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Hermas Zopoula - Espoir

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Artist: Hermas Zopoula

Album: Espoir

Label: Asthmatic Kitty

Review date: Apr. 30, 2009

Burkina Faso is not exactly front and center on the world music map – in fact, most non-Africans would probably be hard pressed to find it on any world map. The French colony of Upper Volta until 1984, the country is crammed into the bulge of West Africa, surrounded by (clockwise) Mali, Niger, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. Primarily agricultural, with no access to the sea, Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world, with somewhere between a fifth and a quarter of its total population living as émigrés. Although the capital, Ouagadougou, has a club scene, the music is dominated by imports –Congolese rumba, reggae and the like. In Europe and the U.S., recordings are limited to a handful of field recordings made in the 1960s and 1970s on labels such as Nonesuch and Lyrichord.

Knowing all that, this two-CD set of popular music from Ouagadougou feels like a coming-out event for the nation. Written and performed by Hermas Zopoula with a small crew of guitarists and backup singers (as well as an uncredited keyboardist), the songs are very much in the vein of Congolese rumba – specifically the dance-oriented soukous best known from Europe-based super-groups such as Quatre Étoile. Espoir comprises two sets of recordings: one is a studio disc first released as Espoir in 2008 in Burkina Faso as a cassette; the other documents live sessions recorded in and around Zopoulas’s home by Canadian artists Jonathan and Heather Dueck.

The results are uneven, to say the least. At its best, as in “Wend nana Dounia,” the vocals are sweetly reminiscent of the aforementioned Quatre Étoile or Mose Fan Fan. At its worst, however, Espoir ranges from merely unfortunate to downright peculiar. “Attention!” definitely falls in this last category, with the pleasant combination of acoustic and electric guitar marred by cheap keyboard sounds (including synthesized finger snaps) and electronic vocal treatments that would curl Peter Frampton’s hair. Unfortunately, the worst track on the studio disc is also the title cut, which apparently includes a guest performance by Alvin the Chipmunk.

The second disc, Live Demos, is much more consistent, just Zopoula and his acoustic guitar, with occasional reminders of the outdoor setting of the live recordings (bird song, wind, rain, and a passing motorbike). Some of these songs would not be out of place at a Bible camp sing-along (many of the lyrics show Zopoula to be a devout Christian); others are edgier or, in the case of the cut “Untitled,” filled with the singer’s own laughter.

Espoir is an unusual release, part interesting artifact of aesthetic oddities, part field recording of a talented man with a smooth voice who knows his way around a guitar. Not the ideal introduction to Burkina Faso, but worthwhile nonetheless.

By Richard Miller

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