African Women - Music and Revolution (part five)

“History is a heavy matter

It is a strange animal with multiple heads, Colors too many to every count

The creature’s unique colors have a way, Of awakening the most indescribable pride

But others bring back such sad memories, The very worst of memories

Of events that left our ancestors,

Perplexed, speechless

And then it makes you feel so much joy

You hear massive drums pounding, Deep in your heart, with invisible hands

Beating a rhythm that goes Gu! Gu!

Another Gu! Gu!

Reminding you that these colors and faces and eyes, Are the proud heritage of a nation

They are shining, glittering brightly, And when one of the heads speaks directly

Come closer, go on and touch me, Feel free to even caress me if you so wish

Yes, go on. Show off, tell the world, What a great achiever you are

Just by mentioning my name,

Then remember who you are,

Where you are from and

Where you are going.”

-Gcina Mhlophe

MAURITANIA - Dimi Mint Abba

"I enjoyed singing since the days I was aware of anything,"

Loula Bint Sidati Ould Abba, popularly known as Dimi Mint Abba, was born on 25 December 1958 in Tidjikdja, Mauritania. Endearingly termed the ‘diva of the desert,’ she was one of the finest and best-loved singers in her country, whose powerful live performances fully captured those that came to watch her.

She came from a family of iggawin, Mauritanian griots, whose traditional role is to act not just as musicians, but as historians and commentators. Her parents were both distinguished musicians. Her father, Siday Ould Abba, was a singer and composer who wrote the Mauritanian national anthem, while her mother, Fire Mounina Mint Eida, was an exponent of the ardin, a 14-string relative of the west African kora.

Dimi's irresistible songs blended north and west African influences, mixing Arabic scales and improvisation with echoes of west African instrumentation. They were and are an apt representation of her country’s centrality as one of the crossroads of Africa with Algeria and western Sahara to the north, Senegal to the south and Mali to the east. In addition to this, the lyrical content of her songs were replete with truth seeking, political commentary and traditional wisdom.

She passed away on 4 June 2011, but her music, legacy, and spirit still carries on.

Sources and further reading: here, here, here, here

MAURITIUS - Emmelyne Marimootoo

“I like to touch people and see that they are receptive. I like typical, authentic music…It is important to promote our traditional instruments”

Emmelyne Marimootoo, also known as Emlyn, was born into a musical family on the beautiful island of Mauritius. The 24 year old singer and songwriter creates music rooted in historically rich Sega rhythms. With traditional Mauritian instruments slowly disappearing from the music scene and being replaced with Western orchestral instruments, Emlyn has chosen to revive and highlight the beauty and value of Mauritian instrumentation such as the Ravann, Triang or Kayamb, in her musical work. Her lyrics are replete with socially conscious themes and are mostly sung in creole.

Note: She is one of the youngest musicians I have featured on this series but I thought that it was so affirming to see how she continues the work of being a cultural custodian and revolutionary in today’s day and age

Sources and further reading: here, here, here, here, here

MOROCCO - Asmaa Hamzaoui

“I am doing this because I am trying to break the stereotypes that some people - particularly in Morocco - have about gnawa”

When Moroccan artist Asmaa Hamzaoui (pictured second from the right in the photo above) made her stage debut in 2012, the crowd in Casablanca didn’t know what to make of her. By being the first woman to perform an official gnawa concert in Morocco, Hamzaoui was breaking a whole set of established societal rules.

For one thing, she was only 16 years old and performing an indigenous musical form that revered experience and wisdom; secondly, a female gnawa musician playing a public concert was unheard off.

Taught by her father in a very intensive and traditional setting, one of her goals with her music is to shatter the misconceptions Moroccans have about gnawa music. Gnawa music itself goes back centuries to a time predating the Gnawa people who were held as slaves in North-West Africa. The music they created would often revolve around narratives that spoke of their suffering and oppression.

The professional player of an instrument called the guemri, Asmaa and her all women band, Bnat Timbouktou, have been singing the desert blues, beautifully carrying on the traditions of those that came before them.

Sources and further reading: here, here, here, here


Zena Bacar Ali was born on 25 August 1949, in Nampula, Mozambique. Often referred to as the ‘golden voice of Mozambique’, Zena Bacar’s philosophical view of the world fed her band, Eyuphuro’s, contemporary songs of love and social criticism, providing a sharply observed commentary on life in Mozambique and particularly the inequalities faced by women in her society.

She passed away on the 24 December 2017, but her music, legacy, and spirit still carries on.

Sources and further reading: here, here, here, here

NAMIBIA - Oudano/Uudhano Dance

While I was not able to find detailed research on the historical essence of this dance, I recognize that by its very existence it is a revolutionary dance. Performed by the Aawambo people of Namibia, this dance is presented in two versions: the first by adult women, using slow motion, the second by young girls using a faster, more vigorous motion.

Under South African colonial apartheid rule of Namibia, most traditional dances and celebrations were forbidden, and in postcolonial Namibia, a vivid and visual performance of dances such as the Oudano, were not only used as a means of communal healing, but of remembrance and restoration.

What particularly stands out to me about the nature of this performance is how it seems to be a visible passing of wisdom and pride from the older generation to the younger generation.

Sources and further reading: here, here, here, here

NIGER - Habsou Garba

As a child, Garba left an elitist French school to attend an Arabic-French madarasa, where she was able to sing.

Garba is profiled in the book Engaging Modernity: Muslim Women and the Politics of Agency in Postcolonial Niger, by Ousseina D. Alidou of Rutgers University. Alidou highlights and analyzes her creative, dynamic record of subverting patriarchy and colonialism in her artistic work. He wrote that her emergence, "as a famous public performing artist in Niger was of such political significance that she quickly earned a state appointment as a waged worker at the city hall."

In 2016 Garba was accused and imprisoned for ten days for inciting civil disobedience through a song focused on negative criticism of the current president and the accomplishments (or lack thereof, so it is claimed) of his party.

Today, she has enjoyed a dynamic career as a talk radio host and a singer. Her songs exemplify what is known as brassage—the mixing of ethnic and cultural affiliations, common in Niger.

Sources and further reading: here, here, here

NIGERIA - The Lijadu Sisters

“Music teaches us to reach out and do something about what is going on, socially, morally, financially, spiritually and politically. We sang those songs because they [the politicians] were not listening. We needed schools, we needed roads, we needed clean water.”

The Lijadu Sisters, Kehinde and Taiwo Lijadu were mainly active from the mid-60s to the 80s at a time when it was rare to find front-women in Nigeria’s pop music scene. The sisters were born on 22 October 1948 and they grew up in Ibadan, Nigeria’s third-largest city.

In Yoruba, ”Taiwo” means "the first twin to taste the world”, and ”Kehinde” "the second-born of the twins”, “the chaperone” or “the one who comes after Taiwo”. Though Taiwo is the firstborn, it is believed that Kehinde is the elder twin, sending Taiwo into the world first to determine if it is time to be born.

They sang together from age 10, pulling influences from western jazz, rock and soul thanks to their mother, who brought them whatever records she could find by artists such as Elvis Presley, Ella Fitzgerald, the Beatles and Cliff Richard. As a result, they said, when it came to creating music for a specific genre that, “We did not limit ourselves”.

Between 1969 and 1979, they released four albums of acid-fried funk, soul, Afrobeat, reggae licks, psychedelic organ jams and irresistible disco-laced grooves but for years they flew under the radar and their albums were only repressed officially in 2012. Politics were a crucial aspect of their output, as they took aim at the government – their cult Afrobeat track Orere Elejigbo from Mother Unlimited talks of “trouble in the streets”, with the sisters calling their audience to “fight.” The twins were important advocates of female empowerment, as they did work in heavily male/patriarchal dominated spaces. They often challenged the antiquated view that a woman’s place was “in the kitchen” and were outspoken about the lack of women in west African music in the 70s.

They were indeed crucial architects of west African pop music.

Kehinde died on 9 November at the age of 71, having had cancer, marking the end of a musical partnership whose idiosyncratic and empowering funky tunes still sound unlike anything else.

Sources and further reading: text from here, here, here


Pierrette Adams was born on the 5 May 1962, in Pointe-Noire. Using a delightful mix of both traditional and popular Congolese music, she sings about injustice, relationships between men and women, and the betrayal and unfaithfulness in these relationships. Drawing from what was a painful and hard childhood, she has used her music as a form of therapy and as a form of giving voice, name, and comfort to those that have been through hard and hurtful situations in life.

Sources and further reading: here, here

RWANDA - Sophie Nzayisenga

“When I feel tired I take my inanga and start composing music and singing, that makes me so happy.”

Sophie Nzayisenga is the first female master player of the Inanga, a large zither instrument that has between 8 and 16 strings. Her father, Thomas Kirusu, was one of the most renowned Inanga players in Rwanda, and he began to teach Sophie when she reached the age of 6. She says of her father that, “My father was an intelligent and famous musician and he composed a lot of good music. He took part in competitions and encouraged me and all the family to like music. He would sing for us and our neighbours until he reached his old age.”

Sophie lived in Rwanda during the 1994 Genocide and says the devastation not only affected her country but also her music. She said: “I lost my joy because some of my brothers and sisters passed away during the genocide. I think about how we used sing together at home and my heart hurts and I loose the will to play. After the genocide my love for playing went away. But little-by-little I started playing again and I still am now.”

After years of playing her father’s compositions, Sophie began to combine the traditional art form he passed down to her with her own modern musical style and poetry and by doing so has greatly developed the role of the Inanga in traditional Rwandan music.

And as a lovely parting short she says that, “Sometimes after lunch or supper I play for my kids and for my husband and this makes us so happy. I take music as a gift which makes me and others happier.”

Sources and further reading: here, here, here


Marta Dias was born in São Tomé, to a Portuguese mother and a São Toméan father. Her father, Nuno Xavier Dias, is credited as the person who proclaimed the liberation of São Tomé from colonial rule. Although she has been based in Portugal for most of her life, her music always contains traditional elements from the country of her birth. This was seen especially in her last album release, ‘Quantas Tribos’ which was a tribute to the poets of São Tomé and Príncipe such as Maria Manuela Margarido, Alda Espírito Santo, Francisco José Tenreiro, Fernando de Macedo and Conceição Lima.

Sources and further reading: here, here, here, here, here


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