by Rachel Swan
There's an incredible mystique surrounding Ivory-Coast singer Dobet Gnahoré, whose oft-repeated biography always begins at the best part, when she dropped out of school at age 12 and began her self-education as a musician. Apparently it was a wise decision: she fell in love with a French backpacker, resettled in France to raise a family, and became the brightest emerging popular musician in Africa. Gnahoré descended on Oakland Yoshi's Thursday for a one-shot-deal, to promote her sophomore album, Na Afriki. If you caught it, consider yourself lucky enough to have witnessed one of the best young singers in the world. (Yeah, I said it. The world.). If you missed it, let's just hope Yoshi's brings her back next year.
Tall and svelte, with Africa continent earrings, electrifying face paint, and well-sculpted biceps, Gnahoré cuts a striking figure. She looked statuesque, taking the stage at Yoshi's with a small but powerful band, featuring French guitarist Colin Laroche de Feline, Tunesian bassist Nabil Mehrezi (who also sang, in a vibrato, ululating style similar to Gnahoré), and phenomenal Togolese drummer Boris Tchango . Each is a consummate musician in his own right. Tchango played a crazily tricked-out trap set that included conga, snare, a clave that he hit with his left foot, a large dome-shaped instrument that looked like a hand-painted tortoise shell (he hit it with brushes), and cymbols he beat with the palms of his hands. At one point he and Gnahoré played a complex West African polyrhythm in tandem. She was sitting far away at stage right, rapping on a gourd; he was playing a whole battery of drums at one time.
And no mere Afrobeat, this. The set was a phenomenal mix of melodic guitar tunes with loose percussion, and subtle harmonies, sung in French and various African dialects (a veritable polyglot, Gnahoré speaks or at least dabbles in roughly a dozen languages; Na Afriki includes no less than seven). Laroche de Feline switched from world-beatish vamping to a distorted wah-wah funk that sounded a lot like the Meters. Tchango's complex rhythms opened endless possibilities for his fellow instrumentalists. He might have been show's main star, had Gnahoré not been such an arresting performer. Seemingly indefatigable, she would sing a chorus and then dance through an extended breakdown and this woman could dance. She would begin with a limber full-body shuffle, dart around the stage, crouch dramatically, leap in the air, grab her toes, and land in a freeze-framed, combat-ready pose as though she were sparring some imaginary opponent in a B-Girl or martial arts battle.
Yet, the best part of the show was Gnahoré's vocals. She sings in a lush, reverberating vibrato that must come from the back of her throat, and spans several octaves. She could shift adeptly from a jeremiad to a bruising lament. "My English is bad," she said early in the set. "Parle vous francais? Oui? You are ready to sing together, yeah?" Then she attempted to lead the audience in a call-and-response that showed just how impossible it is to replicate her singing. Ghanoré is just raw talent: She can intonate high notes in a style that's half-coloratura soprano, half-howl, but she always stays on key. When audience members tried to imitate it, their slovenly vocals made the star flinch.
Gnahoré sang several songs in French, and the lyrics, roughly translated, sounded fierce (I'm tired of being suspended between life and death.), brooding (The dead are not dead, they are in our thoughts, in our dreams), and vulnerable (Momma, why war?). Despite the tenor of these statements, most of the songs sounded pretty upbeat, with funky break-downs and grooves that inspired Gnahoré's amazing dance moves. But she was also poignant when the occasion called. Gnahoré sang the Why war? lyric as an extended, quivering wail that could have broken apart at any second. It sounded like she was on the verge of tears.
Dobet Gnahoré singing "Djigenue":