Les Amazones d’Afrique is a supergroup of 10 remarkable West African female performers, including international stars, local heroes and up-and-coming musicians. Consisting of Grammy-winning icon Angélique Kidjo, Mariam Doumbia (of Amadou & Mariam fame), Nneka, Kandia Kouyaté, Mamani Keita, Mariam Koné, Massan Coulibaly, Mouneissa Tandina, Pamela Badjogo and Rokia Koné, the group rages against gender inequality in both song and deed. Profits from their darkly twinkling single, “I Play the Kora,” benefited the Panzi Foundation, which provides medical services to survivors of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, grimly known as “the rape capital of the world.”
Their debut album for Real World Records, République Amazone, is produced by Liam Farrell, who gave it the same processed guitars, industrial loops and overall Afrofuturist overdrive that he leant to Mbongwana Star’s acclaimed debut last year. You can hear the entire LP below.
Rolling Stone spoke with Kidjo and Nneka about this hard-funking, future-minded collaboration, as well as Kidjo’s reimagining of Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, which premieres at Carnegie Hall on May 5th.
What about Les Amazones d’Afrique inspired you to participate?
Nneka: As someone involved in changing how Africa is portrayed in the Western world, I’ve sometimes felt alone. But meeting these women and seeing that they’re on a similar path really encouraged me.
Kidjo: The Amazon tradition comes from my country, Benin. African women have been silent for too long. Even though we have matriarchal societies in many places in West Africa, men still dominate everything. But the new generation of girls realizes they will never win this battle unless they stick up for themselves.
Which songs do you perform on République Amazone?
Nneka: I contributed “La Femme et Sa Valise.” It’s about baggage, letting go of limitations, living in the present moment and respecting yourself as a woman.
Angélique Kidjo: My track is “Dombolo,” which is the name of both a rhythm and a dance. It came from the Democratic Republic of Congo and went viral everywhere in Africa. I sing about the beauty and strength of women, and about how women together can help everybody see a different perspective on society. But I don’t believe in any feminism without men being part of this discussion. If women thrive, men will too.
How does the music itself reflect your messages?
Kidjo: The thing that nailed it for me is the conversation with the talking drum. We’ve had talking drums forever, but Liam still managed to find modernity in a sound everybody knows. There’s a new generation of producers and artists in Africa tweaking our rhythms and sound in a way that’s never been done before.
Les Amazones include several singers from the griot tradition. What role do they play in contemporary Africa?
Nneka: Most of them are older griots from Mali. They’ve been making music forever and are their families’ breadwinners. After performing, they return to their husbands, who wait for them at home. [Laughs] That’s very rare in Africa, especially in Mali, where women are still very oppressed.
Kidjo: Not only are griot women the main breadwinners, they are the ones who tell the stories. They can sing you to be the most horrible person on earth, in front of everybody. Or they can praise you, and you say to yourself, “I’d better be good because they won’t be shy about ousting me.”
How is working with a mostly female band different than working with a group of men?
Nneka: For the first time on tour, I felt there was no competition and that everybody is unique and has her own voice. It was also very emotional.
Angélique, you’ll be performing a version of Talking Heads’ Remain in Light in May. What did you feel the first time you heard that album?
Kidjo: I saw immediately what Talking Heads and Brian Eno were trying to do: not African music itself, but fitting rock and roll into African loops and repetitive trance music. Rock and roll comes from Africa because the blues, which is rock’s bedrock, come from Africa. Nigeria isn’t far from Benin, so I grew up with Fela Kuti’s afrobeat and King Sunny Adé’s juju music. It blew my mind when I came to America and heard that resonating in rock.
Who will you be working with?
I met Jeff Bhasker, who co-produced Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk,” and when I told him about my idea, he said, “That’s my favorite album!” So he’s going to produce [the album]. At Carnegie Hall we’ll have the Antibalas horns, keyboardist Jason Lindner, Nona Hendryx and some surprise guests, along with my core band. I’m bringing talking drums, calabashes and djembes to it. I’m bringing afrobeat to it. You can still hear Talking Heads’ bass lines in there but like African folk songs. I’m doing call-and-response with them and taking it to where it’s sitting in my soul.