Saturday, December 03, 2011

Why Can't We--Asa's Lyrical Questions and Musical Answers

It's a wonderful surprise when something starts off feeling like a guilty pleasure before proving strong medicine against shame.  I had just such an experience with the October release of Nigerian singer songwriter Asa's single "Why Can't We," which I bought off of I-Tunes on one of my Tuesday online shopping whims. 

This ridiculously sunny record--a confectionary blend of pulsing acoustic guitar, bouncing bass and horns, highlighting the question "why can't we be happy"--brought to mind other records that have seemed irritatingly simplistic calls for attitude adjustment.  Still, that kaleidoscopic party of a record kept pulling me back until I bought the frenetically catchy first single off of the new album, "Be My Man," and then the whole album, Beautiful Imperfection.

Even outside of the context of the album, all those repeat listenings made it clear this song was a question, not a presumptuous nod toward a predetermined answer.  The song's main character is the one being counseled by a friend to enjoy herself.  Her natural impulse is to "worry much about things you don't understand."  In the opening verse, she's second guessing a lover's actions based on slim evidence.  By the end of the song, surrounded by a festival of bright sounds, she's asking, "why can't we be smiling/why can't we be lovin'" with what has to be a grin on her face.

On the album's second song, "May Be," it is evident that such moments of joy are hard earned.  The first line is "May be maybe, the sun will rise."  Maybe. 

And the questions never stop.  Over a gentle reggae rhythm, she points out, "There's people dying everywhere" before asking, "Can someone tell me who's to blame?"  On more than one song, she asks if her dreams are "a crime." The album even ends with a song called "Questions," which pulls no punches, often artlessly asking the unanswerable.  Just as often delivering questions that act as a quick punch to the gut.  "How many babies will be born just to die?"

She also asks for help. On "Preacher Man," she seeks redemption, obviously uncertain of the outcome.  On "Dreamer Girl," she asks someone to "tell me that I should keep holding on."  In this context, "Why Can't We (Be Happy)" clearly serves as the opening question for identifying a long list of intertwined personal and political obstacles.

"Why Can't We" serves another purpose as well.  After Asa's eponymous first album, she was known for serious songs like "Jailer," which points out the mutually trapped condition of any metaphorical guard and prisoner, and urgent calls to action like "Fire on the Mountain," which calls out the seductive blindnesses of patriotism and power itself.  Such subject matter has already led at least one BBC music writer to declare her a "twenty first century Bob Marley."

But when people say things like that, what they mean is that she's "serious" and "political" and potentially "important."  What Asa's latest album shows is that she shares something more distinctive with Bob Marley.  After all, since the birth of reggae, there have been many "serious" artists who play with the style, but few have the pop sensibility of a Marley.  Beautiful Imperfection argues Asa just may.

As serious a record as it is, Beautiful Imperfection is also notable for the classic rock grandeur of the swirling confession at the heart of "Preacher Man," the blasting rock guitar bridge on "Bimpe," the Beatley pulsing keyboards on "Dreamer Girl," the lush strings of "Baby Gone" and the infectious, almost Americana refrain of "Broda Ole."  Though three of these songs are in Asa's native Yoruba, all of them are impossibly accessible.

And in that context, "Why Can't We" tackles yet another question--why can't serious music sound anything but serious?  The happy answer to that question is apparent.

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