Gasandji sings mainly of herself. At first sight she does not resemble her music. This DR Congo-born artist stands out for her rather unconventional haircut; her voice is instead gentle and soft. Her music has been labelled afro-jazz, or afro-soul, but, as is often the case with African artists, this definition is lacking. The same can be said about the comparisons made both with America’s Tracy Chapman and Mali’s Rokia Traore.
Gasandji, one reviewer wrote, simply “plays Gasandji music” and this may prove to be more than mere wordplay, since this name means “one who awakens the conscience.” This is a good description of this singer’s work: it is based on her personal roots both from a musical point of view (Congolese rumba influences are easily recognizable in her songs) and from a thematic one. The clearest example is ‘Maman ne m’a pas dit’ one of the eleven tracks included in the self-titled album released in 2013. She dedicated this song to her mother, who died when she was just two. With both personal and professional difficulties, music also played a therapeutic role in the young woman’s life. “I cannot imagine my life without music, it heals my soul,” she declared. She has no regrets about her past failures, at least those in her career: they allowed her, she stated, “to give the best of herself”, and she would have had no results without hurdles to overcome.
Dealing with an artist who has little (if any) difficulty in expressing her innermost feelings, it is not surprising that her most successful hit (present in the album in two different versions) is entitled ‘Na lingui yo’ (I love you). The Lingala language in which this and other tracks are written is one of the four languages Gasandji speaks, the other three being German, English, and French. She also uses the last two in the album – another proof that, as for means of expression, this artist is truly polyhedral.
Her musical style can also be linked to her biography: she started travelling when she was just three years old, to follow her father, who worked abroad. They lived in the Central African Republic, Congo Brazzaville, and Cameroon, among others, before the then young girl had to leave Africa in 1992, aged 13. She headed to Paris, since her father wanted to preserve her from the increasingly troubled situation in DRC. She brought along three audio cassettes. During the years to come, she recalled, she only listened to the soul singer Otis Redding, the Congolese vocalist Tabu Ley Rochereau, and an unspecified country music album. The unanimously recognized ‘king of reggae’ Bob Marley has been among her musical inspirational figures, too. Frequent travels to the United Kingdom and Germany also put Gasandji in contact with other European cultures.
Developing a style of her own has not been easy for the Congolese artist. “This album is my passport, my ID,” she said about her first record. “Before, I was like an undocumented resident, I was spending my time imitating other singers,” she added. Indeed, her musical career started many years before the release of the eleven track, self-produced album. In 2001, Gasandji met a more famous fellow countryman, Lokua Kanza, who asked her to perform in his concerts and helped her to record her first demo. Other colleagues she has worked with include Amadou et Mariam, Keziah Jones, and MC Solaar. Her first live performance dates back to 1999, when she was part of the gospel choir, ‘We are one’; she has also been a chorister for artists such as Jimmy Sissoko, Saya, and Pablo Master. Despite this wide range of experiences, making music for her is anything but mechanical. She compared her songwriting to giving birth. When asked about the choice of the language of each song, she answered: “Every song is a miracle, I never know if I will be able to write another.” She then added: “The titles just come to me in English, French, or Lingala, as they are.” Nevertheless, every piece of music reveals a careful and skilful work of composition. This may be one more reason why, in listening to Gasandij, one can easily forget that this album is actually just a debut. (D.M.)