Living in the Twin Cities, I am fortunate enough to be close to a number of theatrical venues which cultivate and create great art and bring culture into the metro area.
While almost all pieces add a certain level of culture to a society, artistic and creative expression is a way (and should be a way) in which we can learn about and explore traditions of other populations that are unlike our own.
So, I was excited to learn that the Ordway makes the exploration of different cultures part of their mission each season with the Target World Music Series.
The first show in the series for the 2015 calendar year was an African singer, dancer and percussionist from the Ivory Coast, Dobet Gnahoré
Gnahoré has been widely awarded in the Ivory Coast, and recently her talent and genius has been gaining national attention. In 2006 she was named “Best Newcomer” by the BBC Radio 2 Awards for New Music and in 2010 she won Best Urban/Alternative Performance for her song with India.Arie, “Pearls.”
Gnahoré’s fourth album, “Na Drê,” was released in 2014 and on Sunday, Jan. 11 she performed some of it for audiences at the Ordway.
The show opened with the Minneapolis group Marimba Africa, a group that specializes in Soukous music.
Soukous is defined as “Cuban Rumba music found in the Belgian Congo and French Congo in the 1940s.”
If that concept is a bit difficult to wrap your head around (it was for me) think of the type of music you hear in movies when the characters are on an island. While it didn’t sound like the stereotypical African music I had heard before, it certainly sounded “tropical” and Caribbean influenced.
It was easy to hear where the Cuban influence came from. The songs were fast, fun and light. Most included maracas and some sort of drumming. And, while a steel drum itself was never used, the keyboard strongly emulated one.
It seemed more of the African influence came in through the dancing. A woman, dressed in what appeared to be traditional clothes, danced along with the music and added in background vocals.
The group clearly loved performing with one another and their enjoyment was contagious among the audience members. A dance floor was open in front of the stage and roughly half of the audience got to their feet during their performance.
People continued to dance when Gnahoré took to the stage, but her sound was quite a bit softer. While she ended the show with a few up-tempo songs, most of hers were, what I would define as, African adult contemporary.
Her songs had a calm feeling to them, and her velvety vocals made you less inclined to dance and more inclined to sit and be serenaded.
I was at first taken by the beautiful tonal quality to her voice. It was clear, strong and vibrant. But as she sang I became more in awe of the control she had over it. She was able to manipulate it in ways I had never heard before and move seamlessly from a forte dynamic to an almost whisper.
Gnahoré sings in up to eight languages, but many of her songs during this performance were in French. I’ve read, and the Ordway noted, that many of her songs were about politics and societal struggles in the Ivory Coast, and around the African continent.
While I was unable to understand what she was saying, the tone of her music had a heavy feel to it. Coupled with her expressions and accompanying dance movements, even those who didn’t speak the language could see the themes were meaningful and passionate.
A lot has been mentioned about her stage presence as a performer, but it is truly something to be noted.
Before opening her mouth, she demands to be heard. She is small is stature, but has powerful eyes, bright, colorful clothing and beautiful dreadlocks that flow over her shoulders. Her voice is captivating, covering you like a blanket, and she dances with such ease that she makes you think “I could do that,” even though you know it took years to learn how to do that one kick.
Gnahoré’s raw talent and passion as a performer will certainly keep her on the national stage, and hopefully bring her back to the Minneapolis area again.
Gnahoré performed in Michigan Friday evening before traveling back overseas for her European tour.
The next World Music Series performance is the Contra-Tiempo Urban Latin Dance Theater at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 7. Tickets cost $20 to $45. For more information, visit The Ordway online.