Dobet Gnahoré tackles big issues with profound music

Kristi Ruff

Harper Hall was packed with Lawrence students, faculty and Appleton residents alike Tuesday night. The occasion? A performance by Dobet Gnahoré;, a singer, dancer and percussionist from Africa’s Ivory Coast. She performs primarily as a vocalist backed up by two guitarists and a percussionist.
Dobet started her group, Ano Neko, when she moved from Cote D’Ivoire to France during a time of political turmoil in her home country. She met guitarist Colin LaRoche de Féline in France and together the two started the performing group.
Gnahoré’s music is very unique. The group has created a unique fusion of musical elements as it synthesizes Gnahoré’s rich, expressive voice with percussion that includes components of modern mainstream drumming as well as ethnic styles and rhythms.
The group also includes acoustic guitar in the mix, though the style ranges from loud rock-style guitar to acoustic folk strumming. The blend that emerges from all of this instrumental overlap and layering of musical styles is truly unique and awe-inspiring.
The performance Tuesday night began with a song titled “Dala.” She started from off-stage and began singing so clearly that I half wondered if we were starting off with a recording.
Then she proceeded to come on stage and sang for a little while alone before the rest of her group came in to back her up. The song was incredible. Gnahoré’s voice requires so many adjectives to capture its essence that I can merely attempt to describe to you how purely incredible this woman’s voice is.
At the end of the song, Gnahoré commented that the song was about money, because “money has taken the world; money has destroyed people’s minds.” Many of Gnahoré’s songs had a message or a dedication, and the sheer force with which she performed them made it clear that she believed in that message with every fiber of her being.
Besides possessing an indescribably rich voice with a beautiful timbre, Gnahoré is also an amazing dancer. She would break out into dance during drum interludes or guitar solos in her songs.
Her movements were so much more than dancing, though, because they were so fluid, powerful and graceful that to call them dancing, one must either redefine the word to mean something much better, or risk belittling the pure beauty of what Gnahoré created on stage. Her movements were a visual embodiment of the heart and soul present in the music.
Gnahoré included other elements in her performance, including a soft flute-type whistle and a small, beautifully deep gourd that resounded so fully that I could not believe it was not bigger.
She dedicated songs to her mother, to her country and “for all women who fight for a better world.” She sang one song against deforestation and another imploring the audience to let “your children laugh, let your children dream.”
The ideals that Gnahoré embodies in her performance are big issues, and she has found a way to show the audience exactly how much the world needs to change with her voice, because it is just so full of presence.
My favorite song was at the end; she said, “I’m tired. I’m tired with politics in my country. I’m tired with politics in the world.”
She followed that statement with a song so passionate and a dance so emotionally significant and expressive that I found myself unable to speak when she was through.
“It had a lot of spirit and joy and emotion,” said freshman Diana Sussman. The aural and visual amalgam of energy and passion really served as an inspiration in terms of how to be expressive and open and in terms of how to make a difference in one’s world.