Ann O'aro Ann O'aro
Cobalt / Buda Musique
Review by Bruce Miller
In her October 2018 New Yorker review of writer and activist Soraya Chemaly’s book "Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger," Casey Cep observes, while considering the mountains of evidence, from number of orgasms to assault, where women’s power is undermined time and again in a world still often determined by powerful men, “that the cumulative effect of reading [Chemaly’s] book is not merely to legitimize women’s anger but to render it astonishing that we are not even angrier.” But Cep also acknowledges that anger, something often celebrated in men but condemned in women by men, in and of itself doesn’t always point toward righteousness. Indeed, Ann Coulter is angry too, seemingly all the time in fact. A young Rosa Parks almost threw a brick at a young white boy who was bullying her. But she didn’t. She rallied her anger and later channeled it into action, instead of letting emotion alone guide her toward an act that might have gotten her killed at the time.
And so has Ann O’aro. This 28 year old singer, born and currently living in Tan Rouge, Réunion- after long stays in Quebec and Paris- makes music that draws from the Maloya traditions of her home country. But like the records Brigitte Fontaine made with her partner Areski, she manipulates these traditions for her own needs. Here, her voice is unaccompanied; there, she is joined by members of her band for harmony. A percussion pattern, played on the rouler, a low-tuned hand drum, emerges, and her voice takes on an insistence, a certain violence, until it returns to its initial calm.
If one doesn’t know a word of the creole she uses to float above sparse, calculated instrumentation, she could imagine the lyrics being about anything from elephants to plants. But O’aro, who was a victim of rape and incest at the hands of her suicidal, abusive father, has chosen music as a way to not only deal with the experience, but to give voice to something typically suppressed in Réunion in general. She has visited high schools, including Moulin Joli, where the children rehearsed her song “Kap Kap” (full track is above), which deals with child rape and includes references to ejaculation. Her visit isn’t about intimidation, even if there’s discomfort. “To talk about it, to sing it, to make music is to learn to think,” she argues.
Women have been coming forward on these issues in music for years. Lady Gaga was joined by 50 rape survivors at the 2016 Oscars for her song “Til It Happens To You;” Tori Amos’s 1991 song “Me and a Gun,” was sung form inside the mind of a rape victim; Ireland’s Au Pairs sang, on their 1981 song “Armagh,” about Irish Republican female prisoners being stripped searched and assaulted; Bikini Kill dealt with rape culture on their 1991 track “Liar.” And the list of such songs, like the ever growing stories of women who have survived sexual assault at the hands of men, goes on and on and on. But O’aro has an entire self-titled album dealing with it, complete with lyrics in French and Creole and photos of her, often with her head shaved, sometimes screaming in agony, sometimes clutching stability as wind ravages her. The lyrics of “K’m Out Ka” (which translates to “In Spite of You”) address her childhood memories bluntly: “The imprint of your engorged member/ Your sex organ fills my throat.” The western listener can, of course be spared the brutal visions her lyrics insist we see, but to those in the tiny island that has helped shape her into the performer she is now, such words, often repeated by a small male chorus, are central to how one listens.
"K'm Out Ka" (excerpt)
Musically, Ann O’aro is breathtaking. Her voice is as sinewy as it is soothing, as if she needed to calm all of us so that we’d be OK. But she’s also clearly insistent, as she shows on closing a cappella track “Valval Rouz.” But if she’s not showing her anger in more typical fashion- smashing things, getting into fights- she’s letting it out without compromise in music that turns torture into art, something baroque-era painter Artemisia Gentileschi did in the 17th century. And no one, not this writer, not Casey Cep, is suggesting O’aro shouldn’t be driven by blind rage. Who could argue with such a thing?
Yet, she’s given us context through art, crucial always but no more necessary than right now. Ultimately this album, and the power it’s provided its creator, will go so much farther in helping the rest of us see an ugly truth about how we treat each other, and in so seeing, possibly, just maybe, her pain will help the rest of us recognize- if we didn’t already know- that centuries of unchecked frenzied male savagery is no match for passionate but deliberate female response. We should all be so lucky to be so liberated. - Bruce Miller