Water is life. Water can’t be stopped. Water always carves its own ways. Fela Kuti once addressed this symbolism in his resistance hymn “Water Get No Enemy”. Y’akoto, too, feels a strong bond to water, to the sea and its boundless and arousing forces. “Whenever I’m by the sea and I find myself knocked over by a wave, it feels like I’m slapped in the face by my own intuition”, says Y’akoto, who was brought up in the Ghanaian harbour town Tema and nowadays commutes between her adopted home city Hamburg, Paris, Stockholm, Los Angeles and the African coastal centres Dakar, Accra and Lome. It’s exactly this kind of rugged intuition that’s been characteristic of Y’akoto’s urbane music ever since – the kind of music that dares to galvanize, to wake up, to rub up things the wrong way. Now, the sea-subject inspires a new collection of songs that, besides soul, carry with them a lot of salt and sensuality: “Mermaid Blues” is the title of Y’akoto’s new, third album.
As the word “Mermaid” suggests, Y’akoto looked into the mythology and history of this siren steeped in legend. Also called Mami Wata or “Wisdom of the Oceans” in Africa, it is half woman and half fish and can hence survive in both worlds. It is said that they’re utterly self-determined as much as they’re unpredictable – both characteristics that can be accredited to Y’akoto as well. The 29-year-old has come to accept this with her own self-confidence: “Our societies are constantly driven by need satisfaction, hence demanding of us women to be the sweet, smiling ‘girl next door’. Which might work for many. It does not, however, for me”. With her dark, expressive voice she’s been compared to jazz icons such as Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. It’s that sense of freedom she applies to her songwriting. Why live up to other people’s expectations? Instead, her music seeks to capture the respect for nature – forces that are “stronger than all of mankind put together”.
In her career, this daughter of a Ghanaian Highlife musician and a German political scientist never opted for the straight, simple path. Encouraged by her dad, she picked up singing and playing the keyboard back in Ghana, where she lived until the age of eleven. Her teacher at the time instructed her to write a new song each day. However, Y’akoto would not sign a record deal just yet. Instead, she decided to study dance education. 2012 saw her breaking through: never one to shy away from politically charged issues, Y’akoto addressed the suffering of child soldiers – and this is years before the current wave of refuges would confront us immediately with the reality of so many young people’s lives in the war zones of our world. In spite – or maybe because – of all this –, the song as well as the accompanying album were met by great acclaim by critics and fans alike. In 2014, she expanded her repertoire with her sophomore album “Moody Blues”.
Somewhere in between bluesy ballads and danceable funk tracks, she took up the thread again and spread the message of soul: “Off The Boat” alluded to the boat people in the Mediterranean, while “Mothers and Sons” went out to all the fatherless families out there. Subsequently, Y’akoto gained two nominations as “Best National Rock/Pop Female Artist“ at the ECHO awards, was hailed as “a class of its own” (Süddeutsche Zeitung) by the media and played support shows for artists such as Erykah Badu, Nneka, Asa, Kwabs, and Joy Denalane.
What does Y’akoto sound like in 2017, though? What direction has she grown into? And what inspired her new album “Mermaid Blues”? Remarkably, at this point Y’akoto cites the life stories of Muhammad Ali and Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. People who, despite great oppositions, were not afraid to voice their own opinions and ideas. She also esteems Afro-British writer Zadie Smith and American philosopher Noam Chomsky. They taught her to question things. To stay curious: “I focus on those who get me”, says Y’akoto. “Make no mistake: sincere artistic expression is difficult, challenging and exhausting, no matter the approach you choose. That’s soul.” It’s exactly this determination to tackle her own inner contradictions that shaped “Mermaid Blues”. The bulk of the production work was done by Swedish producer duo Stefan Örn and Johan Kronlund at ART:ERY Studios in Stockholm, with further production coming from Berlin based producer Marek Pompetzki and successful Franco-Canadian producer Phil Greiss, hailing from Paris. Alternating between blues, neo-soul and ambient pop, Y’akoto presents us with some of her most intensive vocal contours, wresting a great deal of passion from her guttural, brittle voice.
In the melancholic piano ballad “Fool Me Once”, Y’akoto bewails the painful holding-on to a bygone love. Yet she knows that she will go have to go her own way: “We walk the line from point to point/ and if we’ll fall, we will fly...”, she sings in “We Walk The Line”. It is only befitting that her musician-dad – “he’s the best lyricist and singer in the world” – helped her out on the bridge with this song. Whenever she’s at her wits’ end in the studio, she calls him – it’s just so much more helpful than listening to some randon MP3’s, she says. With “Reception”, she makes a bold statement, delivering her very own revolutionary song: “Global chaos, but we stay tough/ no time to fake it, we can make it“.
And then, there’s the mermaids other side: “Drink My Friend” infatuates with a hypnotic women’s choir, accompanied by a stomping rhythm just like in those old work songs. Is it a modern pirate’s song? Or sirens, getting the men on board drunk in order to take over the ship? “Take Him Back” is driven by a similarly uncanny flow, coined by by a continuous guitar riff. This is where the mermaid goes ashore. She wants to love a man. However, either he’s not available, or she’s not inclined. So eventually, the mermaid has to descend back into the sea. To a place where water follows its very own rules only, since “Mermaid Blues” is more than just music. It’s an attitude about life, the defiant force behind Y’akoto’s “soul seeking music”.
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