Les Amazones d’Afrique are an all-female collective of west African musicians campaigning for gender equality. They have been described as a supergroup, and the characterisation seems apt. Angélique Kidjo, Inna Modja, Kandia Kouyaté, Mamani Keita, Mariam Doumbia, Mariam Koné, Massan Coulibaly, Mouneissa Tandina, Nneka, Pamela Badjogo and Rokia Koné hold a strong pedigree.
Angelique Kidjo has a glittering haul of Grammy awards, Kandia Kouyaté holds the title of ngara – a prestige only given to those artist-musicians of the Mande people in west Africa who possess what is deemed to be a certain aura of greatness – while some of the younger musicians, like Nneka, have been the voices behind recent international hit singles. Between them they have years of charitable work supporting other women, alongside personal struggles of illness and disability that have been overcome. Mariam Doumbia, for instance, is one half of the legendary duo ‘Amadou and Mariam’, and has managed to sidestep the prejudices associated with blindness through her music. Inna Modja, a victim of female genital mutilation (FGM), has bravely used her platform to campaign for its abolition.
This is only a grainy snapshot of some of their singular achievements, but it does give insight into why the group has been so successful as a collective, and why they have decided to curate this album: République Amazone.
Africa, although often looked at as a homogenous entity, is far from it. Speaking in broad brushstroke terms about cultural and societal practices in the west of the continent is useful however, when looking at ongoing issues surrounding global female oppression. In most west African countries, as in so many other places in the world, women are living within the confines of a postcolonial patriarchy that is not always kind to them. They are systematically disempowered in their home lives, where men are usually the head of the family.
The inequality of the sexes is exacerbated and brutalised because of issues such as violence against women, sexual abuse, unequal access to land or education and FGM. In retaliation to this, the women of Les Amazones d’Afrique have decided to use music as their weapon in an attempt to address the mentalities that continue to perpetuate disempowerment. “We dare believe that music can contribute to the trigger of behaviour change,” a spokesperson for the group once said.
The project itself began with just three Malian women: Oumou Sangaré, Mamani Keita and Mariam Doumbia. These towering, glamorous presences, well-known on the world music scene, had spent time with Valérie Malot (of French music agency 3d Family) Bamako, the capital of Mali, in 2014. She became their co-ordinator. “I saw how beautiful their lives were – with their perfume, fashion, music and divination, and I found myself connecting more and more with them,” says Valerie. The conversations they had around gender led to some big realisations. “What we found out was that female repression in the continent and in the world, is something that touches every woman. It’s not a question of colour, or culture. It’s something generic. All women can relate to it.”
While Oumou, who eventually decided not to continue working on the project, had a past marred by polygamy and forced marriage, Mamani had spent many years struggling in Paris with her own career-based gender concerns. After Valérie proposed the idea, they decided to come together to help support and raise money for the Panzi Foundation, who have treated more than 85,864 girls and women with gynaecological injuries
in the Democratic Republic of Congo, over half of whom are survivors of sexual violence. And so, Les Amazones d’Afrique was born; their name both a homage to the Dahomey Amazons, women warriors who roamed
modern-day Benin for the better part of 200 years protecting west African borders, and the first all-female music group in Guinea – Afro-pop band Les Amazones de Guinée. “The only way to build a group like this is to build it around a cause, an idea,” Valérie says with conviction. “We want to stop violence against women not only in the African continent, but also in the rest of the world.”
It wasn’t plain sailing. Although Valérie says casting the singers was “kind of magical”, when it came to finding an all-female band to record with, things stalled. “There weren’t enough female solo guitarists and drummers out there. There were big disappointments,” she says. They had to abandon plans of producing the album entirely with women, but with the help of Mouneissa Tandina (Mali’s only prominent female drummer), alongside guitarist Mamadou Diakaté and producer Liam Farrell (Doctor L), eventually they were successful in completing the line-up.
Les Amazones d’Afrique performed their first, high-energy concert at Fiesta des Suds in Marseilles in October 2015 – a night of bright lights, and ecstatic fist-waving from the audience – and celebrated the release of their first single, ‘I Play the Kora’, in June 2016. The EP was beyond the often- reductive term of “world music”. Its message, in bringing together women singing about why they should “rise up and fight injustice because we’re all equal”, was immediately powerful. The kora, a harp-like instrument native to west Africa, works as a metaphor. Playing the kora was denied to women for years; only men were allowed the prestige.
In many ways ‘I Play the Kora’ reflects the fresh, lively sounds République Amazone brings. The album would be as much at home on the dancefloors of east London, or as part of an Awesome Tapes from Africa festival set in Croatia, as it would be ringing out of a cement brick house in Bamako. It showcases the sparkling range and versatility of its songstresses.
Running on funk and blues with dabs of dub; ancient rhythms blending seamlessly with their western appropriated cousins, Les Amazones d’Afrique sound like an aural actuation of the new melting pot cities of the African continent. Tracks are sung intermittently in English, French , Bambara and Fon. At times, it’s almost as if we are swirling about in several decades simultaneously: filthy backwards or wah wah guitars, distorted thumb piano, dreamy, jazzy chords and soulful singing over a pneumatic beat give way to the kind of Afrobeat best heard as the dawn rises in a muddy field in Europe during festival season. Liam Farrell, who has worked with Afro-pop king Tony Allen and Mbongwana Star, had a firm hand in leading the edgy, industrial feel to the production.
On some tracks it’s as if sounds and arrangements have sneaked into the mid-Atlantic to dance with the Tropicalia of Brazil, enjoying a shared
delight in scraping, clanging percussion, off kilter melodies that blossom, moment to moment into beautiful cadence. There are dirty shards of Malian blues guitar over insistent, clipping percussion and trippy chords. On Nneka’s song ‘La Dame et Ses Valises’ we eavesdrop on an internal conversation which could be about love, or could be a woman giving herself the best advice: “Woman, don’t you know you are a queen?” Her history is not her destiny.
République Amazone is the sound of the diaspora of African music returning home, a reclaiming outside of genre and time. But Les Amazones d’Afrique as an outfit slot into a long tradition of West African female empowerment which extends beyond music. Women like Adelaide Smith Casely Hayford, known as the “African Victorian feminist” who set up a school for girls in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and Margaret Ekpo, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and Hajiya Gambo Sawaba, the unsung heroes of the 20th century independence and emancipation movement who were just as important to women’s rights progression in Nigeria as the suffragettes were in the UK, are not spoken about often enough outside of their home countries.
But, in the 21st century, the breadth of west African female empowerment has began to envelop a wider range of people. It was Nigerian feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who played a key role in helping to bring in the fourth wave of feminism worldwide, after her famous TED Talk, ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ was used in Beyoncé’s 2014 track ‘***Flawless’.
In it, Chimamanda explains that a female professor once told her that feminism was “un-African” and that she was calling herself a feminist because she had been corrupted by “Western books”. She goes on to suggest that current gender roles need to dismantled in west African society, accepting her role as an African feminist. Although the musicians from Les Amazones might hesitate to call themselves feminists outright, the group’s aims align with this mindset. To overcome violence against women in the countries they grew up in, the women behind Les Amazones d’Afrique know that the patriarchy, the dominance of men in society, must be dismantled.
They have learnt a lot from each other over the past year, especially after an intense summer on the road touring. Nneka, the 36-year-old Nigerian singer/songwriter, says it was the first time she had worked with a group of other musicians where they had all put their egos aside. “I have personally had my own fair share of abuse and domestic violence. Hence I felt that connection to these women and to the project,” she explains. “You are there with people who are talented, who have something to say. Who you can listen to, who you can learn from. Most of them are older women who have had so much impact on their society, or on their hometowns. Just looking at that, it definitely inspired me. It gave me hope as well. I’m not out there alone. It’s okay. Nneka you too can work, you can be a strong woman, yet you can also be a family woman.”
Nneka was so impressed by some of the women that she rushes to give depth to their stories. Kandia Kouyaté, she says, had a stroke a couple of years ago and is now “singing regardless of the pain she feels”. Mariam Doumbia, she reveals, “has such a big heart”. Knowing that Mariam is afraid sometimes, says Nneka, and hearing that she still goes out on stage and tackles her fear regardless, was a moment “beyond this world”. Musically, Nneka is in love with Rokia Koné, who she hopes to collaborate with in the future. She melismatically sings the five-note pentatonic scale, explaining, “I’ve been used to the normal scale, but they’re constantly singing in the pentatonic scale. Spending so much time with them I began to sing like that automatically. People who heard me sing after that were like, ‘Nneka what happened? You sound great!’” Inna Modja has spoken about how she and Nneka also helped to educate the older women in Les Amazones. “We were rocked by different musical things,” she told Le Point Afrique.
While at first glance Les Amazones d’Afrique may appear exclusionary in its focus, what is clear from the album is that they want men to join them on the journey towards equality. “It’s a love letter to men, in fact,” says Valerie. “Everyone is saying, in their way, we need you.” République Amazone is an album for anyone who wants to climb on board towards a future where the scourge of violence, of any kind and to any people,
is a thing of the past. Especially violence, mental, physical or political, against women.
Words by Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff
Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff is a writer, freelance journalist and commentator.