African Women - Music and Revolution (part three)

Updated: Sep 11, 2020

“I will sing a love song.

A love song for my children, a love song for my loved ones, a love song for my babies

Reborn through thunder, reborn through pain, reborn through death, reborn through vision, reborn through love.

I want to sing. I want to sing.”

-Micere Githae Mugo


Born into a family with many musicians, Nawal bathed in both popular and spiritual music from a young age. A powerful singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Nawal plays the guitar, gambusi (traditional lute, inherited from Yemen), and various percussion instruments. Nawal states “My main instrument, before anything, is the voice.”

Dancing between traditional and contemporary, Nawal’s compositions are an acoustic roots-based fusion, a reflection of the diverse character of the Comoros and beyond. Nawal sings mostly in Shikomor, the Bantu language of Comoros, and mixes in French, English and Arabic.

She is the first Comorian woman singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist to give performances in public. As a Muslim-born, African woman who does not always adhere to traditional socio-religious codes, Nawal has faced many challenges in her career, yet she rains strong in her message and philosophy. Descending from the grand Sufi Marabout of Comoros, El-Maarouf, Nawal invariably stays with the light of Islam founded upon love, respect, and peace. In her music, she sings in favor of all humans, for education and for union

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

COTE D’IVOIRE - Allah Therese

"What I sing are acts of life"

Revered as a custodian of traditional Ivorian music, and for her artistic work as a whole, Allah Therese was born in 1950. Stunning and radiant in what was known as her signature hairstyle, “Akôrou Koffié,” she started singing in a village group in the 1960s.

Therese says of her musical career that, “From the moment I noticed that we were not arriving not to have children, I decided to make it my job. In our Baoule culture, when someone has no children, the day the person dies, after a week, they are forgotten by everyone. I decided to mark my time with the song. " She continues by saying that, "For me, the act of singing is a way of replacing this child. Today, I am considered a “mom”. If you're interviewing me today, it's thanks to the song. It means everything to me. That's why I came here. "

She passed away on the 19 January 2020 but her spirit, legacy, and music lives on.

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


Growing up in Zaïre (as DRC was then known by), Abeti Masikini always felt strangely different from other people. She was born on 9 November 1954 and from the very start she was determined to live life on her own terms. Her fortitude enabled her to defy social and cultural norms and break through the barriers of Zaïre's male-dominated music industry. "Women have a difficult time getting into the business because of her country's customs and traditions," she explained in 1991. "The morals don't accept it. For [Zaïreans], women cook and have babies. That's it. For women especially, music is a disaster, because it's [considered] a bad life."

Abeti's success built on the pioneering work of earlier singers like Lucie Eyenga and Antoinette Etisomba, and helped open the doors for M'bilia Bel, Tshala Muana, M'pongo Love, and other women who would follow her to prominence. Abeti sang in Lingala, Swahili, and French and wrote most of her own music. Sometimes a melody would just come, often when someone offended her "self-love, her dignity." She hated the oppression of women and felt compelled to respond through her music to injustices she encountered as evidenced by her song, "Je Suis Faché (I Am Angry)."

She passed away on the 28 September 1994 but her spirit, legacy, and music lives on.

Sources and further reading: here, here, here,

DJIBOUTI - Nima Djama

Born in 1948, in the southern part of Djibouti to a nomadic family from the Issa sub-clan of Somalia, Nima Djama is known for her sharp and truthful lyrics. At the age of 21 she wrote and sang against the reluctance of the French colonial administration in granting Djibouti a fair referendum, as well as its (French colonial administration) reluctance to release its vile and unyeilding grip on the country itself. When there was vote rigging in the referendum of 1967, she wrote a song, Gabdhayahow, to condemn what happened.

Sources and further reading: here, here,

EGYPT - Umm Kulthum

Referred to as “Egypt’s fourth pyramid,” Umm Kulthum recorded about 300 songs over a 60-year career and her words of love, loss and longing drift reliably from taxis, radios and cafes across the Arab world today, 45 years after her death. Despite singing complex Arabic poetry, she influenced some of the west’s greatest singers.

She transformed the cultural perception of musical performance, taking it from an elite, restricted practice to a cultural norm, opening her concerts to the general public.

Umm Kulthum was born in a Nile delta village in about 1904 to an imam and his wife. Her father supplemented his income by singing religious songs with his son and nephew, and his daughter would mimic them, later reflecting that she first learned to sing “like a parrot”. Joining the family ensemble, her powerful voice proved a novelty but also, as a woman performing religious songs, provocative. Her father dressed her in a boy’s coat and black Bedouin headdress, leaving only her eyes and mouth visible. Freed from the limitations of gender, her talent shone and she attracted the interest of noted musicians, who invited her to Cairo.

An Umm Kulthum performance would generally last about five hours and consist of three extended songs. Her goal was to induce in her listeners tarab, a state of rapturous enchantment, where time and self dissolve in the music.

She presented two popular images: the refined woman who could educate the masses and the peasant daughter who articulated working-class pain.

Umm Kulthum subverted the gender norms of mid-century Egypt with her hard-nosed business deals, active engagement in public life and resistance to giving up her career for family life.

She passed away on 3 February 1975 but her spirit, legacy, and music lives on.

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


Nelida Karr was born in 1990 in Malabo the capital of Equatorial Guinea. She is known to be the "contemporary revelation of Equatoguinean music" and the voice of the new generation of Equatoguinean musicians that creates a great cultural and international impact on the present-day Equatorial Guinean music industry. Surrounded by a family of artists, Nelida is the daughter of producer Samuel Karr and singer Domitila Rosario. Her music is full of influences from her childhood, her own Bubi ethnicity, regional rhythms such as katya, kotto, bonko, mokom or antonobé, as well as jazz, blues, and Spanish and Latin music.

Her texts often reflect the reality of her country with a message of hope, peace and love. Nelida is also the founder of "MOSART", a free school of music and art, a non-profit organization in Equatorial Guinea with the purpose of helping children and young Equatoguineans to discover, learn and develop their talents in the area of ​​music and the arts.

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

ERITREA - Tsehaytu Beraki

Referred to as the, “The Sun of Eritrea,” Tsehaytu Beraki was an absolutely legendary singer. Born in 1939 in Quatit, a small village, she soon picked up the krar (5-string harp) and after moving to the capital Asmara she became a famous singer in the various suwa cafe's (traditional beer house) she would perform at.

When the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) engaged in an armed struggle against the Ethiopian army in the 1960s, Beraki increasingly sang about the impact this had on the country as a whole. While working at suwa cafe's, Beraki listened to the conversations of the leaders and politicians that came to the establishment. Through this, she became aware of just how far-reaching the misery and problems of her country's people were. She made it her mission to voice the pain of her community and so a large number of her songs are replete with themes of social justice.

In 1966, Beraki opened her own suwa café and in 1968, she opened a second one. She frequently performed at her establishments and most of her patrons were the ELF freedom fighters. It followed that Beraki became deeply involved in politics and she then consequently joined the ELF. She says in her own words about this season of her life that, “In March 1977 I went to the front. Because of Mengistu’s coup in 1974 the situation was very bad. I couldn’t really work; no-one came to my place anymore. Many people I worked with went to the front. In the end the resistance said that it would be safer if I would join them as well. There were many musicians. Some of them became well-known because they played for the fighters and others were already famous musicians before they joined the liberation movement.”

She says of Freweini, her personal favorite musical creation, that, “It is a song about Eritrea, but it also tells about a mother. Love is always loved, one doesn’t forget it. But love for one country is incomparable. A mother and your own country is basically the same.”

She passed away on 24 May 2018 but her spirit, legacy, and music lives on.

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

ESWATINI - Thobile “Makhoyane” Magagula

Born in a rural area of Eswatini, Thobile Magagula got her stage name, ‘Makhoyane’, when she decided to bring back to life the dying instruments Makhoyane and Sitolotolo which are also indigenous to Swazis.

"Makhoyane" fuses Swazi traditional instruments and styles of singing with other modern instruments, creating a traditional blues sounds. She is co-founder and member of Spirits Indigenous, a music duo from Swaziland which was based in Maputo for almost five years.

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

ETHIOPIA - Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou

“We can’t always choose what life brings, but we can choose how to respond.”

Born in 1923, she grew up in one of the country’s most privileged families. She and her sister were the first girls to be sent abroad for their education – she remembers traveling by train, aged six, from the highlands of Addis to the port of Djibouti then onwards by boat to Marseille, en route to a Swiss boarding school. That’s where she first encountered western classical music. She took piano and violin lessons and turned out to be a extremely gifted pianist.

In the early 1930s, she returned to Addis: portraits from this period show a gorgeous young woman with a wry smile and a bold fashion sense. She went to high-society parties and sang for Haile Selassie. She had a car and raced a horse and trap around the city. She was a feminist: the first woman to work for the Ethiopian civil service, the first to sing in an Ethiopian Orthodox church, the first to work as a translator for the Orthodox Patriarch in Jerusalem. Of this time in her life she said that, “Even as a teenager I was always asking, ‘What is the difference between boys and girls?’ We are equal!”

When Fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935 for the second time, rather than join her family in safe exile, Emahoy took up arms alongside her people. She joined the Black Lion movement to expel the Italians out of Ethiopian territory. Before Ethiopia was liberated in 1940, she spent two years captive in a jail.

Soon after this, she joined a monastery and became a nun and does continue to consistently pour herself into her music even today.

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

GABON - Patience Dabany

Patience Babany, who was firstly known by the name Marie Joséphine Kama was born on 22 January 1941. Dabany's parents originated from the Bateke people in Haut-Ogooué region in what is now southeastern Gabon. She grew up in a musical family and began to sing at an early age to her father's accordion accompaniment, while her brother played guitar. From there her path led to the church choir and on to traditional song performances greatly influenced by her mother who was a traditional singer.

She was the First Lady of Gabon and during this time she was involved in many social projects, including the promotion of women's rights. After she divorced her then-husband Albert Bongo, in 1986, Marie embarked on a career as a professional artist.

Sources ( it was particularly hard to find information for her musical work so do pardon the sole, somewhat weakly Wikipedia link): here

GAMBIA - Sona Jobarteh

“I think the honest truth is I am just me. I am not trying to convince people of anything. But I am very confident with what I do. I would say that at the heart of it was that from the beginning, I just wanted to be a good kora player. I was never really aspiring to be a female kora player or become known as a female kora player.

I just wanted to be a kora player.”

Maya Sona Jobarteh is the first female Kora virtuoso to come from a prestigious west African Griot family. Born to an English mother, Galina Chester on 17 October 1983, Sona is the granddaughter of the master griot, Amadu Bansang Jobarteh. Her brother, Tunde Jagede, is an accomplished player and her cousin is the celebrated kora player, Toumani Diabaté. Breaking away from tradition, she is a modern day pioneer in an ancient, male-dominated hereditary tradition that has been exclusively handed down from father to son for the past seven centuries. She began studying the kora at the age of three under the experienced instruction of her brother and then later on her father, Sanjally Jobarteh.

Sona has an effortless ability to blend musical styles and uses her innovative stance to talk about issues to do with cultural identity, gender, love and respect whilst still adhering to and rooting herself firmly in her traditional cultural heritage.

Sources and additional reading: here, here, here, here, here


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