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Cote d'Ivoire's 'rebel' Dobet Gnahoré

By Alison Hird

Ivorian singer-songwriter, dancer and percussionist Dobet Gnahoré talks to RFI about her upcoming album Miziki. Sung mainly in her native Bété language she explores her vision of pan-Africanism with strong, rebellious women at its heart. Produced by Nicolas Repac, Gnahoré brings her love of electronic music to the fore.

Gnahoré is a ball of fire on stage: a vocal powerhouse and accomplished dancer who can jump, twist and turn while never missing a beat. Since 2004 she’s given more than 800 shows worldwide.

She learned to incorporate dance, percussion, theatre and song in her stage performance while growing up in an artists cooperative near Abidjan known as Ki-Yi Mbock, founded by Cameroon-born singer and actress Wéré Wéré Liking.

Her musician father Boni Gnahoré taught percussion there.

It became a pan-African artistic hub, attracting big names from across the continent such as Ray Lema, Youssou N’dour, Salif Keita and Lokua Kanza.

While she left Cote d’Ivoire for France in 1999 following the military coup, Gnahoré has stayed true to that pan-African spirit and sings in several African languages (Bété, Fon, Baoule, Lingala, Malinke, Mina, Bambara...).

On her new album Miziki, however, she’s opted to showcase her native Bété language.

“Cote d’Ivoire has 72 languages, it’s huge," she told RFI ahead of a recent concert at Paris's Café de la Danse.

"I wanted to speak my Bété language and [show] all its beautiful rhythms and melodies. To show it existed among so many.”

An electro 'baby'

She's also broadened her soundscape on the new album, bringing sampling into the Cameroonian bikutsi, Congolese and East African rumba, Manding and Ghanaian highlife she draws on.

“My music has no limits, no borders” she explains. “I have electro in my head, in my body, but I never did it [before].”

French producer Nicolas Repac (Arthur H, Mamani Keita, Republica Ideal de Acapulco) helped her make it happen.

“I have a home studio and I was like a kid pressing all the buttons. I'd say ‘oh I like that, and that'…This album is like a new baby.”

The electro sound is strongest on songs like La Clé (The key) about losing one lover, finding another. And on the captivating title track Miziki (Music).

“Music is my life, it’s everything for me,” she continues. “My music makes me a free woman.”

The sultry-looking singer with explosive stage presence ©Thomas Skiffington

The song Akissi La Rebelle (Akissi the rebel) refers to the name used to describe a cheeky little girl in Cote d'Ivoire's Baoulé culture.

“Akissi is a rebel. She doesn’t pay attention and has loads of energy, she listens to her heart or body, but not to other people.”

Gnahoré says she and lots of girls and women around the world resemble Akissi.

“They are born rebels but they’re stifled. Girls are taught to submit. Some stay that way and lose their voice. But some, like me, continue to rebel and find their way.”

"Sometimes they become spokespeople for the continent or whole world. So I think we have to let girls be free, to rebel, because that’s where the masculine side of all women comes through."

Gnahoré has founded a non-profit, Baara, to raise funds for an orphanage for girls in Grand-Bassam. She gives dance and singing classes in Europe to finance the structure.

In 2014 Cote d’Ivoire authorities made Gnahoré an Ambassador for human rights alongside Salif Traoré (A’Salfo) from the band Magic System, in recognition of their commitment to the cause.

Miziki is released 4 May 2018.

Dobet Gnahoré is on tour: Marseille 7 April, Abidjan (Femua festival) 19 April. Further dates here. Follow her on facebook

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