Album Review: Dobet Gnahoré – Miziki [Wagram Music; May 2018]

Having been raised in an environment where performing arts and African traditions were paramount, Ivorian vocalist Dobet Gnahoré has always had great artistic confidence and a strong sense of self. Her fifth album, entitled Miziki after the Bété word for music, is a true reflection of that assurance and traditional awareness; a marriage of producer Nicolas Repac’s electronic textures and more traditional sounds, such as that of the Balafon or Pygmy vocal style.

The album begins in a somewhat ambiguous manner, with no particular component leaping out of “Djoli’s” instrumental backwash to reel the listener in. Instead, it’s Gnahoré’s purposeful vocals that develop the arrangement, her phrasing the only clear and obvious attraction. It’s unsurprising to learn that she initially composed “Akissi la Rebelle” — a track wrought with rebellious energy and lifted by rich choral responses to each of Gnahoré’s lines — with onomatopoeic sounds. Her phrasing, rhythmicality and acrobatic melodies are among the finest characteristics of this album.

Too often, the record’s instrumentation is flat, failing to live up to the demands of a given composition. For example, on “La Source”, a four-minute song representing one of the album’s more tender moments, the dynamics barely shift. Components pan to the left or right and there is a perceivable depth of field, but the introduction of piano or ensemble vocals make little difference to the energy or volume of the track.

Songs like “Miziki” and “Lobé”, with their shifting grooves and more varied instrumentation, fare far better in respect of dynamics and arrangement. They are better able to hold the listener’s attention, alerting them to the subtle use of stringed instruments and the interaction taking place between the acoustic and the electronic.

Gnahoré has played hundreds and hundreds of concerts over the past decade and is a truly captivating performer. Her theatricality, confidence, graceful movement and powerful voice are all best-witnessed face to face. It’s a shame that those great qualities are less gripping on this album. However, seeing beyond the issue, one is still able to recognise her great talent as a vocalist and appreciate her understanding of music from throughout her native continent.