Candela/TInder - 2003
861102 / label website
Sepia is a unique debut album from a Cameroon storyteller named Coco Mbassi (em-bas-see). Bridging the Christ-centered message of Gospel with dreamy songs erected on sparse acoustic instrumental arrangements with minimal and mostly hand percussion, bel canto piano, string quartet, solitary soprano sax and vocal overdubs or harmonizing backup singers, Sepia straddles the fence - between a tender roots-folk feel for its elemental yet delicate atmosphere, and a mature finesse for the impressionist palette of pastels wherey Mbassi sketches her lyrical soundscapes.

Sung entirely in an African tongue, at times even multi-tracked acapella style as on the "Bayedi" tribute to her parents, the religious focus of Coco's lyrics becomes apparent only in the liner note translations. It thus poses no barrier for those listeners of conflicting or simply less traditionally defined personal beliefs. "Oa Nde's" bare-boned guitar accompaniment hints at faint lite-Blues sensibilities while" Bila's" bubbly vocalizing brings to mind certain celebrated efforts by Bobby McFerrin. "Stabbat" borrows a lilting 3/6-based pulse from other gently drifting tracks but its percussive piano control injects a more earthbound spirit fleshed out by djembe and bongos.

Not New Age though likely instantly embraced by its devotees; not Folk though clearly influenced by strong songwriting focus; a kind of African Enya perhaps? Coco Mbassi's first release raises more questions than it answers, clear indication of a highly personalized vision that defies easy classification except for the obvious - this isn't a groping, experimental, rushed attempt to test the waters but a very secure, fully developed, sensibly timed coming-out event of a mature, profoundly heartfelt artist with strong convictions and aesthetics.

The retail flyer's "file under" orientation recommendation? Cameroon - AfroPop. Hmm. It cleary isn't the latter, not even a faint whiff of a cigar! And while Cameroon would certainly explain Coco Mbassi's origins and tongue, stashing Sepia away in the ethnic Cameroon section plainly is an unfair disservice to her as well. But I fully feel for the Tinder label's troubles. I'm not doing much better pegging Mbassi's proper label-fication either.

And that's precisely the well-deserved tribute any discussion of Sepia should close out with. Impossible to predict as to where you'll come across it at your local music stockist -- unless he sports a "Highly promising debut releases" display -- Coco Mbassi could be the next Tracy Chapman. Different vibe, same profundity. If you want to take credit for having been hip enough to predict her hitting the big time, grab a copy of Sepia. This could be it...