Interviews June 4, 2021
Dobet Gnahoré Talks Pandemic Vision and New Album: Couleur!

It’s been some time since we heard new music from Ivory Coast’s maverick superstar Dobet Gnahoré. Her 2018 album, Miziki, did not receive wide distribution, so that takes us back to 2014 and Na Drê. A lot has changed for Dobet in recent years. She parted ways with her production and management team and has set about her own course. During the pandemic, she returned to Abidjan to record Couleur (Cumbancha), an album that announces a new direction. It’s upbeat, full of diverse rhythms, rootsy and modern at the same time, truly a great set of songs. Banning Eyre reached Dobet by Zoom in France where she lives, to discuss the album. Here’s their conversation.

Banning Eyre: Dobet, am I reaching you in Paris?

Dobet Ghanhoré: No. Ardennes. Near the German border.

Well, like all of us, I know you've been enduring this pandemic. Are things starting to get better where you are?

With the vaccines available now, things are starting to improve. The confinement is ending. Bars can be open outside in the open air, but not inside yet. I think in another six months we will be back to normal.

It's a good feeling. I live two hours from New York, and used to go in every week. As it is, I've just been in twice this past year. But it too is opening up. Little by little, we get there.

Yes little by little, we will get back to our activities.

I think it's been especially challenging for an artist like you who wants to get out and play for big audiences in the festivals.

Yes it's been a very difficult year. We haven't been able to do anything public. But it has allowed me to concentrate on this album, Couleur. And the next album too. Because I had the time to compose, I'm already working on the next one, and I have a lot of material.

You've used your time well. This is a wonderful album. Congratulations. The moment I saw your video of “Leve Toi,” I sensed a new energy in your sound. You know, I haven't seen you since you were with Acoustic Africa with Vusi Mahlasela and Habib Koite. That was a long time ago.

Yes, a very, very long time ago.

A lot has changed recently. Tell me about it.

Yes. There have been albums and tours. A lot of things. Couleur is my sixth album, and the seventh is almost ready. I've been working constantly.

I read that you recorded much of this album in Abidjan with artists there. What was your goal with this album?

In the beginning the idea was to renew my African sources, to return and find new inspirations. I had already shared my compositions when I arrived there to work with Tam Sir, a young Ivorian arranger who is doing very well in Côte d'Ivoire. He had already heard the compositions when I arrived, but the fact of being there inspired new arrangements that we created on the spot. There was the heat. And there was time to work with other musicians there. It had been a long time since I had worked with African-Ivoirian musicians, people from home. It had been a very long time since I had made an album completely recorded in Côte d'Ivoire. So for me the confinement and the calmness there really allowed me to work the way I wanted to for this album.

Tell me more about Tam Sir.

He's very young, 22 years old. But he's arranging for most of the top artists in Côte d'Ivoire now. He knows many music styles—traditional, urban, everything. He is very open musically, and I wanted to work with him.

I hear a lot of styles on this album. Before I had even looked at the words, I was struck by the variety of rhythms and textures. I imagine Tam had something to do with that.

Yes, we had a great connection. He's open to so many styles, and he really knows them. Very quickly, he understood what kind of style I wanted for each song. As with all my albums, I don't have a particular style. I have many influences in what I do, right from my first album. So there are a lot of styles on this album, but there's one idea that runs through all of them: dancing.

Dancing. Yes. That is clear.

The messages are messages of hope. That is the new energy that I want to put out. Anyone who listens to this album will sense that it is about movement. That is what I told Tam. I want people to dance. And we started with that. I wanted people to feel the African origin, but also a little bit of electro and Afro, but the most important thing was that the people dance.

That was your bottom line. Beautiful. I notice this progression in the sound as the album unfolds. The first two songs use very traditional rhythms, even though they are modern, and then I start to hear some rumba in the song “Jalouse” and some coupé decalé influence, and then we get into Afrobeats and dance club music. There's a real progression to the styles.

Yes. I spoke about this with my producer, Jacob [Edgar]. We had the idea of this progression. We wanted to start with something hopeful. The opening track, "Desert," is very electro, but very traditional at the same time.

Yes. It has that strong 6/8 rhythm.

It's a very particular style that makes me think of the north. And then we go to “Leve Toi” and “Jalouse,” and those are the three colors of the album. All of it in the first three songs. And then we move on with the very electro songs like “Zaliguéhi” and “Mon Époque” and “Woman,” just to augment the pallet of the album.

I'm interested in the way you compose songs. I see in the credits that you co-compose with others. What is your method for writing a song?

For composing, I already have the basis of the song, the original inspiration. When I have an idea, I write it down. I record. I make blocks of text, blocks of melody and blocks of music. I do all of that on my own. Then if I want to take the song further, I give it to my arranger. I say, “Here's my idea. Now let's work on it together." Then he takes all my tracks and works with them. But he knows the general idea of where I want to go. I've already done a lot of the work. The song is almost finished.

Then he may add some chords, or some vocal backing. We work like that. But for me it's very important first to have an idea of the song from the beginning to the end. I compose it, arrange it, write it, and create the melody. I don't just turn this song over to be interpreted. It is important for me to be involved in every choice about the sound, the instruments… I have to be involved from the beginning to the end.

I see you have your keyboard in front of you now. Is that your main tool for composing the music?

Keyboard, guitar, percussion, bass, shakers. I have all sorts of things here. So I program things. Sometimes I go looking for sounds on Logic Pro. I do all of that when I compose.

So that's what you've been doing during this difficult year of COVID. I've spoken with a number of artists who've been working similarly. Recently I spoke with Richard Bona.

Yes. He is great.

He said he's composed enough music for many albums.

That's it. I told Jacob that for the next three years, I want to release an album every year.

Photos by Jean Goun
Photos by Jean Goun

Well, that's good to hear. Before we talk about the songs on this album, I read recently that the artist Boni Gnahore is your father. I never knew that. You know I've never interviewed you about your beginnings. So tell me a bit about the home life that led you to become a musician.

My father was first a comedian, then a percussionist and instrumentalist. He was in Abidjan in 1985 with Were Were Liking and Kiyi Mbock. They created the artistic village Kiyi Mbock. They were the founders. It was a place of dance, theater, music, culture. It was an artistic place. From there, my father taught young people, arranged performances, puppet shows, many things. So my father became a composer of songs, an arranger and a choreographer. Well, he didn't do that much choreography, but he was always a comedian, percussionist, composer and arranger. He spent 20 years in that village, and then he moved to Strasbourg.

After that, he began his own career. He composed songs that are very well known in Côte d'Ivoire. He had his own company, Le Choeur Attoungblan. He is well known and well loved, a major figure in our traditional music. He made his own fusion of traditional music and modern Ivoirian music. There were also some influences of Congolese rumba and Cameroonian music.

I always admired my father and wanted to emulate him. I started playing percussion and writing songs and transferring traditional music to modern in my own way. My younger brother, born after me, has become a rapper. He has a group called that is very well known in Côte d'Ivoire. His name is Black K and the group is Kiff No Beat.

Interesting. I imagine your father is quite proud of what you've done.

Yes. He is proud. He is happy. We're together all the time. He's always the first one to hear my songs and the first one I go to to ask questions. He is my reference.

In the 1990s I lived in Bamako, and I remember very well when Kiyi Mbock came and performed there. It was a wonderful show. And I did an interview with Were Were Liking, Such a fascinating woman. Is Village Kiyi Still there?

Yes. Were Were Liking is still there. The village is still there. She is still writing, creating performances. She has an arts center with a concert hall. People can rent the hall. It's fantastic.

Photos by Jean Goun
Photos by Jean Goun

Great. I would love to visit one day. Now let's talk about some of the songs on this album. Many of them address women's issues.

Yes.

After absorbing the music, I read the lyrics and saw that there are powerful messages. Can you pick a couple and tell us about them?

Well, the big idea is that after I turned 35, I entered into a period of being more settled, more realistic. I wanted to talk about my life as a woman and the lives of women in society. I want to talk about women who are doing positive things, who are engaged, who are involved in their family lives, but also in their work and the ongoing evolution and emancipation of African women. I'm addressing this album to younger women who are afraid of advancing, who are afraid of taking that first step, whether that is in love or in work or in activism. I'm talking to young women who are in the process of figuring their lives out. I want to set an example for them.

Take the song “Woman.” I'm saying that all women are beautiful. She is beautiful when she dances, beautiful in the way she dresses, beautiful in the way she pursues her goals, beautiful in the way she becomes a woman and creates her home. These are the goals I had in my head when I was young. This is what helped me work on my own life. We must not forget the goals we had when we were young and beautiful and ambitious. We must remember that we are the ones who can realize our dreams.

So that’s what this album is really about, the emancipation of women, the blooming of women, sexually, in their work, in their daily lives. It's an internal force. If she wants to create a story, make a life, she has the power within her. And each of these songs, whether it is “Yakané,” “Woman,” “Mon Époque,” it's all about this desire to succeed, and it's in the words, but it's also in the musical choices, the rhythmic choices. For me, pop music and electro music are expressions of my emancipation, my life, my time.


You say in the song “Yankané” that the time when men can dictate women's lives is over. But in your life, do you find that to be true? Is that a goal, or is it a present reality? It's not like you can snap your fingers and all women are liberated, right? It's a process, a struggle, and it's been going on a long time. But I get the feeling in these songs that you believe that a big changes happening now.

Yes. My impression is that big things are happening, but it's not done yet. So when I say that the time of men dictating women's lives is over, it's to encourage women. It's a choice. If a woman wants to stay in the home and work there, that's her choice. But when a woman believes that a man doesn't make that choice for her, then she can follow her dreams. Has that time passed? Well that depends on you. That depends on the woman. If you want that, then it has passed.

I say this is not for all women. There are some women who want to be dominated, want to stay in the home, and don't like this new life of women in full bloom. There are women who want to live for their husband. It's a choice, and I respect that choice. What I want to convey is that if you want to go a different way, that is possible. I'm not advising that. This is not advice. It's just my vision.

Okay.

This is the way I see things. I have my little sister and my friends who have made their choices. For a long time, I have wanted to produce female artists in Côte d'Ivoire, and sometimes they say to me, "I'm not capable of doing it. I don't have the means. I don't have this or that." But I have been wanting to produce these artists for 10 years. And now I have to do it. If it's in your blood, you have to do it. Because we are in a time when anything is possible.


Photos by Jean Goun
Photos by Jean Goun

Well said. I noticed that in the song “Wazii,” You are singing about love, and you say, "You staggered me like Abedi Pelé, baby. You wound me up like Pepe Kalle.” As a big fan of Pepe Kalle, I love that line.

I did that because Pepe Kalle was a creator of dances. For every song, there was movement. Every African knows that Pepe Kalle was a dancer. So I made these two references, one who was a footballer, and the other who was a dancer.

I love it. Maybe it's too soon, but I imagine you're very eager to get this music out on the road and onto concert stages. When you think that will happen?

Yesterday I finished two days of preparation for a live show. The show for the album Couleur is ready. I'm looking forward to having tour dates so I can present it. Because that's what I like best, the stage, live performance. So the show is ready, and we can't wait to put it on.

You're not alone. In the meantime, you said that you've almost finished the songs for another album. Will you start recording? And will you return to Abidjan for that?

Yes. Yes. I think all of my albums now will be made in Abidjan. I've launched a production company called Jolie Production. We have a recording studio. I will record the next album there, and we’re preparing a video studio where I will make my videos. The next one we released in October will be my production, and from there, all my albums will be made in Côte d'Ivoire.

That's excellent. You've really found a great new direction for your music. I can't wait till you come back and play for us. I want to hear the songs on the stage.

We're going to play the first show in Ouagadougou next week.

Really?

After that will go to Toulouse. Little by little.

Well good luck with all that. It's wonderful to speak with you. Can't wait to see you in New York.

It's been a long time since I was in New York.

Well, it’s coming back to life. It won’t be too long now. Thanks so much for speaking with me.

Thank you. Ciao.

Photos by Jean Goun
Photos by Jean Goun

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