Not everybody likes girls playing instruments in this West African country – but this group of seven ultra-cool musicians shatters those expectations.
For the trumpet and for getting stuff done, André Balaguemon has a flair.
In 2016, in the remote agricultural northwest of the country, a determined multi-instrumentalist from central Benin moved to Natitingou and had a conversation with the mayor. He had the idea of holding local girls’ music lessons, using his own instruments, so that they didn’t have to pay. The mayor agreed, wrote a volunteer radio call, and provided a rehearsal room. In front of City Hall, eighteen girls turned up.
A well-rehearsed group of seven girls (including Balaguemon’s two daughters, Angélique on drums and Grâce Marina on keys) emerged four years and several chance meetings later.
They cross linguistic and stylistic boundaries by adding local waama rhythms, Congolese rumba, highlife and Sierra Leonean bubu on the debut album of Star Feminine Band, recorded live in just two days. The exuberant songs are composed, written and arranged by Balaguemon (“The girls contribute their ideas, but I do everything”) and unfold in multiple languages (Waama, Peul, Ditammari, Bariba, Fon, French), so good you can’t help but get on your feet with screams and call-and-response.
As the 10-year-old Angélique puts it, “When we play, everyone dances.”
If four-time Grammy winner Angélique Kidjo is the biggest star yet in Benin, then her bright future is the Star Feminine Band. That’s not lazy contextualization: Kidjo’s baton is taken by these teenagers and their unstoppable bandleader as beacons of female strength, artistic excellence and indelible joy.
In Benin, a girl band is intrinsically political.
Local orchestras have been a core part of the Beninese music scene since the post-independence heyday of the 1960s, with the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou, the most popular of them, acting as Kidjo’s own launch pad.
Yet women were only ever active as singers and dancers, if at all. Balaguemon notes, “People don’t like girls playing instruments here,”
Some of his charges, when they signed up, had never seen keyboards or a drum kit.
Undaunted, within the first two weeks, he taught them to clap to the beat. He also taught them discipline: the team took out everyone who wasn’t on schedule. Today, they practice three school nights a week and on Sundays, and during the holidays, they practice nine to five every day.
I’m asking 13-year-old Grâce Marina if rehearsals are difficult. “They’re fantastic!” she responds with a smile.
All of which explains their collective aplomb on stage only partially.
The epitome of indie hip, Angélique faces her debut hit “Peba,” is bassist Julienne Sayi, and all seven sing and play, belting intricate, changing rhythmic patterns. “I don’t have stage fright,”I don’t have stage fright, maybe a little anxious, but the fear goes away quickly.”a little nervous maybe, but the fear goes away quickly.” The kan’kare and the kanganmou are her instruments – traditional drums not normally seen played by females.
For Balaguemon, forming the band was about “addressing the way men mistreat women.” He has been enraged by gender discrimination and oppression ever since he witnessed a man beating his wife as a young child. “Women are not valued. Their rights are limited; in men’s minds, women are limited.” His countercultural feminism is rooted in his relationship with his mother, which he claims is more like a daughter’s relationship. To me, my mother is everything.
And she loves this project.” So does his wife, Edwige, the “band’s mother.
Not only does Balaguemon offer free music lessons, but it offers freedom. In this area, teenage pregnancy is a hot topic, the education of a girl usually comes first, and women’s job prospects are also small.
Thus, with each member, he drafted contracts (which must be signed by a parent and a witness) promising that they would continue their education and not be compelled to marry. Even, when they graduate from high school, the band will not stop. “Star Feminine Band is together forever,” he says.
Grâce Marina hopes to write songs about the rights of children next, and all the lyrics have the direct “Do da da da”