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Music – Asa, the little Nigerian hawk

Who said that African artists are only to be taken into account when dealing with genres such as afrobeat, rap, hip-hop, ‘world music’ and so forth? The continental musical scene, in fact, also features singers capable of competing with the big names of European and American pop.

The Nigerian (but Paris-born) Asa – whose real name is Bukola Elemide – is one of those. In her third album, Bed of Stone, following Asa (2007) and Beautiful Imperfection, she has relinquished her usual image of ‘militant singer’. “I still have things to say and I will continue doing that, but in a different way. My message is less virulent”, she said in October 2014, when the album was released.

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Has ‘the little Hawk’ (this is the meaning of ‘Asa’ in Yoruba, one out of three languages she can speak, together with English and French) become weaker? That is not the point, she thinks. If anything, she has grown up, feeling “truly free and indifferent to any pressure, far less under stress… I believe – she added – this is what we call maturity”. The consequences have been evident since the genesis of the album: Beautiful Imperfection, in 2010, marked the beginning of a two-year long tour, in which Asa, to use her own words, gave her all “every time, without realizing how exhausting it was”. Once the tour finally ended, it took her more or less the same time to write Bed of stone.

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The result of the freedom she eventually gave herself are 14 tracks ranging from soul to pop, a blend of commercial arrangements with more creative ‘world music’ elements which – she hopes – can be enjoyed by both the African and the European public. A sound which has no boundaries and can cross the borders, in line with the current preferences of its author: among the singers she appreciates the most at the moments, she states, there are two artists that cannot be more distant, though coming from the same country, the USA: Bruno Mars, whose career began in 2004, and Sixto ‘Sugarman’ Rodriguez, who has become a music legend – also due to his almost unbelievable personal story – thanks to two albums recorded in 1970 and 1971 respectively. Although no open influence of either can be perceived in the album, their names are a good example of the vast musical background from which the apparently simple Bed of Stone comes.

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As for the themes, according to Asa, this is “a more personal album, closer to me, to what I feel and what I think, to the person I have become”, even if for the first time she was not the sole author of the music and lyrics, being helped, in this case, by various other artists. Feelings and sentiments, indeed, play a big role in the texts, sometimes in a very evident way: the content of Grateful, mostly sung in Yoruba, is anticipated by the title. Lost friendship and love are respectively the subjects of songs such as Dead again and How love find me, while the last track, Shine your light encourages an unnamed young person to feel free and think positive.

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Other lyrics, songs, even if starting with a personal point of view, try to deal with broader issues. This is the case of Situation, which from time to time sounds like a desperate prayer, (“Father, Father, hear us, those we trust have failed us (…). Everybody is close to breaking. They say, what have we done to deserve this trouble making”), or Eyo, describing the cultural differences between Nigeria and (presumably) the Western world, an issue also dealt with in Society. Even when she is apparently dealing with common, simple subjects, and crafting musical atmospheres suitable for every listener, ‘the little hawk’ shows she has not lost her claws. (D.M.)

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