Designated a Révélation Radio-Canada (an emerging artist recognition), Montréal-based singer-songwriter Joyce N’Sana has just launched her second EP, Obosso – on the occasion of her show at the 35th edition of Montréal’s Festival international des Nuits d’Afrique. The word obosso means “going forward” in Lingala, one of the main languages spoken in her native Congo (Brazzaville). Which is fitting, because one of the EP’s main themes is hope, which is particularly on-point as the world gradually returns to a modicum of normalcy. Behind that message, the music broadens the horizons of N’Sana, who’s generally associated with the groove of African reggae.
“A lot of people think of me as a reggae artist, but I dabble in everything,” says N’Sana. “At the root of my work are blues and gospel — my very first stage was in church.” That’s where her parents – especially her father, a composer and guitarist – took the young girl, who now describes her style as “afrobluehop.” “He’s the one who taught me to harmonize over a voice,” she says, and informed her musical tastes. He turned her on to, among others, the legendary Papa Wemba – a monument of Congolese rhumba, and its hybridization with rock, and other musical stylings of her native country, such as ndombolo and soukous.
A good example of those gospel roots can be heard on “Mâma,” the surprising first single from Obossa, on which a blues organ sneaks behind her piercing voice, while splashes of electric guitar dance atop African percussion, rock drums, and even a drum machine. The song, and album, were produced by her Dakar (Senegal)-based collaborator Fred Hirschy, who’d noticed N’Sana’s talent while visiting Montréal. “It all happened naturally,” she says. “The first lockdown had just been declared when we started working on this project. The whole EP was done remotely – we sent each other tracks over the internet. We didn’t have any other choice, but it worked out well.
“All those influences give a special colour to my music and who I am today, just as reggae does, and it’s true musically as much as the message is concerned. I didn’t understand English when I listened to Bob Marley as a child in the Congo. But I would memorize key lines here and there, like ‘Get up, stand up / Stand up for your rights.’ Obviously, when you live in the Congo, you end up asking all sorts of questions about what’s going on [in society], and in that context, some songs speak to you more than others,” she says, alluding to the civil war raging in her country at the time.
“I don’t think I chose to make protest music, it was unavoidable,” says N’Sana. “I was moved by reggae’s message just as much as I was by the person delivering it. Whether it’s Marley or Lucky Dubé, one can only become one with that state of mind when you listen to their songs. Plus, there are incredibly few female reggae artists in Africa!”
Elsewhere on Obosso, listeners will find a duet with rapper, author, and public speaker Webster, “Chaînes,” about “breaking free of one’s chains, the mental ones, first and foremost,” says N’Sana. “It’s a song about liberation, quite simply; part of my verse talks about shame and the undue dominion it can have on us.” Obviously, the analogy also evokes the chains of slavery and, further into the song, immigration.
N’Sana herself left the Congo at the age of 17 to study applied foreign languages at the University of Orléans, an hour from Paris, “because my mother absolutely did not want me to go to Paris, even though I had family there!” says N’Sana. “I wanted to become an interpreter, but music never left me. Except telling your parents you’re dropping out of school to make music just doesn’t fly,” she says, laughing.
While pursuing her studies, she joined an Afro-soul band, which gave her a chance to perform outside the church. In 2006, the musician settled down in Montréal. “Canada was also one of my mom’s choices,” she says. “When there was a student strike [in France starting in 2005], there were no classes being taught, so I thought to myself, ‘Why not Québec?’ I have to say I was happy to get out of France for awhile. I felt pressure and a shock – a cultural one, granted – but that was the shock of racism. It was the first time in my life that I had to contend with that. So off to Québec I went!
“When I arrived in Montréal, it was immediately clear that as far as culture is concerned, this is where it was happening,” she says. N’Sana then became part of the small but tightly-knit local reggae scene, and particularly the band of composer and director Dan Fiyah Beats. “Some friends told me about this place, Le Balattou, so I checked it out,” she says. N’Sana registered for the Syli d’or showcase competition organized by the Festival international des Nuits d’Afrique, which then invited her to give a performance on one of the festival stages.
Her parents eventually found out about her career as a singer-songwriter without her having to tell them: when she participated in the Syli d’or five years ago, a portrait of her was published in the Journal de Montréal, “and a Congolese newspaper picked up the article – that’s how my father learned about it,” she says. “He wasn’t surprised. He called me that very day and said, ‘Apparently you’re a singer? So, what do you sing?’ He didn’t really care whether or not I chose the right trade, because he knew it was my passion, but he did want to know what I was singing and what message I was carrying. That’s what mattered most to him.”
Inspiration visits N’Sana at any given moment, “and that’s why I don’t go anywhere without my phone,” she says. “I record everything: sometimes a melody will come first, or a theme, or even lyrics. Then, alongside a composer or producer, and some musicians, things fall into place naturally. I share my ideas with him and play those recordings. I’ll say stuff like, ‘In this section or that song, I hear a balafon or another instrument, this or that rhythm.’ I strive to achieve a final result that’s as close as possible to what I hear in my mind.”
Obosso is an EP that the musician and performer describes as “a return to the languages of my home: Lingala, Kikunga, and Tshiluba, adding, of course, English and a bit of French,” she says, already announcing a forthcoming “more Francophone” EP for the fall. The visibility afforded her by Radio-Canada’s Révélations program will undoubtedly give her a precious and considerable boost.
“I can feel things are taking off, because everything is moving very fast,” she says. “It’s OK, because we were prepared, we worked really hard to get here. We’re making the most out of it, and we’ll go beyond Montréal and Canada. We’re planning on exporting this to the States, Europe and Africa, too; why not?”