A blue half-moon watches over us at the open-air quadrangle within the hallowed precincts of The Indian Museum. A Gabonese singer from France is singing about life and love with her band, in a language we don’t understand. Yet, a connection is made. The feet start to tap for some, the soul stirs in others while many simply rush to the front of the stage to dance.
Calcutta, India; Village, Gabon; Paris, France. Tita Nzebi has just etched a path that is sure to be followed by many. Her music is about understated sophistication achieved through a balanced mix of percussive flamboyance that overlays intricate bass patterns woven around melodic guitar lines. It’s not in your face. It draws you in. You’ve got to listen. And then you get hooked. Wayama, the second track of the evening, is eminently danceable because of a rolling bass riff, while Machhi Machhima has everyone sing along. They are all having a good time.
“I am not singing to become famous. I sing to protect a heritage,” Tita tells The Telegraph after the gig, looking tired after a long journey, interrupted by flight changes and baggage losses. Her compositions draw from the ethnic repertoire of Nzebi, a Bantu people from central Africa settled in Gabon, a country in the west coast of central Africa, with two million people. I look it up. Spread over 2,70,000 square kilometres, Gabon is larger than Uttar Pradesh, but smaller than Maharashtra.
Tita moved to France from Gabon for her studies and took up singing as a co-curricular necessity, an alternative to sports, which she says she was no good at. “I took to singing thinking it is easy. Everyone can sing, right?” she laughs. Soon she realised how difficult it was and that she had to learn music and work hard at it. Club gigs and collaborations followed and while writing her songs, she began to fall back on her traditions, the “rhythms of Nzebi” she grew up to in her village in the equatorial forests of south Gabon.
Tita, therefore, adopted Nzebi as her artistic title, telling stories about local customs, some so delightful that they are immediately universal. There’s a song about weddings she does. It is celebratory, naturally, talking about the coming together of communities, about “two villages becoming one”, “one family earning a son while another earns a daughter”. She explains how the song is her counterpoint to a narrative she had heard from a musician while working with Sec Bidens, the guitarist considered to be the great man of Congolese music. There, someone was talking about how it was wrong for girls in his hometown to return home after marriage because they did not approve of their husbands’ ways. Tita did not agree and hence wrote her own song. “Not everyone has to get married… and even if you do, no one says you don’t have the freedom to choose even if your partner turns out to be a bad man.”
The mission she has chosen for herself is in the true traditions of the West African griot, best described by the respected Camaroonian writer/ artist/musician, the late Francis Bebey, as “…a troubadour, the counterpart of medieval European minstrel… The griot knows everything that is going on… he is a living archive of the people’s traditions.” Much like our very own baul. Youssou N’Dour, perhaps the most famous singer of Senegal, the one we heard in Delhi in the 1980s while he was touring the world with Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Peter Gabriel for Amnesty International, has found success in pursuing that cause. So has Toumani Daibate the Malian master of the kora, a harp like instrument, and Sona Jobarte from The Gambia who is blazing a trail as the first woman to play the kora, till recently the sole preserve of men.
No wonder Tita has bonded with singers from Bengal — Gobinda Das Bairagya and Titas Sen, whom she met during her first visit to the city in 2017. The songs she did with them have found place in her latest album, titled, From Kolkata, unveiled at a second gig this time at the Hard Rock Cafe on Park Street. Titas was there, singing the title track that is a mix of a jhumur love song and a Gabonese tune about the birth of twins that is considered a holy occurrence in many villages of Africa.
“I find Tita to be very powerful… in her beliefs, in the way she sings and as a performer,” says Titas, whose earthy vocal tone has already drawn a small but dedicated following on her YouTube channel. Gobinda Das’s Baul Song snug fits the album, Serge Ananou’s guitar ably replicating the nuances of the khamak while Ivan Rechard’s bass established a parallel solo as if seconding every word of the lyrics. The rest of the album is a happy mix of reggae, jazz and pop intonations, heightened by Georges Dieme’s subtle swipes and strikes on the drums and congas and occasional bursts of the saxophone. From Kolkata is a delightful offering, leaving you with thoughts of myriad shades and diverse influences. My favourites are the soulful L’kwele, the jazz-infused Dictatue inavouee and the hauntingly sublime Bayendi and its cello embellishments.
Tita’s retelling of stories is heightened by her astonishingly powerful vocal range that she, interestingly, deploys sparingly. Her singing is soft and bold at the same time, searing and loving, elegantly purposeful. She budgets her flourishes and high-pitch intonations, consciously limiting herself so as not to overshadow the music that is a delectable mix of folk with shades of jazz. She sings in Nzebi and French, a combination that prompted Alliance Francaise Du Bengale to host her, in collaboration with Asian Guitar Federation, Indian Guitar federation, Calcutta Classical Guitar Society and Siddha Foundation, to celebrate International Francophonie Day (March 20) that commemorates the ever-growing global community of French speaking people and their diversity.
So Tita sang in Bangla too. Gobindo Das wasn’t there, so she sang his part in their Baul Song, jumping ecstatically when the audience roared in approval and clapped in unison.
Lok dekhano khuti nati,
Noiko tor shadhona,
Bhaaber ghare churi korle cholbe na.
In a world that threatens to be torn asunder by hatred and bigotry, where the sane still seek out, and find, solace in the comforting strains of the higher calling of music, we need more singers to sing their songs. That night, Tita Nzebi was the star shining alongside the blue moon in Calcutta.