10 years of resistance: Les Amazones d’Afrique’s fight continues on Musow Danse

We’re calling on women from Africa, sing all-female supergroup Les Amazones d’Afrique —The Amazons of Africa— at the top of their sensational voices. “Rise up,” they declaim in languages of the Motherland, fists raised, hearts open, their Afrique flags flying free. “Life loves joy, let’s be happy.”

Around them, moving their hips, shaking their shoulders, juddering the ground under their feet, is a sound unlike anything the famed collective has embraced before. A bold, defiant sound, out there and in-your-face, a sound where tradition and innovation meet to spar and sucker-punch, inspire and empower.

Righteous anger has never felt so warm and convincing. Or so goddam danceable.

This, then, is Musow Danse. Women’s Dance. The third album by Les Amazones d’Afrique, whose ten-year-global residency has seen the seed of an idea take root, gather pace and bloom. It’s been a journey paved by talent, authenticity, conviction and hard work. And by knock-em-dead charisma: live shows everywhere from Primavera Sound in Barcelona and the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury to the Gnawa Festival in Essaouira, Morocco, have had hundreds of thousands of devotees grooving and punching the air.

If further proof were needed that Les Amazones d’Afrique have become a force for change, a movement synonymous with championing the rights of women everywhere, it is Musow Danse.

Produced and mixed by LA-based Irish shaman Jacknife Lee (U2, The Killers, REM), the record showcases six stronger-together voices: Malian diva/original member Mamani Keïta. Beninese vocalist/actress Fafa Ruffino. Burkina Faso star Kandy Guira. Ivory Coast phenomenon Dobet Gnahoré, who joined the collective for their 2022 live tour. New addition, Congolese singer/actress Alvie Bitemo. Further buoyed by two features from Nigerian songstress Nneka, it’s a work of inclusivity, dynamism and magic.

Musow Danse. Part call to unite. Part witch’s brew.

“I was elated when asked to join Les Amazones, who I’ve been following on Instagram for years,” says Bitemo, who solos with expressive flair on the fizzing ‘Mother Murakoze’, her lyrics telling, in Dondo, Lingala and Kinyarwanda languages, of the travails and rewards of motherhood. On ‘Amahoro’ she goes full tilt, insisting “Stand tall, be strong/Walk on, be fierce,” over Jacknife Lee’s jerky beats and synth patterns programmed à la the hedonistic Donna Summer/Vangelis disco smash, ‘State of Independence’.

“As an activist I get to spread my message even wider,” she adds. “I’m surrounded by women with similar vision, who are all their own queens, but who are super powerful together.”

Alvie Bitemo. Photo credit: Odhrán Mullan
“As an activist I get to spread my message even wider. I’m surrounded by women with similar vision, who are all their own queens, but who are super powerful together.” Alvie Bitemo

The presence of Africa —more specifically, of artists from countries in West and Central Africa— is felt throughout Musow Danse. It’s there in the cornucopia of sonorities and languages (Bambara, Bété, Ewe, Fon, Pidgin, more) used to tell stories, often through the proverb-form integral to African culture: “Everyone has flaws / People with flaws carry them everywhere they go,” sing Keïta and Ruffino on ‘Flaws’, their voices sparking and intertwining. “No matter what, we’re gonna make it / Get up, get up, get up, RISE.”

Africa is there in the use of call-and-response, that aeons-old reciprocal melodising that captures the joy inherent in that most versatile of instruments, the human voice. It’s there in all the colour, positivity and creative forward-thinking that makes, has always made, Africa great, and in the inspiration taken from Les Amazones live shows with all their spectacle and energy and movement.

Les Amazones d'Afrique - Flaws (Official Video)

Africa is there, too, in the collaborative, takes-a-village-to-make-an album approach: vocals were recorded by Nadjib Ben Bella (of Real World signings Montparnasse Musique). Files were exchanged. Ideas were flexed. Experiments pursued. Songs were reworked with everything from glitchy synths, trap-style high hats and genre-blurring 808s to live guitars, drums and percussion and a hip hop aesthetic nodding to golden era Missy Elliot and Timbaland. All deployed with the same sleight-of-hand that made BAMANAN —Jacknife Lee’s progressive, EDM-esque album with (former Amazon) Rokia Koné — so wildly acclaimed.

All this, plus the blazing of fresh trails, the breaking of new ground.

“Jacknife Lee took time to listen to each of our voices,” says Fafa Ruffino. “He doesn’t know what we are saying but you can tell that he feels the emotion, understands that our souls are deeply invested in our words. I feel like he entered our minds. What he did is more than musical. It is spiritual.”

“Each singer is referencing different things. But we are saying that yes, it is a hard time for women, and for those who identify as women. We are almost suffocating. Let us breathe." Fafa Ruffino
Les Amazones d'Afrique - Kuma Fo (What They Say) [Official Video]

“We decided to gather our strength and fight,” sing the five Amazons on the radiant, high-octane ‘Kuma Fo’, which melds ancient and modern to deliver a message that begs repeating— women have had enough of being shut down, spoken for, told what to do. Time has come to step up and push back.

“Each singer is referencing different things,” Ruffino continues. “But we are saying that yes, it is a hard time for women, and for those who identify as women. We are almost suffocating. Let us breathe.

“Since colonisation, certain countries in Africa have moved further away from women’s rights,” says Bitemo. “When you look at the Amazons of Dahomey” —the female warriors who for 200 years protected what is now modern-day Benin— “it was they who made the decisions, and their army that exercised power.

“In this song we say that if you bring life into the world, if you educate, you organise the family, then you should reclaim your power: your female power.”

Les Amazones d'Afrique. Photo credit: Karen Paulina Biswell.

So it is that like a bow pulled back with a fist and a sharp elbow, tracks such as the Kandy Guira-led ‘To Be Loved’ —machine-fed, gorgeously-arpeggiated, with a full-throated Afro-Cuban chorus— and the dirty dance fest that is Ruffino’s ‘Queen Kuruma’ take aim at the creaky patriarchy, then release their flaming arrows.

Sung strong by Dobet Gnahoré over gritty, distorted beats, ‘Kiss Me’ bounces and pops before exploding with high-hat might. There’s an unsettling frailty in the vocoded voice of Mamani Keïta on ‘Espérance’, a song whose brief chorus flashes like a sunburst between a barrage of bars and hooks. Think feminist futurism: the exosuit-wearing Ripley from the Alien franchise. Tracks that might frighten Beyoncé.

Musow Danse is of Africa, but it is also of locations unknown. It’s an album for all generations, identities and persuasions. It is for those who dwell in the margins, and for the men who would (should) be allies.

“My wish is for things to things transform, and that somewhere behind every strong woman you meet, see or read about, is an intelligent man hiding,” says Bitemo with a smile.

“Can you please give me something to give me joy,” rap-sings Nneka in Nigerian Pidgin on ‘Bobo Me (Interlude)’, a song fashioned from ‘Bobo Me’, also here, in which Nneka duets with Mamani Keïta, that original Les Amazones queen, their Pidgin/Bambara stylings hollering for change: “I know that we cannot continue like this,” they proclaim. “Iye, we call on women.”

Les Amazones d'Afrique backstage at the Pyramid, Glastonbury 2022. Photo credit: Odhrán Mullan.

Resistance and empowerment were the core goals of the three Malian music stars —Mamani Keïta, Oumou Sangaré and Mariam Doumbia— who co-founded Les Amazones d’Afrique in 2014 with Valerie Malot of the French booking/creative agency 3D Family, and which has expanded to involve female artists from across Africa and the Diaspora. The collective’s 2017 debut Republique Amazone —which included guest contributions from the likes of Angelique Kidjo and Nneka— was duly hailed as a pan-African tour de force. Their 2020 follow-up album Amazones Power platformed a younger generation of modern African singers alongside familiar voices including Rokia Koné (whose current stellar solo career owes much to her time in Les Amazones), and Mamani Keïta, long experienced, silvery voiced, the group’s materfamilias and rock.

Theirs has not been an easy journey. Resistance comes with the territory. To be involved in Les Amazones d’Afrique is to be a fighter, a warrior, to know that there is freedom and joy on the other side of struggle.

As Gnahoré sings on the catchy, back-to-front ‘My Place’, “There is a place in my mind/It’s calm, it’s peaceful. This is my refuge, it’s my sweetness…

On Musow Danse, you can feel the change coming.

Until it does, we fight, and we dance.

Words by Jane Cornwell

Featured Release

  • Musow Danse

    Les Amazones d’Afrique

    Released 16 February 2024

    Like a bow pulled back with a fist and a sharp-angled elbow, the supergroup Les Amazones d'Afrique take aim at gender inequality and, fortified by an ancient-to-future soundscape co-crafted with producer Jacknife Lee, shoot their flaming arrows. Six glorious voices, six mighty queens — Alvie Bitemo, Dobet Gnahoré, Kandy Guira, Mamani Keïta, Nneka, Fafa Ruffino — declaim in a range of languages of the freedom and joy that comes with speaking out, and of the power of unity and ally-ship. Female warriordom has never sounded so fierce — or so danceable.

By Jane Cornwell

Renowned for her informed, engaging writing and copywriting on music, arts, culture and travel, Jane Cornwell is the jazz critic, and a world music critic, for the London Evening Standard and writes for major newspapers and online platforms in the UK and Australia. She is also a compere at WOMAD, a contributing editor of Songlines magazine and a writer of books, press releases and programme notes.

Published on Thu, 15 February 24

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