Aby Coulibaly Had a Great Year

Dean Van Nguyen

Dean Van Nguyen is a cultural critic and music journalist for The Irish Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily and Wax Poetics, among others. As well as pop culture, he writes about identity, youth, race relations and Dublin.

For most people, this has been an unfortunately untypical December, but as 2021 has been winding down, those of us in our music-crit bubble have been doing what we always do, what muscle memory probably demands: opening up our spreadsheets and making arguments for the greatest music of the year. I’ve got my lists and maybe you have yours too. But I want to take the time to talk specifically about Aby Coulibaly – 21-year-old Dublin singer, the city’s best rising artist – and acknowledge how in 2021, she crushed it.

First, let’s go back to the summer of 2019, when Coulibaly started experimenting at home by recording vocals over YouTube beats and uploading the recordings to Soundcloud. Ambitious, she set up her own label with friends, Chamomile Records, under which all her music has been put out. By day, Coulibaly worked in insurance, something she’s since ditched in an attempt to forge a career in the more unpredictable business of music.

Released in 2020, “Taurus” was such a fully formed debut single. Inspired by a real-life break-up (that old chestnut), Coulibaly puts memories of an ex who couldn’t get his priorities right in her rearview mirror. Flowing over lightly caressed piano keys, the language is loose and conversational. When Coulibaly sings about cigarettes and weed, it matches the smokiness of the production.

“Taurus” established Coulibaly’s formula. Influenced by Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, James Blake, her music skews neo soul to urban jazz to hip-hop. She is equally comfortable with singing and rapping, though perhaps most comfortable with something in between. She absolutely belongs in the canon of recent Irish singers making contemporary R&B for all the grown-ups – Erica-Cody, Senita Appiakorang – but for me, Coulibaly most closely resembles the surly, gritty, urbane soul of British singers IAMDDB and Greentea Peng.

Totally uninterested in mimicking your more powerhouse vocalists, her singing voice is sleek and confident, like minimalist interior design. The motif of nighttime is a recurring theme in her small number of released songs, and by that I mean the emptiness of the absence of light, rather than the raucousness of your best/worst night out. Coulibaly conjures moods like post-party silence, or waking up in the middle of the night alone.

See second single “Maybe”, a more dark-edged cut featuring a crying electric guitar. A defeated Coulibaly describes days fading into one another, leaning on the image of sunless days to depict her depression. “I know I’ll see better days when the sun comes out and the rain goes away,” she sings, invoking the same grey day imagery of Travis’ famous broken-hearted single.

So, on to 2021 and 12 months that saw Coulibaly drop a few more singles that continue to chisel out her fresh aesthetic. We got the impressive “Long Nights”, a song about corrosive friendships and how damaging we can be to one another for no good reason. Here, Coulibaly wonders why a mate is taking her anger out on her. The repeating of “It’s really been a long night” on the hook just accentuates her frustration. When Aby switches to a rap, she gets more aggressive, coming straight out and saying she doesn’t like any attempts to make her feel insecure: “Send me any message, bitch, I swear I’ll never write back.” The video takes place on a Dublin bus, at Dart stops, and outside the Mediterranean Food Market on Thomas Street, fortifying Coulibaly’s allegiances to her home city, should anyone ever doubt them.

The more upbeat “Where u at”, a duet with Monjola, was a smart change of pace from the twilight R&B. The inverse of Coulibaly’s previous single, it’s about two friends who can’t quite figure out why their changing lives have led to a distance developing between them, but know they want to close the growing gap. There’s a sense of tension between Monjola and Coulibaly as they curse each other’s hectic schedules and wonder why phone calls once came regularly but now don’t.

That they’re both probably to blame doesn’t matter. What is important is that by the end of “Where u at”, the two friends reach a positive answer to the question, “Will you be around and will you stay around and be there for me when I’m down?” The pair’s chemistry is appropriately easy going, giving a rare sweet depiction of a male-female friendship, so often underrepresented in not just music but all media.

Her latest song is “Chamomile Tea”. Produced by Moyo, it’s about that moment, just after 3am, when your whole world has gone quiet and a sense of serenity can be reached – in Coulibaly’s case, over a cup of herbal infusion. It encapsulates her ethos, and puts the button on a phenomenal year that has seen her do exactly what she needs to do: build her body of work, her fan base, her reputation. Get on this train now so you say you were there when it hit the cosmos.

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Dean Van Nguyen: Dean Van Nguyen is a cultural critic and music journalist for The Irish Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily and Wax Poetics, among others. As well as pop culture, he writes about identity, youth, race relations and Dublin.

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