In Search of the Women of Zouglou

Côte d’Ivoire’s politically-driven storytelling music paved the way for a multi-party democracy and created a generation of icons – but what happened to its female stars?

September 17, 2019

Home to around four million people, 60 ethnic groups and a relatively large foreign population, Côte d’Ivoire’s cultural capital, Abidjan, is one full of sensations: From the lingering smell of cocoa emanating from the processing plants in Zone 4 and the touch of men and women in Yopougon’s Siporex market, to the sounds of zouglou spilling out from taxis, open-air restaurants (maquis), bars and the passing stranger humming aimlessly under their breath.

A national treasure, a political vehicle and the first truly Ivorian sound are all ways in which people have described zouglou music. In the late ’90s and early 2000s in Abidjan, it was inescapable. Its roots were humble, coming from the derelict dormitories of the University of Cocody in Yopougon. But moving hand in hand with the country’s political history, zouglou soundtracked the struggle for – and eventual move towards – a multi-party democracy in 1990. Songs such as Les Salopards “Génération Sacrifiée (The Sacrificed Generation)” (1997) and “Tu Sais Qui Je Suis (You Know Who I Am)” (1999) by Petit Yodé & l’Enfant Siro made space for a narrative that challenged government propaganda by reflecting the effects of a broken political system on the daily lives of working-class Ivorians.

Petit Yodé & l'Enfant Siro - Tu Sais Qui Je Suis

Zouglou was the background and the foreground. It was on the streets, but it was also on television. In 1999, it scored its first international hit with Magic System’s “Premier Gaou,” and though in a few years it would have to fight against the escapist hedonism of coupé-décalé, at that moment in time, it felt unstoppable.

It was also quite clear that zouglou was a staunch boys’ club.

Though mostly written out of zouglou’s history, female groups have existed since the birth of the genre. Groups such as Les Copines, Maman Belle and Les Avocates and Les Chaden saw in the storytelling music an opportunity to speak out for marginalized women. They each produced hits that are fondly remembered, but their stories have largely been forgotten. Massive zouglou showcases celebrating milestone anniversaries are fairly common nowadays in Abidjan, but women are often left out, and online searches yield little more than a couple of songs, if that, from any one group.

Most notable for its politically-charged commentary and driving rhythm, zouglou became an open stage for anyone with a strong voice and a common grievance to assume the role of musical ambassador. Its rise democratized a rigid music industry that had previously served as a more effective vehicle for popular music from around the region – Ghana’s highlife, Cameroon’s makossa and Congo’s soukous – over homegrown sounds. In the best of situations, female-driven zouglou could have soundtracked a movement for gender equality, but after nearly ten years of a civil war that severely wounded the genre, and even more years of entrenched discrimination, their small yet remarkable output has been relegated to little more than a passing mention in the wider history of zouglou. Almost two decades after the last major release by a female zouglou group, I traveled to Abidjan to uncover the vital stories of the genre’s pioneering women, who fought against all odds to have their voices heard.

Without balanced representation, another consistent and much less progressive undercurrent ran through the genre from its start: the shaming of women.

In 1998, zouglou titans Espoir 2000 released their second album, Série C. In the seven years since the genre’s first major hit, zouglou philosophique had taken over Ivorian youth culture and was on the precipice of taking over the entire nation.

For Espoir 2000, the success of Série C guaranteed their ascent to stardom. The album’s title track, which would go on to become one of the group’s biggest hits, has the standard elements of a zouglou song: call and response, multi-part harmonies, the alloucou rhythm and a few glossy studio touches – synthesizers, guitars, horns and the like. Also, somewhat predictably, the lyrical content is centered around one of zouglou music’s less frequent yet consistent targets: women.

We were told life is a marathon
But what type of marathon is this where women are always behind?
Emancipation, watch out
For the women of today, there’s too much frustration
When you put them on their way to school
By the 4th grade she decides to pursue Series C
Sewing, Styling Hair and Staying Home 11couture, coiffure and chômage in French

A play on the term for a French baccalaureate degree, the lead singer, Pat Sako, goes on to express that as the millennium approaches men need to watch out for “the women of today,” who according to Espoir 2000 could be characterized by a lack of ambition, materialism and greed. Ironically, much of the music video features the two singers drinking champagne in a swimming pool filled with bikini-clad women, reveling in an aesthetic trope typically reserved for the vices they claim to denounce.

Espoir 2000 - Série C

Just a few years earlier, in 1995, another degrading term, “mange-mil,” was ossified in song by the group Esprit de Yop. In the popular tune, women are likened to a bird, specifically the crop-destroying red-billed weaver. In turn, women who seek to exploit rich men and shun (presumably righteous) young men of modest means were branded as such. Unsurprisingly, in a musical genre dominated by men, these overtly sexist depictions didn’t cause much of a stir, but they certainly didn’t go by unnoticed.

Typically comprised of a lead singer and three of four backing vocalists, it was rare to see mixed-gender configurations, let alone all-female zouglou groups. Without balanced representation, another consistent and much less progressive undercurrent ran through the genre from its start: the shaming of women. As the economic crisis deepened, women often became a scapegoat for the problems facing unemployed men. Anne Schumann, an African studies scholar based at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, explains this predicament via email: “Many zouglou songs depict an overall negative image of women. Young women are castigated for choosing to date affluent, elder men instead (or in addition to) their age-mates who are usually depicted as struggling to find employment and to become financially stable. However, women are cast in an active role: it is men, rather than women who have become the victims of the ruthless behavior of members of the opposite gender.”

Although there do exist more positive representations of women in zouglou – artists such as Soum Bill have been praised for presenting alternative images – it didn’t quite balance out, as terms such as “Série C” and “mange-mil” grew in popularity. For some aspiring female zouglou artists, it may have been a deterrence. But for others, this was the challenge: To prove that not only could women make zouglou music, but that it could speak for them as well.

[Men were] there, insulting us every year – we have nothing, we’re in the house, we’re cheaters. It was as if women were waiting, like a big release, for a group of women to arrive and say it how it is.

Maman Belle of Les Avocates

The rise of zouglou music is inextricably linked to the economic conditions that Côte d’Ivoire faced post-independence. As the largest producer of cocoa in the world, the economy was booming as the ’70s approached, and the period came to be known as the “Ivorian Miracle.” With a favorable economy, modern infrastructure and guaranteed university scholarships for high school graduates, the West African nation became a cultural melting pot as it attracted students and young professionals from across the region.

Critics of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the country’s first president following independence, preferred a more lucid moniker, “The Ivorian Mirage,” and were quick to point out the dark underside that kept the miracle afloat. “Salaries were the highest in the region. In education, the teachers were better paid than anybody,” explains Simon Akindes, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, who lived in Abidjan for ten years, “But it was a one-party system, and the cocoa plantation system was at the center of everything, so when the prices of cocoa and coffee dropped, and the price of oil also increased, the Ivorian government could not assume its obligations.”

In 1978, the price of cocoa on the commodities market fell significantly. Unable to maintain the “Miracle”’s standard of living, and with mounting foreign debt, Houphouët’s government instituted severe austerity measures which consisted of slashing spending on social services and education, and repressing dissenters. By 1983, high school graduates were no longer receiving university scholarships, the dormitories were overcrowded and in grave disrepair and violent clashes between student protesters and the police were becoming a regular occurrence.

Undeterred, these young fighters began animating their concerns with music which reflected the urgency of the time. Zouglou, as it came to be known, was ultimately a repurposed form of music that was already familiar to the Ivorian tradition. It grew from a style called woyo, or “ambiance facile,” which was performed by students accompanying high school sports teams during interregional competitions. Equipped with simple percussion instruments – tam-tam drums, glass bottles and metal scrapers – the budding musicians would perform call- and-response songs with improvised lyrics to encourage their respective teams, borrowing traditional rhythms and melodies from the different areas they would visit. The rhythm that eventually stuck and which would form the basis of zouglou music was alloucou, a polyrhythmic dance-oriented beat from the Bété ethnic group in the southwest of the country.

The style of performance eventually spilled out into the larger social fabric as it grew in popularity. Groups would get together to perform woyo for functions such as funerals or baptisms and in bars or restaurants, adapting lyrics to suit the audience. Back in the student dorms, the simplicity of woyo allowed it to be easily adapted as protest music, and the more musically inclined would sing out lyrics in nouchi, an Ivorian street slang, that denounced the ills of society and brought to light the galere (misery) that plagued many. It was also accompanied by a dance which involved raising one’s arms up to signify a call to a higher power and immediately dropping them down to represent their limitations on earth. Those prone to improvisation finessed the style by adding a swift shuffling of the feet and twirl-like, intermediary hand movements in between the up-and-down arm motions. A style of dress helped establish the movement’s aesthetic identity: Zouglou youth had a preference for jeans and bandanas which could either be tied around their faces or, more often, around their knees. Some have directly attributed this choice of apparel to the student protests, as jeans would allow for a quick escape in a scuffle with authorities and bandanas would provide protection from tear gas. At any rate, with a style of dress, a dance and a sound, zouglou officially became a cultural force.

Les Chaden and Maman Belle demonstrating zouglou dance movements Malick Kebe

In February 1990, following continuous power outages on the eve of final exams, students once again took to the streets. After three months of violent protests, the government finally abolished the one-party system, allowing the opposition an official place at the table of Ivorian politics. With this watershed moment, the transformed woyo sound gained even more momentum and moved from student union meetings to the streets. In order to graduate from the simplicity of its predecessor, and reach a wider audience, zouglou had to pass through the filter of record studios and modern production standards. Through the lyrics it maintained its grit and direct line to the people, but tam-tams were now accompanied by drum sets – in some cases, drum machines – synthesizers, bass guitars, keys and horns. The genre’s first hit, “Gboglo Koffi” by Les Parents Du Campus, was released in 1991 and sold an unlikely 90,000 copies, propelling zouglou from a burgeoning genre into the mainstream.

Women have been present, and found success, since the early days of zouglou. The Zouglounettes were the first recognized female zouglou group, but they fell into the shadows not long after the release of their playful hit “Coco” in 1992. That same year, Côte d’Ivoire won the African Cup of Nations. Capitalizing on the excitement and national pride of the moment, another female group, Les Copines, released their debut album. Christened “Les Copines,” or “The Girlfriends,” by their mentor Didier Bile of Les Parents du Campus, the young quartet adopted a more masculine-presenting style of dress with loose-fitting jeans and shirts, blazers, dark sunglasses, athletic shoes and loafers. Their first major hit, “Déception,” was released that same year and chronicles the tale of a young woman who has been misled by a man. The format of the song is such that she relays the story to Les Copines in the chorus, and they respond to her with a hefty dose of tough love in the verses. Lines like, “Girl, why are you crying, you annoy me eh!” add a humorous bend to the song and are punctuated by synths and swoosh-like sound effects. They later go on to insult the man in question to hammer in the fact that he isn’t worth her tears. Everything build ups to a remarkably ecstatic breakdown where they call on women to come dance (libere!) and namedrop a number of women who should presumably find freedom in dancing zouglou rather than pining over deceptive men.

Les Copines - Déception

“We wanted to show that women could do zouglou,” Natou de Djapa, one of the members of Les Copines, tells me over the phone. “Men would often speak about how women behaved in zouglou and so we spoke about men and how they behaved. I think that’s logical, it’s the kind of criticism that can make things move forward.”

Les Copines would go on to have a few more popular songs over the years, including “Somo,” a somber number which talks about the physical abuse of women, and “Reconciliation,” a more dance-driven appeal for equal partnership from their 1998 album of the same name. Their collective output as a group would cease by 2002 with the release of their last album Somo, and chances of a reunion were dashed in October of 2018 when one of the original members, Antou de Australie, passed away. Only one remaining member, Natou, who lives in France, continues to pursue music. Even so, respect for the pioneering spirit and energy of Les Copines exists beyond the niche corners of YouTube comments and throwback web articles. They are always amongst the first names mentioned with regards to women in zouglou music, and in January 2019, Natou was a featured guest on the national television show 100% Zouglou.

Though her taste of success would come some years later, Maman Belle of the group Les Avocates grew up close to Les Copines. “We were like sisters,” she remembers fondly. As the momentum of the older group slowed down, Maman Belle saw an opportunity for a new group of women to take on the torch. Other all-female groups such as Zouglou Machine and Les Ladies were on the scene at the time, but neither had made as big of a splash as Les Copines’ debut. Meanwhile, male groups, such as the aforementioned Espoir 2000 and Esprit de Yop, were continuing to profit from promulgating negative stereotypes of women, and the realities of gender inequality in the country remained stark. According to a 2017 World Bank report, Ivorian women on average earn half as much as men in the workforce, and continue to face discrimination in access to schooling, healthcare and family planning. On top of this, there still exists an expectation of women to assume domestic roles. Usher Aliman, a prominent music journalist in Abidjan told me, “I know young women who want to do zouglou but their husband won’t be okay with them singing till one or two in the morning. So you have to choose between being a musician or someone’s wife.”

These problems are not specific to Côte d’Ivoire or Africa. Tense debates surrounding the possibility of work-life balance in recent years have seen some of the world’s most powerful women chiming in. “There can only be one”-style rhetoric continues to plague women in hip-hop and the #MeToo movement is still unearthing, albeit slowly, the difficulties many women face when pursuing music careers. The irony of zouglou music being an open space for denouncing the problems of society and providing little to no room for women to speak on such ills did not escape Maman Belle, yet despite the obvious obstacles she decided to push through. “All that affected women affected us closely. Men have a tendency to say that women are weak, which is false, women are stronger than men. [Men were] there, insulting us every year – we have nothing, we’re in the house, we’re cheaters. It was as if women were waiting, like a big release, for a group of women to arrive and say it how it is.”

Maman Belle Malick Kebe

Growing up in Treichville, a neighborhood south of the Ebrie lagoon which portions Abidjan into two halves, Maman Belle knew she wanted to be a star. “I told myself one day that I would be one of the greatest artists from this country,” she told me one rainy afternoon in Abidjan in June 2019. With her commanding voice, playful humor and incredible posture, it’s clear Belle was meant to be on a stage. “No speak English!” she greets me with, hardly containing her laughter before switching to French. She arrives dressed to the nines. “We’re taking pictures right? Please wait, I have to change,” she calls out before returning in an even more fabulous ensemble.

Although she was initially inspired by the Ivorian traditional singer Lou Suzanne Nazou, she was born into the zouglou generation and was compelled by its functionality. “I chose zouglou because there were so many things to speak on, it was life that made me choose zouglou as a musical style. The mistreatment of women by men, men who have no respect for women, it was them I fought against. These boys are evil. They’re liars,” she continues, looking me squarely in the eyes to make sure I’ve understood. This ability to be direct is possibly one of the most important tenets of zouglou music. People have come to expect the smoke and mirrors approach from the government so they turn to musicians, and especially zouglou musicians, to lay it straight.

Belle cut her teeth performing woyo music with the group Sur-Choc. Walking from neighborhood to neighborhood within Treichville, providing “animacion” in bars, restaurants and the street, Belle sharpened her voice and songwriting abilities and began making moves towards starting her own zouglou group at around 16 years old, in the mid-’90s. She came in contact with a producer who suggested two other young women she could partner with, Lydia and Blanche, and thus Les Avocates (The Lawyers) was born. It was a fitting name that they fully embraced by the time the millennium rolled around and they were ready to respond to Espoir 2000’s misguided warnings about women of the era. In 2002, they released their debut single, “Série M.”

Remembering the occasion, Maman Belle notes, “It was a shock. These people who criticize women, they’re not stronger than us, they’re not more intelligent than us. That’s why Les Avocates came to also tell men that you’re ‘Série M,’ only good to be mechanics, carpenters, masons and first, liars [mécanicien, menuisier, maçon and menteur in French].” Using gendered professions to target men doesn’t have quite the same impact as it does for women, given the inherent power imbalance. But in this case, it was a passing tool to match the reference in Espoir 2000’s “Série C.” The repeated refrain in Les Avocates post-millenium hit is “La femme a un bon coeur/Women have a good heart” which is a direct counter to the refrain in “Série C”: “Oho, les femmes d’aujourd’hui/Oh, the women of today.” If Espoir 2000 did any damage to the perception of Ivorian women in the new millennium, Les Avocates did not come in solely for petty vengeance, but also as a salve to ease the hurtful effects of existing stereotypes.

Les Avocates - Série M

The melody of “Série M,” introduced by the synthesizer and keys before the singers begin, sits perfectly atop the studio-produced zouglou beat. The lyrics recount the story of a woman who falls in love with a man, provides for him in his time of need, and in return he falsely accuses her of theft so he can take her money and run off with someone else. Maman Belle then goes on to initiate the inevitable dance breakdown using her voice as a percussive tool, bouncing over the stripped-down drums. Directly influenced by the Congolese tradition of calling out dances in soukous music, the infectious break culminates in a menacing snarl from Belle: “Who said it isn’t a dog eat dog world? Chien mange chien.” Similar to the end of Les Copines’ “Deception,” the singers shout out women by name who have a good heart, incorporating them into the rousing tune.

The song was an instant hit. “Success came quickly, because women were waiting for it. When people heard we were playing somewhere even the older women were there,” Belle recalls. At several points in our conversation, she breaks out in song, as if speech cannot accurately represent the sentiment. These are not tangents or distractions but rather points of emphasis. Perhaps she’s really telling me that there’s no need for most of my questions: Everything is in the music. In zouglou, the stakes are high, so you must leave everything on the table.

Just before the 2002 release of “Série M,” a civil war broke out. 750 soldiers attempted to take over the country and, on failing to capture Abidjan, lay siege on the northern half of Côte d’Ivoire, effectively splitting it in two parts: the rebel-controlled and majority Muslim north and the government-controlled and majority Christian south. The war centered around ethnicity and specifically which groups had a claim to Ivorian citizenship.

Nearly 400 people died in the first few days of fighting, and as the country became more hostile to those perceived as foreigners, many international organizations such as the African Development Bank, which had for decades been headquartered in Abidjan, began relocating operations. Like many others in the expat community, my own family began the relocation process and by the end of the year we boarded one-way flights to the United States, questions of privilege, return and home lingering on our minds.

For Les Avocates, while the initial fighting slightly slowed down their promotional tour, after the violence moved into the interior and away from Abidjan, they continued to reap the rewards from their hit single. For Les Chaden, a female zouglou group from Koumassi, another neighborhood south of the Ebrie lagoon, this was not the case.

Les Chaden – a portmanteau of their individual names, Chantal, Awa, Denise and Nina – released their debut album in 2002, featuring the standout hit “Agboloté.” Moving away from the standard, the quartet mixed a traditional neighborhood genre, ziguehi, with zouglou to make what they describe as a “softer” sound. In the beginning of the track, their multipart harmonies lightly float over the drums, bird noises and hand claps with melodies that seem to harken back to traditional village songs or church choirs, but all softness ends at that point. With the introduction of the main melodic line and the percussive scat-like singing that urges the beat forward, it’s clear that this song is meant for serious movement. The lyrics, sung in a mix of local languages and French, decry domestic violence. “We spoke of men who beat women. We also spoke of ambition: As a woman you can’t rely on men only, you must take your work seriously,” Awa explains. “They call us the weaker sex, so there was a need for people to speak up, to denounce this, so they could understand that women are marginalized, are left behind.”

Les Chaden - Agboloté

Hoping to tour outside of Abidjan with their latest release, violence in the countryside halted their efforts. “We were getting ready to do promotion, and the war arrived and things got cancelled. The country was divided in two and people were scared to move around, ”Awa recounts. The friend to the three sisters, Chantal, Denise and Nina, Awa is warm and selective with her words. Chantal, who is even quieter, also agreed to meet with me in Abidjan. Denise now lives in Europe and Nina has since passed away, but Awa and Chantal still perform together as Les Chaden. After their debut, the group had plans to release more music, but two more unexpected forces would turn the zouglou scene on its head: the introduction of coupé-décalé and piracy.

Never one to run away from politics, many zouglou musicians began openly taking sides at the start of the conflict. But unlike the general protests against the state that birthed the genre, picking sides in a civil war is much more complicated. It was no longer civilians versus the government. In the mixed-ethnicity neighborhoods of Abidjan, it became a question of neighbor versus neighbor.

The stress and exhaustion of the war paved the way for the escapism of coupé-décalé. Literally meaning to “cheat and run away,” the genre’s embrace of materialism and excess became a popular reprieve for young Ivorians, nudging the conscious-minded and politically sticky zouglou to the side.

A rapid swell in piracy also made being a full-time artist nearly impossible. Zouglou, an album-based genre, found itself trying to compete in a singles market for little to no return and diminished audiences. Producers were harder to find and by 2008, Showbiz, one of the biggest Ivorian record labels, which at the time controlled 80% of the country’s musical output, shut down due to financial strain. As formal avenues became more difficult to navigate, zouglou music began to rely more on the informal market and live performance as a source of revenue. Maquis, Abidjan’s signature open-air restaurants, became a primary vehicle for the spread of zouglou music. A communal hub for grilled meats, beer and music, these informal locales, often equipped with little more than simple plastic or wooden seating and large outdoor grills, became essential performance venues, with shows taking place any given weekend. The most popular venues were found in Yopougon, one of the city’s biggest neighborhoods and home to the student protests which created the genre.

Zouglou may have lost its radical edge since the conflict, but its heart can be found in Yopougon, every afternoon, keeping a steady pulse in the hopes of the genre’s renaissance.

On a sweltering weekday afternoon, I find myself in Yop City, as it’s referred to by locals, hoping to meet with a zouglou producer to find out about any active women on the scene. I make a stop at the neighborhood’s largest market, Siporex. The periphery, which extends out to the main road, is dotted with a number of ramshackle stalls selling everything from used clothes to flashlights and other random home goods. Traversing deeper into the market, I’m immediately seduced by the smell of poisson braisé (grilled fish) and the sizzle of fresh alloco (fried plantain). If there is anywhere to sit and relax, it’s at the heart of the market. Rows of outdoor tables are serviced by individual food vendors who have set up their grills, deep fryers and cases of beer and soda at a distance close enough for patrons to call out orders from their seats but far enough to not be too much of a disturbance. At 2 PM on Wednesday, nearly all the seats are filled with men and women, drinks in hand as they await their food and whichever group of young musicians will entertain them with woyo. Zouglou may have lost its radical edge since the conflict, but its heart can be found here, every afternoon, keeping a steady pulse in the hopes of the genre’s renaissance.

About a 10-minute drive from the lively market, on a quiet street marred with potholes, is one of the neighborhood’s recording studios. Sniper, an arranger, sound engineer and owner of the studio, is sitting in a plastic chair outside. A young man is passed out asleep on a nearby bench, most likely due to the pounding heat. The studio is small and unassuming, with a faded purple exterior and only a single painted treble clef giving away the building’s purpose. Inside, the space is dark but surprisingly cool and is furnished with a soundboard, a keyboard, a desktop computer, table, small couch and a collage of concert posters plastered on a wall. Sniper turns on the computer. “Ask me a question now, it’s going to take a minute,” he says with a heavy sigh and a slight air of languidity.

Sniper began his career in the early ’90s in a woyo group. A few years later he moved into arranging and recording artists and in the past two decades has worked with over 20 artists, including zouglou superstars Les Garagistes and the more recent upstart Yabongo Lova. I’m here to ask him about current women in zouglou music and why the genre hasn’t produced more female stars. “Generally, women who come into zouglou, by the end they become urban music singers. Zouglou [has a specific] style, way of singing, and [way] of dress. You can’t wear a dress and be a zouglouman,” he tells me over the drone of his equipment booting up.

When I press more and offer the counterexample of Les Copines’ masculine presenting aesthetic, he insists that the female groups never updated their subject matter beyond relations with men. Others, he claims, have fallen by the wayside because of people emigrating, such as members of Les Copines, and others getting pregnant. He finally concedes, “You know, a woman amid 30 men, you need to have endurance. There are still a few and they have the talent but they can’t make zouglou like men.” A few days later, a male music journalist in the scene echoed similar sentiments. According to them, a perceived “lack” of political content and fortitude to survive the tough realities of being a zouglou artist justified why women weren’t active in the scene.

Les Chaden and Maman Belle Malick Kebe

Many of these claims seemed to be predicated on shaky and, quite frankly, sexist foundations. My own foray into female-driven zouglou began with “Déception” by Les Copines. While these men may dismiss it as just another love song, in it I saw women using zouglou as a tool for empowerment. From their subversive aesthetic choices to their denunciations of women being trapped in victimhood, I saw a group of women claiming the power of zouglou to reinstate a sense of pride and independence in those who have continually been oppressed by systematic patriarchy. If their ability to make this kind of art in spite of the inherent challenges isn’t political enough, I’m not sure what is. While emigration and domestic obligations have surely played a role in slowing down the careers of many women in the scene, it doesn’t paint a full picture of the realities that many women faced in the industry.

Back in the upscale Riviera neighborhood, the sun was beginning to set at the café where I spoke with Maman Belle and Les Chaden. “Oh! I’m hungry,” Belle says pointedly. We’ve been talking for a while and I worry that fatigue and hunger might not exactly grease the wheels for my next question. I want to hear from the women themselves why there are so few of them in the genre. I’ve asked this earlier, but they seemed hesitant to chalk anything up to sexism either in zouglou or in society. Awa and Chantal laugh and shrug the question off. Belle, however, begins carefully. “If today the women of zouglou are not making albums, it’s because there’s history there… When you say sexism it’s perhaps too much, but there was droit de cuissage. The people who produce your album, they also want to eat. You say sexual harassment, but that’s the guy following you around, annoying you. I’m talking droit de cuissage: ‘I sleep with you, then I produce your music.’ We’ve been victims of that, too much, and it’s nasty.” Awa who had previously been more reticent to broach the subject, chimes in after Belle: “Maybe it will get better, but I don’t think it will change. She’s said it all. It’s not new, as a woman if you want to keep your dignity you need to stay in your corner.”

Belle continues with a memory from a few years ago when she met with a producer in the hopes of relaunching her music career. “I explained my problem, he looked me in the eyes, like you are now, and he said, ‘I’m ready, I have the money, we can make you international, but I want to sleep with you. Because tomorrow if you become famous, what do I gain? It’ll be your husband or your man who will be happy. I gain nothing.’” She adamantly refused and decided to focus her energy on a career in film instead. Awa and Chantal click their tongues in disapproval, but also with a tacit understanding of the frequency of these kinds of interactions. When I ask if this contributed to their careers slowing down, Chantal, who earlier denied anything of the sort happening to her, changes course. “Yes, it’s demoralizing. It’s paralyzing. You can’t move, like she said. This is what keeps women in zouglou out,” she adds quietly.

While there have been several generations of zouglou artists, many of the superstars of the ’90s – Espoir 2000, Les Garagistes, Soum Bill, Magic System and Yodé & Siro – are still recognized as some of the biggest names in the genre. In recent years, many of them have thrown large concerts in Abidjan celebrating their major career anniversaries. Though Les Avocates and Les Chaden came up with many of these groups, they are often left out of these showcases. “They do things between themselves, for themselves. It’s for them, they don’t care about us. When they do their big shows, their 20 years, they can call all the men of the scene. But they never call us,“ Belle says. When they are invited, payment often becomes a contentious issue. Natou of Les Copines recalls being paid less in early shows, “It was a bit shocking at first, but then you accept it,” she contends with a rueful chuckle. Awa and Denise, who have to commute over an hour from their home neighborhood of Koumassi to Yopougon to perform in these shows, recall fees for their performance often being less than their transportation costs.

The few times the women have been able to perform, the reception has sometimes been surprising. At a 2015 concert celebrating 20 years of Espoir 2000, Les Chaden were booked as one of the openers. Chantal remembers, “We thought people had forgotten us, you know, but as soon as the music came on, the entire room stood up.”

The live performance circuit in Abidjan managed to sustain the musical ecosystem during the war as fighting was concentrated in the interior, but it would be threatened once violence returned to Abidjan by the end of the decade. After several attempts at peace talks, the war was officially declared over by the end of 2007 and the country began the arduous task of disarmament in preparation for the next presidential election. Peace, unfortunately, would not last, and by the end of 2010 Côte d’Ivoire was embroiled in another conflict. The presidential election of 2010 was disputed, with the electoral commission claiming the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo as the victor while a number of organizations, regional leaders and the wider international community sided with the opposition, Alassane Ouattara. Once again the country was divided and intense fighting broke out between the armed militias of both sides in early 2011. This time, the Abidjan became a battleground and the sound of gunfire a daily occurrence. Heavy sanctions were imposed by the French government in an effort to force Gbagbo out, including the closure of French banks. Imports dried up, making food and medicine difficult to obtain, and by the end of the conflict, nearly 700,000 people had fled Abidjan.

Following the second crisis, the women I spoke to were no longer active in the music scene, and zouglou music as a whole had taken a major hit. Many zouglou performance spaces on the popular Rue de Princesse in Yopougon had been razed, and “clean up” efforts by Alassane Ouattara’s government led to the closure of many more after fighting had ceased. In addition, the breadth of violence and accompanying trauma led to increased censorship in zouglou music. “It’s not fear, but the country is weak, everything is politicized, you run the risk of being labeled an extremist,” Belle explains.

In recent years, Ivorian youth are much more concerned with hip-hop, Nigerian pop and coupé-décalé than zouglou. Rarely promoted outside of Côte d’Ivoire, many believe that its insularity has kept it from evolving. That being said, venues like L’Internat in Yopougon consistently draw packed crowds every Sunday for the zouglou show, and throughout the week other nightclubs and maquis around the city regularly host up and coming talent. Most groups are more akin to woyo, relying on little more than drums and their voices as instruments. One summer evening at L’Internat, I thought I heard a bass guitar while a zouglou group was performing only to find that one of the background singers was making the noise with his nose and mouth. And with respect to female voices, rumblings of a few groups here and there making rounds at small showcases in maquis came to my attention, but they were difficult to track down.

In 2017, a female zouglou duo named Les Queens emerged with a single entitled “Gnokpo.” Early press was quick to deem them as the long-awaited successors of groups like Les Copines and Les Avocates. In a 2017 interview with Zouglou Nonstop TV, the interviewer opened the Q&A with, “Why did you choose to become musicians rather than [seamstresses] or [hairdressers]?” A smile never leaving her face, singer Annie Bahonnon exclaimed, “Well, music chose me!” Regardless of whether this was a serious question or a playful joke, the implication still remains that the genre is not ready to fully embrace female artists.

The zouglou pioneers I spoke to saw and acted on the potential of the music to uplift other women. They may have been slowed down, but they haven’t been stopped. Their legacy continues to exist in song and in the enduring potential of zouglou to affect real change. They insist that zouglou artists are born and, despite poor behavior by some, zouglou philosophy is inherently inclusive. Les Chaden still perform zouglou, but as religious converts, they devote most of their artistic output to the church. Maman Belle has dedicated her life to film but has not completely eliminated the possibility of returning to music. Natou of Les Copines still resides in Paris, and is working on her solo career.

Despite all the challenges that continue to make it difficult for women to thrive in Zouglou music, the women insist that they will never lose their love for the Ivorian national treasure. “A career is the continuation of a life, there’s highs [and] lows,” says Belle. “What made me proud was to go into shows where there were more women than men, then I was proud. I knew it was women who were there to hear women speaking for them.”

Special thanks to Les Copines, Les Chaden and Les Avocates for sharing their music and stories. Many thanks to Usher Aliman, Malick Kebe, DJ Mineral, Sniper, Anne Schumann, Simon Akindes, Kansiime Kariisa, Laurent Fintoni, Aaron Gonsher, Todd Burns and the Bushman Hotel for their invaluable assistance and kindness.

Header image © Malick Kebe

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