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Amazones

Amazones

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.

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 in 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 Valérie. 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.”

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.”

In many ways 'I Play the Kora' – a key track - 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 sang intermittently in English, French, Bambara and Fon. ‘Wedding’ features 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.

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. Producer 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 tracks like ‘Kounani’ it sometimes feels as if the 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.

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.

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 Valérie. “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”.

From the sleeve notes by Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff

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