Without warning, a group of young girls from a remote region of Benin is shaking up the world of garage rock with breathtaking freshness, ingenuity and energy, playing spot-on, loud and clear.
During the first half of the twentieth century, the division of the majority of Africa by European powers introduced a forced modernity throughout most of the continent. In cities and ports, the continent buzzed with new energy as electricity began its timid appearance. Thanks to booming maritime transport, the 78 rpm records brought in by Latin American sailors, in particular Cubans, but also by European soldiers or settlers, had a durable influence on the new musical interests along the African coasts.
Gradually, the reinterpretation of Cuban, but also Caribbean, jazz or rhythm’n’ blues music began. For the most part originally from Africa, this music from the Americas acted as a natural truth on the continent. Some orchestras thus decided to “re-Africanize” this Afro-Cuban and black American music heard in ports, public places or broadcasted on the radio. Bars and dance halls, as well as youth associations also played an important role in the dissemination and development of this music.
In most African cities, many orchestras were born during the 1950s and 1960s. They became symbols of modernity, like electricity, cars and cinema. The euphoria of the years following independence was therefore set to music by these orchestras. These were partly influenced by Ghanaian dance formations that toured through all the major cities of the Gulf of Benin, from Nigeria to Liberia. The cultural exchanges were fertile.
In the early 1960s, the rich local traditions of Benin, starting with trance and voodoo ceremonial music, began to merge with Afro-Cuban, Congolese rumba and high-life. Dozens of orchestras, artists and labels participated in this unprecedented movement. Unlike its population count, Benin is the most prolific African country in terms of record production, especially during the extraordinary exhilaration of the 1970s.
In Guinea, Ivory Coast or Mali, each major city or prefecture had at least one modern orchestra, whether in Cotonou, Porto-Novo, Parakou, Ouidah, Natitingou, Abomey or Bohicon. Bands such as the Black Santiagos, the National Jazz of Dahomey, the Super Star of Ouidah, the Picoby Band, the Renova Band of Abomey and the Black Dragons of Porto Novo gained in popularity at the national level. In the mid-1960s, singer Sophie Edia became the first female singer to distribute Beninese music outside of the country’s borders, starting with Nigeria.
In 1975, Unesco promoted the International Women’s Year, an event designed to raise awareness of the role of women in many countries, where their role is too often downplayed or flouted. This initiative had a considerable impact on the African continent. Whether in Mali with Fanta Damba, in Côte d’Ivoire with Mamadou Doumbia, in Cameroon with Anne-Marie Nzie, in Congo Brazzaville with Les Bantous de la Capitale or in Burkina Faso with Echo del Africa, they all paid tribute to this initiative. All over French-speaking Africa, people were awakening to women’s rights.