One is a glamorous, worldly vocalist who’s as brilliant a dancer and drummer as she is a singer. Another is a songwriter on the rise who’s concerned with the environment and social uplift. The third is the former bass player for a world-renowned funk band.
All three — Dobet Gnahoré, Kareyce Fotso, and Manou Gallo — are African women: Gnahoré and Gallo from the Ivory Coast, and Fotso from Cameroon. Though less known on this side of the Atlantic, they’ve each forged strong solo careers and a fan base, particularly in Europe. But this year the three have joined forces in a kind of supergroup, for maximum exposure and impact, and as a chance to experiment.
They bring the project, titled Afropean Women, to the Somerville Theatre tonight.
Musically, it’s a hybrid of hybrids, as none of the three is a narrow traditionalist. Gnahoré’s sound is as cosmopolitan as her home city, the Ivorian metropolis Abidjan, a business and arts crossroads of West Africa, while grounded in the folk experimentalism of the Village Ki-Yi, a local arts collective in which her father was a percussionist.
Fotso, who left behind biochemistry studies so she could blossom from backup singer to solo artist, is one of the new wave of singer-songwriters, like Nigeria’s Nneka and Asa, in whom the classic lyricism of a Joni Mitchell and the neo-soul mystique of an Erykah Badu fuse into the rich West African repertoire of rhythms and themes.
And Gallo, who at 40 calls herself the “vieille mère” (old mother) of the three, is a lifelong stage pro who was a youth player in 1980s Ivorian pop band Woya, then spent time in Village Ki-Yi, before moving to Europe and a six-year stint as the bass player in global funk act Zap Mama, which unleashed her rock and jazz sensibilities.
Their influences are disparate, says Fotso, but they had no trouble finding common ground for their collaboration.
“Ultimately all three of us come from Africa,” Fotso says. “We have plenty of cultural differences but there’s always a terrain where we meet. It’s in the rhythms, the intonations. You could really feel the motivation from each one of us as we started to work together.”
The collaboration — prompted by Belgian label Contre Jour as part of its Acoustic Africa series — is a recent one. It began with a work session in Brussels last January, and continued with rehearsals in Lomé, Togo, and a first series of concerts in Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Mali. Balafon master Aly Keita and New York-based guitarist Leni Stern, a veteran of numerous African collaborations, joined in and are part of the tour.
Each player contributed several songs, submitting them to a workshop process in which they took new shapes, as each musician added her ideas and her touch.
“They are all existing songs,” says Gnahoré. “We worked on them together, adapted them, and that way, we added some magic.”
The original instrumentation, the role-switching as each woman takes a turn on percussion, and the shared vocal lead duties make this a group unlike any other. They have yet to record, but video from their African concerts shows the women in a fluid, groovy exchange, their enthusiasm evident.
“We all appreciate each other,” Gnahoré says. “The show is dynamic and busy.”
The opportunity to create as a team of women was a significant motivation to get involved, says Gallo, a trailblazer in her own right as one of very few African women bassists on the scene.
“I don’t think of myself as a feminist, but I have a little feminist side,” Gallo says. “I enjoy being able to show how African women take charge of themselves.”
And though the show’s emphasis is performance, not politics, Fotso says she selected songs with a message as her contribution to the project. One denounces forced marriages that not only betroth teenage girls to men they do not choose, but also prematurely end their schooling.
Another addresses youth who, in many African countries just as in Europe and the Arab world, have taken to the streets to protest the high cost of living and lack of jobs. “I agree with the demands but not with destroying things,” Fotso says. “So I’m telling them, I understand your anger, but let’s remember it’s our country.”
Her third song has an environmental message. “We’re experiencing climate change in Cameroon. The seasons have lost their regularity, due to deforestation. I’m trying to draw attention to this looming disaster.”
Fotso still lives, happily, in Yaoundé, Cameroon, while Gnahoré and Gallo have been based in Europe for over a decade. The “Afropean women” label given their project has a different but real meaning for each of the three.
“We’re Africans who live in Europe, so by the force of things our music is mixed,” says Gnahoré. For Fotso, the distinction between Africa and Europe is fading, as globalization and shared cultural references make it possible to keep a foot in each place. “No one is pure anymore,” Fotso says. “We’re open and combined.”
Gallo embraces the “Afropean” identity wholeheartedly.
“My own music is very inspired by rock and jazz, but the African woman that I am is always within me,” she says. “So it’s a term that corresponds perfectly to my vision of who I am. I have these two sides, I have projects in all different places. We’re all nomads, in some way.”