Les Amazones d'Afrique
Benin, Gabon, Mali, Nigeria
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, 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.
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.
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. The first track to be revealed from the République Amazone album is I Play the Kora, a track that goes well 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", is 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.
It's no surprise that Les Amazones d'Afrique have earned fawning praise from the press. The Financial Times' David Honigmann describing how "the entire cast [of Les Amazones d'Afrique] melded female empowerment and the full richness of Malian music into a fitting culmination to the festival" in his review of WOMAD. Robin Denselow of the Guardian commented on their "exuberant harmonies", while Julien Le Gros in Le Point put their success down to their "steely resolve". "They bring their voices for the rights of their daughters, sisters and mothers," he wrote.
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.