Deathbed Wish Gives Ivory Coast First All-Women Orchestra
It took a mother's last wish, and a man to make it happen, but Ivory Coast now has its first all-women orchestra in what is hailed as a little "revolution" in this fiercely patriarchal society.
"Why is it so surprising to see women play instruments?" asked Landry Louoba, one of the 10 women in the Bella Mondo band.
The energetic Louoba plays percussion -- and has the biceps to prove it -- alongside a drummer, a pianist, a bassist, singers and other musicians, most in their 30s.
The man who got things started is promoter Charly Maiwan, a Canadian from Montreal who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and made a promise to his mother, a passionate music lover, on her deathbed.
"You always told me you'd have me sing, but my time has come, I'm leaving. Promise me that now you'll make the women of the world sing," he told Agence France Presse, recalling his mother's words.
In 2007, Maiwan, who travels regularly to Africa, contacted Nadine Levry, an Ivorian singing in nightclubs in the economic capital Abidjan. She liked the idea and contacted bass player Prisca Allou.
Bella Mondo was born, and quickly recruited eight other members with a repertoire that ranges from reggae, afro-zouk and a local dance music called zouglou, to oldies and some of their own compositions.
"This adventure must continue and attract other women," said percussionist Louoba.
"It's the right time for our revolution," added Josiane Labi Luo, one of the group's four singers whose goes by the stage name "Jo Labi".
"Revolution", in fact, is the title the women chose for their first album, scheduled for release in 2013 and a testament to their will to overcome both the country's unbending macho ethic and the turmoil from a decade of armed rebellion and political conflict that claimed 3,000 lives last year alone.
-- 'Society viewed us badly' --
A hairdresser by trade, Levry, the band leader and a mother, recalls the difficulty she had selling the idea to her own family. Through sheer perseverance she finally obtained their "blessing", but blamed such trouble on Ivorian society as a whole.
Women remain sidelined in both political and economic circles in the Ivory Coast, said Salimata Porquet, a women's rights activist who heads a non-governmental organization called the Peace and Security Network for Women in ECOWAS (the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States).
"There is still much to do to reach male-female parity, a promise that was never kept" by President Alassane Ouattara since he took office last May, she charged, noting there are only six women in the 35-member government and 30 in the 253-member parliament.
Yet "in Ivory Coast, 60% of households are headed by women, after a decade of political, military and socio-economic turbulence that has disrupted social structures, triggered layoffs, closed factories and torn apart families," Porquet said, adding: "This is the state of affairs in much of the continent."
As for the orchestra, "the attitude of men was oppressive at first," said Levry. "Society viewed us so badly... Women are only meant to cook, make children and take care of the house."
The "revolution" they've undertaken is "to show that women can play instruments, sometimes even better than men!" she said.
The women perform in elegant dresses of African wax cloth and have played across Abidjan, but their "headquarters", as they call it, is a club called "Pams" in the trendy district of Il-Plateaux.
March 8, International Women's Day, brought an official "blessing" of sorts when they were asked to perform at a government-planned gala hosted by former prime minister and now speaker of parliament Guillaume Soro.
And the milestones continue. In July the orchestra is scheduled to play in Montreal at a women's music festival organized by Maiwan, as well as some gigs in Europe.
Other requests are coming in but the group's manager, Dominique Tahi, said the band "lacks instruments" and is pressing authorities for help.
For band leader Levry, there's another wish: "If Ivorian people would have a positive attitude towards what we're doing and support us, that would really help."