alone sings in -- English, her music drawing heavily on African roots -- not exactly mainstream stuff. She did, though, win a meaningful award, namely BBC Radio's World Music Newcomer of 2006. And talk of her as a rising star is not off base. Maybe she's not the next Mariah Carey (the one will suffice, thanks), but she certainly seems primed to have the kind of reach Benin-born star Angelique Kidjo has achieved. Gnahoré is without question an artist with the goods, a figure who could "go for it," if she chooses.
But watching the show inspires a simple request: Don't go for it. Nothing against Kidjo, who is a wonder, but her crossover moves, such as her version of Jimi Hendrix's 'Voodoo Chile,' good as they are, come off as gimmicks. That's not to say Gnahoré needs to stay true to some kind of "purity." It's not folk music here. The Marseilles-based singer does very modern music, co-written with her French guitarist and longtime collaborator, Colin Laroche de Féline, and at times co-sung with her Tunisian bassist, Nabil Mehrezi. And she didn't come fresh out of a rural village but rather was nurtured in an artists' enclave called Ki-Yi Mbock in which her percussionist father (who also performs with her) has been a mainstay, embracing a pan-African outlook. She's only broadened her horizons since, singing in a variety of languages and tackling subject matters that while pertinent to Africa, reach far beyond that continent. Conscious crossover attempts would only dilute that, lessening her potential impact, not broadening it.
"It was dollars, it was money, it was l'argent," she said in broken English, introducing one song at the Temple Bar, spotlighting her gentler but still-quite-dynamic new 'Na Afriki' album. "Money destroying men." Imagine Britney proclaiming that -- even in regards to her fight with K-Fed.
A little later, Gnahoré asked the Santa Monica audience, "Are you OK?" and said with a sigh, "I'm tired." After a dramatic pause, she elaborated: "I'm tired of the politic [sic] in Africa. I'm tired of the politic in the world."
Then, picking up an electrified kalimba, giving the music at once more African and more arty textures, she sang a fiery, stern song that conveyed her frustrations with current global situations. And when done singing, she capped off it and the performance with a frantic coda during which she whirled, leaped and quivered in cathartic fury to close the show -- her mud-cloth turban shaking nearly loose, her stylized tribal makeup taking on a quality at once local to her birthplace and fully global.
Never mind Kidjo, let alone Timberlake, Carey and Spears. Dobet Gnahoré offers threats aplenty -- and even more treats.