Tuesday, October 19

‘When we play, everyone dances!’ Benin Star Feminine Band Girl Group | Pop and rock

André Balaguemon has a talent for the trumpet and for getting things done. In 2016, this determined multi-instrumentalist from central Benin moved to Natitingou, in the country’s remote agricultural northwest, and spoke with the mayor. She had the idea of ​​setting up music workshops for local girls, using their own instruments so they wouldn’t have to pay. The mayor got on board, wrote a radio appeal for the volunteers, and provided a rehearsal space. Eighteen girls appeared in front of the town hall.

Four years and several chance encounters later, a perfected group of seven girls has been formed (including Balaguemon’s two daughters, Angélique on drums and Grâce Marina on keyboards). Star Feminine Band’s debut album, recorded live in just two days, sees them cross linguistic and stylistic boundaries, incorporating local rhythms from Waama, Congolese rumba, highlife, and Sierra Leone’s bubu. The exuberant songs are composed, written and arranged by Balaguemon (“The girls bring their ideas, but I do everything”) and are developed in multiple languages ​​(Waama, Peul, Ditammari, Bariba, Fon, French), with ululators and call -and- answer so good that you can’t stop standing up. As 10-year-old Angélique says: “When we play, everyone dances.”

If four-time Grammy winner Angélique Kidjo is Benin’s biggest star to date, Star Feminine Band is her bright future. This isn’t lazy contextualization: These teens and their unstoppable bandleader are taking Kidjo’s baton as beacons of female empowerment, musical excellence, and inexhaustible joy.

A girl gang in Benin is political by its very nature. Since its post-independence heyday in the 1960s, local orchestras have been a central element of Benin’s music scene, and the most famous of them all, the Orchester Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou, has been the launching pad for Kidjo. But the women, if they were involved, were only singers and dancers. “People don’t like girls playing instruments here,” says Balaguemon. Some of his protégés had never seen keyboards or a drum set when they signed up.

Undeterred, he spent the first two weeks teaching them to clap to the beat. It also taught them discipline: if you couldn’t be punctual, they would kick you off the team. Now they practice three school afternoons a week and on Sundays, plus every day from nine to five during the holidays. Are rehearsals difficult? I ask 13-year-old Grâce Marina. “They are fantastic!” she responds with a smile.

All of which only partly explains their collective poise on stage. Bassist Julienne Sayi is the epitome of indie cool; Angélique faces her first success Peba like a boss; all seven sing and play, striking complex, shifting rhythmic patterns right outside the park. “I’m not stage frightened,” says Julienne, “maybe a little nervous, but the fear goes away quickly.” Sandrine Ouei says she loves being there; Urrice Borikapei says it makes her feel powerful. Their instruments are the kan’kare and kanganmou, traditional drums that are usually never seen by girls.

For Balaguemon, starting the gang was about addressing “the way men mistreat women.” Ever since he witnessed how a man beat his wife as a child, gender inequality and injustice have infuriated him. “Women are not valued. Your rights are limited; In men’s minds, women are limited. “Her countercultural feminism is permeated by her relationship with her mother, which, she says, is more like the one a daughter might have.” My mother is everything to me. And loves this project. ” Like Edwige, his wife, the “mother of the band.”

'When we play, everyone dances' ... Star Feminine Band before a live show.
‘When we play, everyone dances’ … Star Feminine Band before a live show. Photography: JB Guillot

Balaguemon not only offers free music classes, but also independence. Teen pregnancies are a hot topic in this region and girls’ education is often the first to give way; Women’s job prospects are also limited. So she drew up contracts for each member (to be signed by a parent and a witness) stipulating that she would continue with her studies and would not be forced to marry. The band won’t stop at graduation either. “Star Feminine Band is together forever,” she says.

Grâce Marina hopes they will write songs about children’s rights next, and all the lyrics have that straightforward “do the right thing” quality (“Get up! Stand up! Don’t sleep! The world needs you!” ). It is pure cosmic poetry to hear them sing in unison: “You can become president of the republic / You can become the country’s prime minister” as Kamala Harris becomes the first woman, of color, to begin with, to be elected vice president of the United States. -presidency.

In March, Kidjo told the United Nations International Women’s Day audience: “As long as we stay on the level of talking, just talking, we will get nowhere. If we want gender equality, we have to stop talking and start acting ”. You may not know their names yet, but your compatriots Sandrine, Urrice, Grâce Marina, Angélique, Anne Sayi, Inès Bio and Julienne are working.

• Star Feminine Band’s self-titled debut album is out now Born Bad Records.


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