The Ivory Coast singer Dobet Gnahore is the daughter of a master drummer in Abidjan. She fled civil war in her native country in 1999 and landed in Marseille, where she acquired a French guitarist husband and musical partner, and an ear for music from African cultures other than her own. When the pair returned to the Ivory Coast, they began writing songs, many of them with a strong social or political orientation, and gathering a band, including her father, that was fluent in musical styles from across Africa.
The music that grew is diverse in a way that few other African musicians have achieved. Gnahore sings in seven African languages from various families (Bete, Fon, Baoule, Lingala, Malinke, Bambara, and the rare Mina) as well as French and English, often with more than one in the same song; a song may have a French or English verse that, together with spoken introductions, should orient you to the strong statements being made about, especially, the situation of women in Africa. The music ranges across the sub-Saharan continent from Ghanaian highlife to South African choral music, and she can dance to any of it in the most amazing way. In her pan-African mix the individual traditions refract her words across the societies of the continent.
Or you could just forget about all that and luxuriate in the voice, one of the most remarkable to come along in quite a while. It’s an alto rich in overtones that seems on the verge of breaking out into a higher register and sometimes does so in exuberant falsetto counterpoints to instrumental breaks. Gnahore’s music does not take the external forms of jazz, but it’s likely that she encountered it along the way: it forms a fascinating subterranean layer that comes to the surface in long, spun-out phrase ends and ornaments.
So, a multilingual virtuosa. Gnahore is unmistakably modern, but her music is closer to its roots and less heavily produced than that of Angelique Kidjo, the similarly multilingual and rich-voiced Beninese singer to whom Gnahore may easily emerge as a successor. She has already earned a Grammy for an appearance on an India.Arie recording of a song originally recorded by the Nigerian vocalist Sade, another ancestor. Gnahore appears at the Michigan Theater on January 16.