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Star Feminine Band
S/T Noel Gardner , November 17th, 2020 09:26

A seven-piece group of school-age women from Benin prove to be far more than just a remarkable story, finds Noel Gardner

André Balaguemon, a musician from Benin in West Africa, has spoken of the difficulties – financial, cultural – in developing the Star Feminine Band from loose idea to fully-fledged, album-having phenomenon. Those hurdles vaulted, though, from where I’m sitting (which I appreciate makes it easy to pontificate) their whole deal feels like the easiest sell in the world.

Also Beninese, specifically from the town of Natitingou, the seven members of SFB first assembled in 2016 at a musical training camp for girls organised by Balaguemon, and at the time of writing are aged between ten and 16. They play a lucky dip of cross-African styles, highlife perhaps the most prominent, with pop energy and rock sinew, plus three drummers. If you’re not a total prick this very clearly sounds like a blast!

The Star Feminine Band story is a pretty remarkable one – it’s virtually unheard of for Benin women, let alone teen or preteen women, to play music – and, lest your concern be that I’m selling you a biography rather than an album, they have the chops to function on their own merits. Groups noted for their unusual youthfulness sometimes have their amateurishness promoted as a virtue, be that in their own branding or press coverage. The septet having started entirely from scratch, Balaguemon (who principally writes the songs, and who drafted two of his daughters in the lineup) claims his workshops exceeded 40 hours per week, and he certainly got results. ‘Peba’, the first song from this eight-song album to be released and its opening track, fair tots up its various elements. Its introductory keyboard melody has a strange psychedelic folk wobble to it; two guitar solos are like bizarro soukous. The percussion and chants that sally it forth have a highlife feel, but SFB’s rapid shuffling of elements run somewhat contrary to a lot of highlife or highlife-influenced music, where a groove is forged and maintained.

‘Ldesouse’, in the middle section of the record, is a slightly more straightforward highlife-type number, enlivened by some great hypewoman chanting that ends in laughter. Vocals are shared between four of the members – I’m guessing the youngest sounding is Angelique, who would have been seven or eight when this was recorded in 2018 – and are either in French or a few Benin-area languages. ‘Rew Be Me’, a paean to female empowerment sung in Peul/Fula, has riotous call-and-response vocals along with deeply persistent shakers and guitar whose weird, knotty, early 70s garage-raw quality is maybe akin to The Funkees or someone. Star Feminine Band mull social concerns with as much enthusiasm as many of their forebears: ‘Femme Africaine’, with its defiant melancholy, is perhaps the album’s definitive self-celebratory anthem; ‘Iseo’ calls for unity in Benin via choppy rhythms.

“Music is also a job/ We make the music/ Music is our business,” go the (translated) lyrics of ‘La Musique’, a sentiment you probably smashed the like button on when your sound tech mate tweeted it a few months ago. A universal sentiment, too – but even a reliably ghastly music biz in a reliably ghastly world sometimes manages to contain these tiny pockets of resistance. Star Feminine Band, Balaguemon says, are now established radio and concert hall favourites in Benin, but should the opportunity arise it’s hard to imagine many settings where seeing them rocking out wouldn’t be met with total joy.