Spotlight on Congolese Women: Gasandji Rever – The ‘African Jazzy-Soul’ Songstress
To conclude our Spotlight on Congolese Women series, we profiled Paris-based singer and songwriter Gasandji Rever.
Framed from the back, with the dazzling sun of a hazy afternoon in the French countryside as the backdrop against which she enters the stage, Gasandji skips onto my screen in a floaty colourful skirt, almost childlike in the gawkishness of her movements, but made sturdy by the guitar strapped across her body, an anchor to the world she runs towards. The unassuming, sincere way in which she introduces herself to the crowd, in particular “toutes les femmes” – “Is there any love in La Rochele?… Yes, now I am starting to feel the love…” – both endears her to her audience and serves as a reminder that she, too, is just a human being, there to enjoy the sun, the sounds and the sentiments of the world’s Francophone artists, at 2010’s Francofolies festival.
It is this commitment to a fundamental interest in the peoples and sounds of the world around her, a kind of musical humanism, that combine to create the uniqueness of Gasandji’s musicality and personality. Her strong, husky voice and African sound invite comparisons to Tracy Chapman, Malian artist Rokia Traore, Asa, or an acoustic Me’shell Ndeogocello, but there is something about the worldliness of her sound that penetrates the frequent compartmentalisation of African female singers. She describes her own style as ‘African Jazzy-Soul’, an eclectic mix of African sounds, jazz, reggae and soul, in itself a nod to multiple creative traditions and international origins. And perhaps this is not surprising, considering the variety of places she has lived in and the different ways she has professionally manifested her creativity.
Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1979, Gasandji’s life journey has seen her travel to a shedload of countries, both on the African continent and beyond. Her father worked abroad, and in her childhood days she moved with him across Africa – living in Congo Brazzaville, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic – before, keen to protect her from the mounting violence in DR Congo, he sent her to Paris in 1992. The cultural and emotional influence of these early years can be felt in songs like “Maman ne m’a pas dit”, a touching dedication to her mother who passed away when Gasandji was just two years old, in which you can feel the rhythms of Congolese rumba. The biggest hit from her debut eponymous album, “Na lingui yo” (I love you), is just one of her songs that are written in Lingala, and she names Congolese singer Tabu Ley Rochereau amongst a sea of sources of inspiration that she finds from her birth place.
Other songs are written in French or English, in some of which she deploys the simple chord structures of reggae, or the freeform cadence of jazz. Gasandji’s experiences from the age of 13 in France and other European countries can be felt in the diverse range of these styles – an ethical and musical synthesis of Bob Marley, Otis Redding, the unnamed country artist whose cassette was one of only three that she brought with her when leaving Africa. First introduced to the stage as a dancer-choreographer in Paris, she worked hard to spread her creative wings, finding her first work as a singer in 1999 as a member of gospel choir ‘We Are One’. From that point on, her musical progression snowballed, as a steady stream of collaborations with a range of artists – from fellow Congolese musician Lokua Kanza, to French hip hop icon MC Solaar, to folk duo Amadou et Mariam, and many more – gave her the chance to experiment with her sound and philosophy, so closely entwined, in the context of a rich global musical tradition.
Of her own musical self-discovery, the singer says of her debut album, the eponymous Gasandji (2013), “this album is my passport, my ID. Before, I was like an undocumented resident, I was spending my time imitating other singers.” Music is a huge part of Congolese culture, and her deliberate insertion of her personal story into her music speaks tomes to the way she feels about its capacity to effect change – in one interview, she deeply attests to the fact that “I cannot imagine my life without music, it heals my soul.” It is as a bridge between the many worlds she has lived in, a fusion of her personal and professional existences, the summation of her life’s journey.
Every culture has its own stringed instrument, and its own, different way of playing it. But Gasandji’s instrumentalism makes it seem that her guitar reaches beyond its own six strings, instead forging a new sound thriving on the influence of its cousins from overseas. A truly universal figure, Gasandji, whose name translates as “she who awakens consciousness”, is an inspiration to all who have left somewhere they call home to embark upon a journey into the wider world.
Visit Gasandji’s Facebook page here
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— Rebekah Murrell