African Women - Music and Revolution (part six)

“If the moon were to shine tonight

To light up my face and show off my proud form

With beads around my neck and shells in my hair

And soft easy flowing dress with the colours of Africa

If I were to stand on top of a hill

And raise my voice in praise

Of the women of my country

Who have worked throughout their lives

Not for themselves, but for the very life of all Africans

Who would I sing my praises to?

I could quote all the names

Yes, but where do I begin?

Maybe my voice would be carried by the wind

To reach all the other women

Whose names are not often mentioned

The ones who sell oranges and potatoes

So their children can eat and learn

The ones who scrub floors and polish executive desktops

In towering office blocks

While the city sleeps

The ones who work in overcrowded hospitals

Saving lives, cleaning bullet wounds and delivering new babies

And the ones who have given up

Their places of comfort and the protection of their skin colour

May the lives of all these women

Be celebrated and made to shine”

-Gcina Mhlophe

Today’s post will be the last in this series. I just want to thank you for celebrating the lives of these women together with me.


SENEGAL - Yande Codou Sene

Yandé Codou Sène was born in 1932 in the small village of Somb, located in the middle of the Serere heartland. It is roughly 80km south of Dakar and 10km southeast of Diakhao, which was the first capital of the Siin kingdom. She is considered to be the ‘last of the Mohicans’ of Serer polyphonic poetry.

Born into a family of griots, Yandé Codou started singing in the late 1940s accompanying her mother Amadjïgene Gning to ritual ceremonies in neighboring villages. As the story goes, one day back in 1947, having accepted two invitations to perform for the same afternoon, Amadjïgene sent Yandé Codou to sing in her place in the village of Boof Poupouye. As the young initiates in the village prepared themselves for circumcision their spirits were lifted by the young Yandé Codou Sène’s surprisingly powerful voice, and thus the legend of the ‘voice of the Serere’ begun. By the time she met and became the griot of Senegal's first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor a dozen or so years later, Yandé Codou had the confidence of a veteran performer.

Their first meeting, which took place in the town of Gossas just before Senegalese independence, has become wrapped in a mystical shroud. It is said that the politician-poet, heard Yandé Codou sing at a traditional ceremony and was deeply moved by her voice. At some point during this event Senghor asked the young singer for a drink. Yandé Codou presented Senghor with a calabash of water. And once he had quenched his thirst, she dipped her hands into the calabash and washed her face with the remaining water, before symbolically sealing their fateful meeting by drinking the last drops.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, during Senghor’s political tours, Yandé Codou had to precede him in each town, to welcome him by singing. At the height of their complicity, she was the only person to have the right to interrupt the President's speeches to spontaneously sing one of his legendary songs of praise.

She passed away on the 15 July 2010, but her music, legacy, and spirit still carries on.

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

SEYCHELLES - Jany de Letourdie

“I belong to my roots; I will always be flirting with and infuse our traditional heritage into my songs.”

Wooing the nation with her melodic songs, Jany de Letourdie has not only a huge following in Seychelles but also in the Indian Ocean region as a whole. De Letourdie sings in Creole mostly, but also in French and English with her songs varying in rhythm from fast sega beat to slow ballads. She is also an active member of her country’s national assembly.

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

SIERRA LEONE - Amie Kallon

Considered one of the most influential musicians of her time, Amie Kallon was born and raised in Kenema, eastern Sierra Leone and belongs to the matriarchal Mende tribe. She professionally began her career in 1961. Kallon played an important role during the Sierra Leone Civil War (1991-2002) as she was one of few artists who continued producing music and made public her views on what was happening to her community and her country as a whole.

Considered to be a legend in cultural songs and dance in her region, she performs traditional Mende music, sung in her mother tongue. Her repertoire also includes parables and folklore.

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

SOMALIA - Khadija Abdullahi Daleys

Khadija Abdullahi Daleys was a Somali musical trailblazer and a symbol of Somali women's rights. She was born in 1936 in Baydhabo and moved to Mogadishu at the age of 9. There, she discovered her love for poetry and sang patriotic songs in one of the schools ran by the nationalistic movement, the Somali Youth League (SYL).

In 1952, she saw an advert in the official colonial daily, Corriere Della Somalia, mentioning that Radio Mogadishu needed a female singer. This advert was posted at a time when the idea of a female singer performing in public, in any form, was unheard of. Khadija responded to the ad and in so doing, made history by recording the first song publicly sung by a female Somali artist. Her song was aired on 14 February 1952.

The next day, protests broke out with religious leaders marching to the headquarters of the SYL movement. They immediately called her father, Abdullahi Ali Amey, to pressure his daughter to stop singing. Amey decided that his daughter had the freedom to sing, drawing parallels with Egypt’s star singer, Umm Kulthum. Credited with being the first female Somali recording artist in history, Daleys set a precedent that began to open the doors for women in her country. She was not only one of the most beloved musicians in Somalia but also one of its most important political voices, advocating for independence and pan-Africanism.

The mother of Somali music, as she was fondly known as, passed away on 15 January 2018 but her music, legacy, and spirit still carries on.

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

SOUTH AFRICA - Miriam Makeba

"I'm not a political singer. I don't know what the word means. People think I consciously decided to tell the world what was happening in South Africa. No! I was singing about my life, and in South Africa we always sang about what was happening to us - especially the things that hurt us."

Zenzile Miriam Makeba was born on 4 March 1932 in Johannesburg, during a time of economic depression. Her mother, was imprisoned for six months for illegally brewing beer to help make ends meet, and Miriam went to prison with her when she was just 18 days old. She grew up in Nelspruit where her father was a clerk with Shell Oil.

Makeba’s mother was a sangoma, or a practitioner of herbal medicine, divination and counselling in traditional Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and Swazi (Nguni) societies of Southern Africa. When her father died, Makeba, then five years old, was sent to live with her grandmother at a compound in Riverside, Pretoria. From a young age, Makeba loved to sing at church, and performed her first solo during the 1947 Royal Visit. In the 1950s, she lived in Sophiatown which was a vibrant place and one of the few areas where all the races could intermingle fairly freely. It was the scene of kwela music, marabi and African jazz, as well as big band music.

Makeba offically began her music career when she started singing in her cousin’s band the Cuban Brothers, but it was only when she began to sing for the Manhattan Brothers in 1954 that her reputation grew. She toured South Africa, Zimbabwe (former Rhodesia) and DRC with the band until 1957. After this Makeba sang for all-women group, the Skylarks, which combined jazz and traditional African melodies.

In November 1959, Miriam was exiled after the South African government refused to renew her passport. She was the first black musician to be exiled from South Africa on account of apartheid. She spoke about apartheid at the United Nations in 1963, and this was when her South African citizenship was taken away from her. She lived in the US thereafter and her records were banned in South Africa.

Throughout her career, Miriam Makeba sang truth to power. A women who went through several painful and trying moments, she emerged beautifully victorious, staying true to herself, her beliefs, and her unquestionable love for her people.

Mama Afrika passed away on 9 November 2008, but her music, legacy, and spirit lives on.

"I kept my culture. I kept the music of my roots. Through my music I became this voice and image of Africa and the people without even realising,"

-Miriam Makeba

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

SOUTH SUDAN - Teresa Nyankol

Teresa Nyankol Mathiang Dut was born in Abyei of Ngok Dinka to Mathiang Dut’s family. She inspired generations of Sudanese through her cultural, socio-economic and political narrations in songs.

The singer and human rights activist specifically brought attention to the suffering of South Sudanese people living in the Abyei area she was born in. The Abyei covers about 10 500km² of desert, farmland and oil fields and is located along the ill-defined border between Sudan and South Sudan. Claimed by both countries, it formed a source of conflict in the region for more than 50 years.

Politically active in her artist work from the early 1960s, her music was counted as one of the country’s liberation pillars and was considered prophetic. Nyankol passed away on 22 September 2012, but her music, legacy, and spirit still lives on.

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

SUDAN - Aisha Musa Ahmad

Aisha Al Falatiya, popularly known as Aisha Musa Ahmad, was a Sudanese musician born in 1905. Her career at the beginning was marked with difficulty as she sought to challenge the cultural traditions that prohibited women from performing music publicly.

Born in Kassala to Nigerian parents, Aisha spent her childhood at a Khalwa (religious school), where she learnt to memorize and recite Quran. At 14 years old, she began to sing professionally at weddings. Her family disapproved, as female singers were stigmatized in Sudanese society. In order to end her career, her father arranged for her to be married but the marriage later ended in divorce and Aisha continued to work as a singer. By the late 1930s, Aisha had recorded several songs for Egyptian record companies in Cairo, and she began to gain popularity in Sudan.

Her stage name Aisha Al Falatiya is a reference to her Nigerian Fulani ancestry. During the Second World War, she worked as a troop trainer. As part of this, she would sing for Sudanese soldiers active in the East African and North African Campaigns. In 1942, Aisha became the first female Sudanese singer to perform on radio, for Omdurman Radio. She performed alongside her sister, who played the oud. The performance was liked by the stations listeners, however conservative commentators and male singers boycotted the station in protest. The hostility she faced due to both her gender and her ethnicity led her to contemplate leaving Sudan and moving to Nigeria. She stayed on and by the 1960s, her popularity eventually legitimized the presence of women on public radio.

Aisha was and is best known for her love songs, as well as her politically themed songs. A well-known advocate of women’s rights, workers rights and anti colonialism, she died on 24 February 1974. Her music, legacy, and spirit still carries on.

Sources and further reading: full text here, here

TANZANIA - Bi Kidude

Bi Kidude was born in Zanzibar’s Mfagimaringo village. The exact date of her birth is unknown, but estimated to be about 1910. At the age of 13, Kidude was coerced into a forced marriage by her father. She ran away from the union and moved to mainland Tanzania in order pursue a musical career. In the 1930s, she joined a Taarab ensemble and toured East Africa and during this time she became involved in another unhappy marriage, which she fled again to join an Egyptian Taarab group. She sang with the Egyptian group for many years.

When Bi Kidude started singing Taraab, female singers sang beneath the veil but she removed the veil, an act that sparked controversy and was revolutionary in and of itself. She fully established herself in Taarab and Unyago music in the 1940s.

Kidude always performed barefoot and her performances were known for their intense energy; she often beat a large drum and danced on stage as she sang. Throughout her life, she not only helped to maintain Zanzibari cultural heritage, but also reinvented it, infusing it with local rhythms, Swahili language and matters of everyday life. In addition to her artistic work she was also a reputed herbalist, known for her asthma cures that had people patiently queuing for her medicine.

Bi Kidude was a revolutionary who followed her own spirit. She ran away from two husbands, was childless, drank, smoked, and really did break a lot of societal rules while still succeeding in embodying all the great cultural aspects of her home island of Zanzibar. A cultural repository and a leading exponent of Swahili culture, she passed away on 17 April 2013, but her music, legacy, and spirit still carries on.

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

TOGO - Bella Bellow

Georgette Adjoavi Bellow, popularly known as Bella Bellow, paved the way for numerous generations of Togolese artists. One of the first professional singers in Togo, she is rightfully one of Togo's most celebrated artists. She set the stage and laid a strong musical foundation for her country at a time where female Togolese artists hesitated to take the stage.

Bellow was born on a Monday in 1945 in Tsévié, Togo, about 20 miles north of the capital city Lomé, to a Togolese father of Nigerian descent and a mother of Ghanaian origin. She made her first international appearance in 1966, representing Togo at the first World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal.

Tragically, Bella Bellow's life was cut short in 1975, when she perished in an automobile crash at the age of 27. She has remained a revered figure in the musical canon of Togo and also in neighboring Benin, where singers such as Angélique Kidjo cite her as a major influence

Her music, legacy, and spirit still carries on.

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

TUNISIA - Emel Mathlouthi

Emel Mathlouthi began singing while she was still a child growing up in the suburbs of Tunis, Tunisia's capital city alongside the Mediterranean coastline. By the time she was in college, she was fronting a metal band. Soon, she was writing songs that were deeply critical of the government of the then-leader of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In 2008, she moved to France, convinced that her career would founder if she stayed in her native country.

Mathlouthi knew that she was running right up against the strictures of the regime but she persisted — and kept right on singing about Tunisia and about oppression. Certain Tunisian DJs would try to sneak her songs onto their playlists at odd hours, but by the time she began singing "Ya Tounes Ya Meskina" [Poor Tunisia], with lyrics like "Fear resides in their bones, being mute is their lot" — the die was cast.

The song that tipped her over the edge, though, was "Kelmti Horra" [My Word Is Free]. With lyrics by the young Tunisian poet Amine al-Ghozzi, "Kelmti Horra" is a declaration of independence, a statement of hard-earned liberation. "I am those who are free and never fear," she sings, her voice ringing with certainty. "I am the secrets that will never die, I am the voice of those who would not give in, I am the meaning amid the chaos."

Years before crowds of Tunisians took to the streets to protest widespread corruption, political repression, high unemployment and endemic poverty, Mathlouthi had already been singing "Kelmti Horra" every chance she could get — she ended every concert with it in both France and Tunisia, to which she returned occasionally, performing at underground shows while word of her music spread largely on social media. (She had already been prohibited from performing at music festivals in her home country, and "Kelmti Horra" was banned outright.)

Mathlouthi was in Tunisia for one of those illicit tours when a despairing street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire on Dec. 17, 2010 — a pivotal moment that sparked what became first Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution, and then, in a string of regional uprisings, the Arab Spring.

"Kelmti Horra" had already become a well-known song in the Tunisian underground by then. But finally, on one remarkable January day just weeks after Bouazizi took his desperate step, Mathlouthi stood up in a crowd of demonstrators along the packed Avenue Habib Bourguiba — the largest boulevard in Tunis — to sing her signature song. The ground was already shifting under everyone's feet: Within days, President Ben Ali and his family had fled the country.

But on that day, in the midst of the protests on Habib Bourguiba, Mathlouthi sang "Kelmti Horra" a cappella, media cameras and microphones shoved hastily in front of her, while the protesters immediately around her listened in rapt silence. And she sings, you can hear the bristling energy of other demonstrators shouting slogans in the distance, in what becomes a strangely beautiful polyrhythm of revolution. And soon, "Kelmti Horra" was a song known and loved across boarders, as young activists began to imagine new futures for themselves, unbounded by the strictures and stiflings of the past.

As much as she resists being defined by her socially conscious work, Emel Mathlouthi still offers clarion calls to action, both for fellow artists of her generation and for those who are following in her wake.

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

UGANDA - Frida Sonko

Frida Sonko was one of the most prominent East African musicians of the mid to late 1960s, and was a much sought after artist.

Born and raised in Uganda, she helped to shape and fashion her home country’s musical landscape. She moved to Nairobi in the early 60s and was signed to Equator Records. Frida constantly collaborated with Charles Sonko (her brother), Fadhili William, Daudi Kabaka, and Nashil Pichen. In addition to this, she was a part of the Equator Boys Band. She represented the crop of female Ugandans musicians, who followed in the footsteps of Eva Nanyonga - the first Ugandan female artist to receive wide national recognition and known by her fans as the "guitar wizard."

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

WESTERN SAHARA - Mariem Hassan

“Since the seventies and the beginning of the [sahrawi] revolution, I developed a different kind of relationship with music...I would use old poetry and music and transform it with new words to match the spirit of revolution, anti-colonial sentiment, and to speak out against the occupation of our homeland.”

Mariem Hassan used her powerful voice to publicize the plight of those who were forced to flee from their homeland when Morocco took control of Western Sahara in 1975. She spent much of her life in the camps, starting her musical career in a group that provided support for the Polisario fighters in the war against Morocco, and developed a style that could switch from laments to upbeat desert blues. It was an approach that made her a hero for the Sahrawi people.

Daughter of Mohamed and Erguia, she was born in May 1958, in what was then the colony of Spanish Sahara, on the west coast of Africa, in a dry riverbed outside Smara, where her father was a nomad who herded goats and camels. Her date of birth and the spelling of her name were recorded in several different ways on official documents. Mariem was one of 10 children, three of whom would be killed in the fighting with Morocco.

At the age of 13, she was forced by her parents to marry an older man against her wishes. She managed to escape during the wedding ceremony, just as she had been led to the entrance to her fiance’s tent, and was hidden by her brothers until her parents returned the dowry. The wedding was cancelled.

Mariem first starting singing, and playing the traditional tebel drum, when she joined her mother and other women in Thursday night religious meetings. In these spaces, music and poetry were vessels for the continuation of Sahrawi culture and traditional practices, which were restricted by Spanish colonial authorities. Cultural festivities and gatherings were seen as a threat, but there was a discrepancy in that system. Women were not viewed to have influence in the eyes of these authorities. Weddings and religious ceremonies were allowed since they did not pose a political threat to occupation. Little did they realize that the voices of fearless women were born out of these spaces, and the roots of rebellion and resistance were instilled in Mariem when she discovered that her voice was her freedom.

In August 1975, Mariem was singing at a secret celebration held by the Polisario, a Sahrawi national liberation movement who were fighting against Spanish colonisation at the time, when it was broken up by the police and she managed to make a swift escape through a window. She says of this specific incident that, They had released some Western Saharawi prisoners who’d been arrested by the Spanish. I joined the big celebration party. This was the first time I’d seen a guitar. A boy was playing it and I was singing. The Spanish police came with nightsticks in hand so we all ran as fast as we could. I jumped out the window. I was 15 years old.”

Amid increasing pressure for decolonization from Polisario, the UN and Morocco, Spain withdrew its colonial rule over Western Sahara in 1975 and this transition left many people vulnerable to an abrupt scarcity of resources and conflict for successive control of the region. Shortly after this, Morocco began its annexation of her homeland with ruthless bombing and military takeover, rendering half of the Sahrawi population, including Mariem and her family, into refugees in exile. The refugees were never able to return as a wall was built in the middle of the Western Sahara to keep the Sahrawi from returning to their town.

Within the next 20 years, Mariem worked as a nurse, she was an organizing leader in her camp, she got married twice, she gave birth to five children, all the while representing the Sahrawi voice at cultural arts festivals. She brought to light the struggle of the Sahrawi people to an international stage and made herself part of the history of a nation without land.

Mareim passed away at the age of 57 still exiled in the refugee camp, but her music, legacy, and spirit still carries on.

I personally am not allowed to enter [occupied Western Sahara] but my songs represent me as if I was there. I encourage young people in occupied areas, those women who are there through the music.

My voice belongs to my people. It's in their cars, in their homes, their mobile phones in their stores. My songs are about the tortured and the prisoners, the resistance on the street and in the universities."

-Mariem Hassan

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

ZAMBIA - Nsongwe Dance

Much like Namibia’s Oudano dance, I was not able to find detailed research on the historical essence of this dance but I do recognize that by its very existence it is a revolutionary dance. The dance is a female puberty rite dance from Eastern Zambia. It is known as "Nsongwe" or "Mazya" and is performed at ceremonies for girls and young adult/women among the Chewa and Nsenga communities.

With Zambian traditional dances being forbidden by the British during their colonial occupation, the very existence of this dance and its performance today can be credited to countless women who kept the tradition alive despite facing challenging adversity and opposition.

I honor the legacies of these women, unnamed but not forgotten.

Sources and further reading: here, here, here

ZIMBABWE - Stella Chiweshe

"When I first listened to the sound of mbira music, I wanted to hear more and more of it. I was ill for two years, suffering from a very painful heart, a pain that vanished the day when I learned how to play.”

Stella Rambisai Chiweshe is nicknamed "Ambuya Chinyakare" (Grandmother of Traditional Music) and is one of the first female artists who gained in prestige and has been honored for mastering a music tradition that had historically only practiced by men. This said music tradition is her expert playing of the Mbira dzavadzimu (voice of the ancestors), an instrument which is known as the backbone of Zimbabwean music. The Mbira is a medium for playing songs handed down from generation to generation for centuries, songs of liberation, spiritual experience and social commentary, as well as songs used for maintaining contact with the spirits of the Shona people. In traditional Shona culture, people remained a part of the community even after their death. At special ceremonies they are called back by the sounds of the mbira.

Chiweshe is one of the few musicians in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa, who has for more than 35 years, immersed herself in the role of the traditional Mbira musician. When Zimbabwe was still a Rhodesian colony, Mbira instruments had to be kept hidden. The colonial government had declared the whole country as a Christian land which meant that traditional instruments and songs were banned. Playing the Mbira was punished by immediate imprisonment.

This did not stop Chiweshe from playing the mbira. She was recognized as an accomplished Mbira player at underground ceremonies. After playing the whole night at these forbidden reunions, she would then return to her work at the colonial household she was employed at.

During this period before independence she released more than 20 singles of Mbira music of which her first single, Kasahwa, went gold in 1975. After independence, she was invited to become a member of the original National Dance Company of Zimbabwe, where she soon took the part of a leading Mbira solo player, dancer and actress.

Her current solo work exemplifies the deepness and power of her traditional and spiritual music. Chiweshe not only introduced the combination of mbira and marimba repertoire into the modern Zimbabwe soundscape, but she is the only woman in Zimbabwe who leads her own band, and is in control of her own equipment and transport.

And so the Mbira plays on

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


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