Story and photos by guest writer Samuel Bresenden
Last Saturday night in Los Angeles provided the rare opportunity to experience the shining star that is Dobet Gnahoré, an extraordinary artist from the Ivory Coast in West Africa. Dobet is a gifted singer, dancer, and multi-instrumentalist. Along with her band Na Afriki (‘To Afrika’), Dobet delivered a fascinating performance in a very intimate venue at Cal State LA’s Luckman Fine Arts Complex.
The concert was presented in a smaller stage, which may have seemed less deserving than the main large theater. While that did not appear to reflect the talent of the artist, nor the publicity she deserved, it certainly proved to be a benefit to the discerning music aficionados who filled the hall. It gave the chance for the audience to see, hear, and feel Dobet’s music and commanding stage presence very up close and personal, in a way that might not have been the same in the larger theatre.
The night started with the stage in near darkness, drummer Mike Dibo walked in first, sat down at his drum set, opened with a ‘talking drum’ like solo, then eased into a soft rhythm that welcomed Dobet to the stage. She picked up her Mbira, (a traditional thumb piano instrument from Zimbabwe), launched into a swaying, soulful melody that interlocked with the drums patterns, and was joined seamlessly by guitarist Julien Pestre and bassist Valéry Assouan.
Then her voice came in…deep and mesmerizing, soulful and sweet, confident and commanding, soaring at times…like a mélange of Miriam Makeba and Anjelique Kidjo. Yes, she deserves to be in the company of these powerful African women! Just tugging on your heart strings. and this was only the first song. As she brought her song to a close, while the crowd applauded and cheered, Dobet talked, with a sincerity that was palpable. “Thank you everybody, How are you tonight? I am so happy to be here. I come from Ivory Coast, I live in France, but I am SO happy to BE HERE today, thank you so much!”
Dobet continued with ‘Na Drê’, “a song about an impossible romance”, which is also the title of her 2014 album. She started singing sitting on a stool, and after she sang her first verse, she got up and danced while the guitarist played a solo. It was as evocative as her singing, arms and hips swaying rhythmically to the music, and by the time it came for her to sing her next verse, it was evident that she is as talented as a dancer as she is a singer.
Then, she sang ‘Afrika’, her love song to the continent, her voice soaring above the guitar, bass and drums, but in a perfect harmony of musical elements. Next was a song in tribute to grandmothers all over the world, which was upbeat, lively, and Dobet played a tambourine while she sung. She sang ‘Deka’, dedicated to her fans all over the world, which was funky, bubbling, and in the pocket of a guitar solo, she kicked her shoes off, and soloed herself by dancing, with rapid, intricate footwork.
The next song Dobet introduced by saying “I’m so tired of corrupt politicians, who keep people poor, while they enrich themselves”. She marked the music with a pair of maracas, accentuating the drum patterns and directing the movement of the song with her hands. In a musical pocket in the song, she took off her suit jacket, freeing herself to dance again, this time fast and furious, acrobatic but precise, peppered with high kicks, but with poise and grace. She made it look effortless. While the guitar and bass jammed together, she walked up to a pair of congas and joined the drummer seamlessly, adding rhythmic accents to his drumming, her toned and fit arms gleaming in the spotlight, striking the skins and making them talk; it was a display of yet another musical talent, and her sheer athleticism.
Next she sang ‘Samahani’ in Swahili, in which she played Mbira again to accompany her voice. That was followed by ‘Zina’, “dedicated to all battered women who suffer in silence”. Here she sang in English and French, and she picked up the electric guitar, which she played for most of the rest of the show. Dobet then dedicated a song to her father, “who gave me my education, & love, and my art…singing, dancing…Papa, for you…”
Her father Boni Gnahore is a respected master drummer, singer, actor and the founding member of an unusual village: the artist colony “Ki-Yi M’Bock” in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. This is where young Dobet grew up. At 12 years old, she declared that she would stop school and devote her life to music, and did exactly that. She spent the following years in the village with artists from all over Africa and learned their dances, songs and music.
“Life is Beautiful” said Dobet, as she explained her next song. “I want a world full of love, sharing, compassion, a union between people. That is my dream!” And so she launched into ‘Jolie’, an energetic song, which blended into ‘Cote D’Ivore’, a song for her country of Ivory Coast. She opened with vocalized percussion sounds, and danced her way through out, in a style that looked like a mix of West African dance and other western styles. As she looked off to the side of the stage where a small crowd was dancing, she called out someone to join her on stage, who turned out to be my friend Wamuhu Wameru!
Then she invited the audience to sing along, joining her in the chorus. “Maybe you want to dance for me?” said Dobet. The audience poured out of their seats, many on to the stage, like a party that couldn’t contain itself. Dobet closed with an exclamation – “Wow, I’m feeling good now! I’m going to sleep good tonight!” Then she said “This is the last song. It says, Look at me, my love (again, and again)….I want to dance for you. and move, and dance… it’s the same, no?…You are my mirror.” And as the music kicked in, she added yet another percussion instrument that she played while she sang, and then danced her heart out, an energetic flurry of arms and kicks, followed by another conga solo. As the song came to a close, she thanked the musicians and staff and audience, and the crowd replied with a standing ovation that lasted for several minutes.
This brought Dobet back out again for an encore. “Life is beautiful” she repeated as she returned, and the crowd definitely agreed. She gave us another song dedicated to her grandmother, which was as lively and inspirational as her grandmother must have been. The music resonated through the movements in her body, her dancing, and back to playing the congas. And then she closed out the night with a gorgeous rendition of ‘Palea’, a ballad that showcased her amazing voice, accompanied by a soft guitar, and the drummer on congas. It was beautiful, mesmerizing, and haunting all at once.
As Dobet finished, put her mic down, and bowed, the mood in the room was unanimous. The audience was transfixed, spellbound, in awe. Adoring even, like we had been in the presence of royalty, a true African Queen. Dobet Gnahore – don’t forget this name. And don’t miss the chance to see her perform, or listen to her music; you’ll be glad you did!
Samuel Bresenden is a writer, photographer, and videographer based in Los Angeles. He covers music, dance, arts & culture. Links to his work can be found at facebook.com/doctorsez.