FEATURES The West African Supergroup Fighting for Women’s Rights By Max Pilley · February 22, 2024

“No matter what, we’re gonna make it/ Get up, get up, get up!/ RISE!”

The soaring, climactic vocal on “Flaws” is one of several cries for freedom and change on Musow Danse, the third album by West African supergroup Les Amazones d’Afrique. Six women from six different countries pooled their respective talents, traditions, and languages to assemble the album: a collective demand for justice and recognition, not to mention an irresistible invitation to dance along with them. “It is not possible to shut us down,” says Fafa Ruffino, the Beninese vocalist who wrote two of the album’s songs, including “Flaws.” “It was maybe possible before, but now, no. They just want us to keep quiet, but when African women start shouting, you just have to give in. If you don’t give in, you die.”

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Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)

Les Amazones d’Afrique’s previous albums—2017’s Republique Amazone and 2020’s Amazones Powersought to address a range of urgent gender political themes that apply universally but resound especially strongly in the nations they represent, from FGM to forced marriage to teenage pregnancy. On “Musow Danse (Women’s Dance),” however, the nuance switches from commentary to activism, the collective channeling their righteous anger into a high-energy, disruptive call-to-arms, challenging their audience to embody the change they wish to see.

“It’s a patriarchal system here,” Ruffino explains. “So it’s about touching men’s ego, and talking about the things that have been set up for centuries. And the best way to give a message and not hurt people is to use music. Music can ease a lot of pain.”

Ruffino is joined by Mamani Keïta from Mali, Kandy Guira from Burkina Faso, Nigeria’s Nneka, and two newcomers in the Ivorian Dobet Gnahoré and Alvie Bitemo from Congo-Brazzaville. The roster, though, has been ever-changing since the band’s inception in 2012, when French booking and creative agent Valérie Malot, together with elite Malian musician Oumou Sangaré, set out to form an all-female musical collective to redress the imbalance in the voices that were being heard from the continent.

Mariam Doumbia (of Amadou & Mariam fame) and Angélique Kidjo were instrumental in establishing Les Amazones d’Afrique early on, with the legend of the Amazons of Dahomey, the female military warriors who protected Benin for centuries (as depicted in the 2022 Viola Davis film The Woman King), inspiring the group’s name.

“We decided to gather our strength and fight,” sings a chorus of five Amazones on the propulsive, dazzling lead single “Kuma Fo.” They are formidable in tandem, but “Musow Danse” allows each musician their own moments to shine, too. Tracks were developed in isolation from each other, with the Amazones each laying down melodies and lyrics onto their own demo tracks, which were subsequently sent to uber-producer Jacknife Lee (R.E.M., Taylor Swift, U2), whom Malot recruited to the project after his work producing Rokia Koné’s 2022 album BAMANAN, herself another former Amazone.

While maintaining a strong sense of traditional West African rhythms and acoustic instrumentation, Lee’s production introduces a stirringly contemporary edge to the music, too, with skittering hi-hats and glitchy 808s, and the occasional nod to golden age hip-hop and vintage disco. At all times, though, the voices are the star, constantly demanding the listener’s attention.

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)

The group are especially conscious of the importance of their language–not just the contents of the words they sing, but of their choice of tongue, too. Over ten different languages are heard throughout the album; on “Queen Kuruma” alone, Ruffino switches seamlessly between four of them. “We want everybody to have a slice of the message we are saying,” she explains. “If you want to touch my heart, talk to me in my language. This means we are talking to everybody, from the villages to the cities. We want to let all of these traditions sing.”

It is clear that the group are at their most confident to date on Musow Danse, boosted by the success of the previous records and the international stages they have conquered, from Glastonbury to Primavera to the enormous Gnawa Festival in Morocco. Barack Obama lent them a spot on his coveted 2017 end-of-year playlist, too, for the Nneka-led “La dame et ses valises.” By the time they dropped the first teaser for “Kuma Fo” in late 2023, Ruffino was overwhelmed by the immediate response.

“That means people are waiting for us, waiting to hear what we have to say again, waiting to see what we want to tell them. That means a lot, people are open now to come to the table and talk,” she says.

It is a spotlight that they do not accept lightly; if one thing is clear on Musow Danse, it is that Les Amazones d’Afrique are by no means content with what they have achieved so far. They know there is a lot more that they can achieve, and with the full-throttle energy and future-focused production on the album, they know most of all that to bring about the change they are fighting for, they need the next generation on board too.

“While they are moving and dancing, they are also listening to the lyrics,” Ruffino says. “They are the future presidents, so we have to start brainwashing them now. In a good way! It’s a reverse process—we’ve been brainwashed for so long, so now we are fighting back.”

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