Interview of Ivorian songstress Dobet Gnahore in San Francisco bay area.
Her first U.S.visit in northern California. Interview conducted in the town of Saratoga in the silicon valley where she was performing with South Africa’s Vusi Mahlasela and Malian artist Habib Koite. Acoustic Africa Summer of 2009
Dobet welcome to San Francisco.
Dobet. Thank you it is an honor to be here
Is it your first time here in the U.S.?
Dobet. Yes it is my first time in the U.S.
How is it going?
Dobet. It is going very well, we had our first concert with the 3 artists (Vusi Mahlasela,Habib Koite and me) yesterday in a big hall at the university of Berkeley it was good, it was super good. We had already played in another big city, it was good also. It has been many days since we’ve been touring, it is the 6h day now.
Did you have any idea of the American public prior to this tour?
Dobet. Not at all, I’ve toured once in Canada and much more in Europe, but this is the first time I see the American public. They are nice, warm, they listen, they participate in the show it is a real pleasure.
Did you especially develop your current stage show for the U.S. audience or is it the same as in your European performance?
Dobet. In fact what we are doing tonight is a new creation with which we’ve been touring for a month and half now. It is a creation we specially mounted in 4 days. It was especially designed for this Acoustic Africa tour, so you are right. But when I return to Europe I’ll be with my own group.
Your father’s support in the development of your career was exceptional when we know that in Africa parents do not like their children to become musicians...
Dobet. Because they find that there is no future in it? But I was lucky because my grand father was a farmer and a singer musician; my grandmother was also a singer and crier in funerals. My father is musician, comedian, so I was lucky after 4 to 5 years into school I told my dad that I was not feeling school. I told my dad I want to do music, he said, “take few days even a week to think about it”. After 3 days I came to him and said dad this is what I want to do, I want to be a musician, I want to be artist like you, I want to resemble you, each time I was touring and performing he was proud for letting me chose this craft.
When did you decide to make career in music?
Dobet. I started 10 years ago as a dancer first, because in the group where I grew up Werewereliking a cameroonian group, you learn percussion, dancing, singing, painting, sculpturing , and sewing. So we had a choice to be multitalented. I started with dance, then percussion. After that I began to compose my own songs and cover of other big artist’s songs. It happened little by little.
What where you doing in Abidjan prior to your departure for France then Belgium?
Dobet. In Abidjan I was in a group Werewereliking which was directed by a cameroonian woman and my dad and also by Boni Mamadou, Pazalito Jonas, Sere Njoke in a pan African village with the Ki-Yi Mbock theater. It was in this village that I did all my training after that I went to another group which taught contemporary dances as well as Ivorian traditional dance. I was there 6 to 7 months to learn the techniques. In Abidjan, I was already in the artists circle, I was only doing music I was in the family. It was in 1998 that Collins (my husband now) with whom I compose came to Abidjan from France for 3 months to learn to play African guitar and rhythms, instead of staying 3 months he stayed 3 years, we composed and worked together.
Your cd Ano Neko was received with wide acclaimed among African music lovers and the press around the world. When did you conceive the songs on this cd?
Dobet. Begining of 1997. I had a walkman with which I was recording my melodies and Collins scratching on his guitar little by little to follow my melodies. My songs are written in many languages they are written in French, some texts where giving to people to translate in their native languages, in Wolof, Dida, I had a lot of fun doing that. The cd was released in 2003.
What was the inspiration for this cd?
Dobet. Life in general, there are rather many themes about life that touches me, what I would hear from people, what people tell me, my life, someone else life. It is the theme of every life.
Your country is the crossroad of African music; many rhythms have been created there. Where could one place your style?
Dobet. Yes, the Ivory Coast is the crossroad but where I feel a little sad is that there are no Ivoirian singers known on the international scene like Baaba Maal, Youssou Ndour, Salif Keita.
How about Alpha Blondi?
Dobet. Alpha Blondi? Yes aside from reggae, Alpha Blondi and Tiken Jah Fakoli, but then one talks about traditional Ivorian rhythms, I don’t see any, but when I am in Abidjan, I know there are singers like reine Pelagie, the late Ernesto Djedje, I know the artists who valorize our culture but when I am outside the country, there are none, I don’t hear about any of our artists. That’s something which hurts me, it is another subject. My music is classified, I grew up in a pan African village where I had the choice to play mandingue music, Congolese music, I learned about many styles, these inspirations coming from me and what I have learned. So my music isn’t just Ivorian music it is a pan Africa music. I sing in many languages, I try to put in a bit of Congolese rhythms if one can say I am revalorizing the African ness of the music.
You sing in many African languages as you said earlier. Are you comfortable in singing in all these languages?
Dobet. I try to be comfortable; I am accustomed to this since the age of 12, I was singing in Xhosa,Zulu, Bete, Guebie. Artists have the ease of memorizing the melodies, languages, and the intonation. It is natural, it is something innate. But for a language such as Wolof, it was new for me. I botched it, I tried hard to get the exact intonation and all that and I botched it I didn’t acquire it. I think you have to feel it, for me it was something new.
Nado. When you are performing in foreign countries and sing in an African language the audience does not understand you message. Have you wondered about that?
Dobet. God is great! I asked myself that. I questioned, would they understand me? God is great! When I went to Mali and sang “Na” one of my songs they understood me and when I sang in Wolof to my friend and to the Senegalese group Daaraj who translated my song “Jiggen” they understood me, when I sang in Xhosa a song to a South African friend who translated it for me he understood me. It is true they are certain words that I may have botched but in general they understood. The American audience is fabulous, even though they don’t understand the lyrics the melodies and rhythms take them to the music firmament.
Your style is a fusion of African music contemporary and traditional Ivorian music and all that, nevertheless you have a certain authenticity to your music. At the first vocal note one can always recognize that this is Dobet. How do you do it?
Dobet. Laughs............there is a mosquito on your cap- it is gone- laughs...(we were sitting outside in the garden 6pm after her soundcheck)
I don’t know. In fact in my music I try to be inspired by jazz and funk but to keep its African roots I valorize certain traditional instruments like the balafon, the kora, the wooddo which is an Indian instrument. My goal is to put these instruments at the front to create an acoustic music not too much trap drum if needs to be, the trap drum has to be mixed down so that the voice can be heard. I like it when there is lot of sound, chorus; I like it when there are lots of backup vocals in music. Aside that I don’t know, the person who listens to my music will recognize it is me, I am my own inspiration.
Theater, dance, percussion, and music you communicate by any mean.
Dobet. I try, not that I do this expressly it is something that is innate at the same time I grew up in it. For me all is related. You are a musician you must be a composer, you are a dancer you must be singer, you are a painter you must be writer. So for me it is all related because in the village I grew up that’s what they taught me, so for me this is it.
You once said in music you are allowed to say many things because at least there you don’t need a passport. Explain.
Dobet. In music you don’t have to be worried about people saying”no you must do so, no don’t say this don’t say that, you must pay attention to what you say” when I said I don’t need a visa, I was referring to reality. For example, if I want to go to Europe I have to present a travel documentation, I must give explanations as to why I am going there; but when I sing and I am an agreement with a certain political person, or I don’t like the life style of certain people, no one will judge me. I hope not. I sing my feelings which may or may not interest some people. So when I sing and dance, I don’t need a visa.
There are many artists who worked hard years after years to attain popularity, you’ve done it in a short period of time.
Dobet. No, not yet I am not there yet. Because I have performed in many countries in Africa many in cultural centers. However, up t-ill now I am unable to do a concert of my own. I am far from that goal. I cannot do a concert today on my own name. I am on tour with Vusi Malhasela, Habib Koite. I take advantage of their audience to make myself known... It is the first time I am coming here little by little the bird makes its nest.
What are your future projects?
Dobet. My projects are to continue making recordings, have children, buy a home for my parents, continue to travel, and tour to make acquaintance with people like Vusi, Habib and other artists. Moreover one of my biggest project is to build a cultural center through Oxfam or other humanitarian organizations to help the youth fulfill their dreams. As an example, if a young person want to own a telephone booth I’ll loan him the money for a start up in a condition that he repays me so I can help others. These are some of the projects which are germinating on my mind now. I truly would like to do something humanitarian before I die.
Before we end, was the title of your cd Ano Neko which means let’s create together conceived before the recordings or was it after the political turmoil in Ivory Coast?
Dobet. No the title was conceived after the CD. It was titled as such because of the guest musicians on the CD, the title came after the CD was completed. I din’t relate it to the politics in my country. It was conceived in the sense that as artists we can create together help each other with a song, a melody and emotion, each takes it the way they feel it.
What is your message? Dobet’s message?
Dobet. I have lots and they vary each day. At this time I would like peace to comeback in Ivory Coast, that it be a magical country, a paradis as it was. Moreover, let’s not entertain the idea of calling people foreigner. It is even happening in France now, in Abidjan it is happening also. They are talking too much about it. I want people to get this out of their mind, out of their mentality.
Thank you Dobet! (then I gave her a cap with kalw radio logo)
Dobet. Thank you very much for the gift and the opportunity.