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Dobet Gnahoré stays true to her roots
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Gnahore sings about Africa's problems.
Gnahore sings about Africa's problems.
Credit:David Michael Miller

Rising Afropop star Dobet Gnahore made her Madison debut on Putumayo's Acoustic Africa tour in the fall of 2006. She's been back twice in quick succession, performing in the 2007 Madison World Music Festival at Willy Street Fair, and again last summer at the Fête de Marquette. Gnahore makes her fourth stop in town when she takes the Wisconsin Union Theater World Stage May 1.

That's a whole lot of shows. Even reigning Afropop queen Angelique Kidjo, with her robust, hard-core following, only hits town about every four years. But Gnahore's a sizzling songstress. She's a young goddess of Afrochic; she dances pan-African freestyle like liquid fire. She grooves. You really can't not go.

Gnahore, from Cte d'Ivoire, is the daughter of Boni Gnahore, master percussionist for Abdijan's celebrated pan-African artist collective Ki Yi M'bock. From him, Gnahore inherited both politics and the blessings of the Beté ancestors.

"Since I was young I wanted to be like my father," she says. "The energy he put into his art and the faith he had in front of the audience gave me the desire to follow in his footsteps. For him, being an artist is to defend the people's rights and denounce what's unjust - and also to bring African culture to the world, to make people dream."

Dobet Gnahore left Cte D'Ivoire, where warring internal factions and international robber barons butt heads in an insane dance for oil rights. She now lives in France with her French husband, guitar player Colin Laroche de Feline. But like Kidjo, currently a New Yorker, Gnahore's a cultural ambassador, continually circling the globe. "We need to believe in the culture and in its force for good in the world," she says.

A new-generation pan-African idealist, Gnahore guards the continent's culture from the jaws of global commercial forces. Unlike older, hard rock-influenced Afropop gods or Africa's hip-hop youth, she sticks to the roots, updating her sound with Congo-born urban soukous.

"Powerful economic interests are dividing Africa," she says. "But by combining our richness and our differences we stay united - we keep hope alive. I've always loved the traditional musics of my continent, and the cultural diversity of Africa interests me very much. My songs on Na Afriki [her 2007 sophomore release] are about the continent's difficulties - joys and sorrows, disease, polygamy, taboos. I also sing in many different African languages so I can reach everyone, and I use traditional rhythms associated with those tongues."

There's a lot to like on the multifaceted Na Afriki. The Xhosa-inflected "Inyembezi Zam" has punchy vocal loops; "Loubou," a mourning chant, rings authentic; you can boogie yourself to heaven on "Dala"'s mesmerizing light groove. A couple of tracks are less memorable, but Gnahore's honed her artistry since recording this disc. There's a new album in the works - and she's dynamite onstage.

On this tour she's accompanied, as always, by her husband on guitar, plus Clive Govinden on bass and Boris Tchango on drums/percussion. Put your dancin' shoes on.

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