Lately I’ve found myself listening to a lot of old music. There is something very centering and zen about revisiting the soundtrack of past moments in your life. It’s especially exciting when you start to pick up on things that you weren’t able to understand because of your age. For me, that’s been happening with Zouglou music. Growing up in Ivory Coast in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Zouglou was everywhere. Outside of what we would hear on the radio and on music shows, one of my strongest memories of Zouglou was the opening theme song of the biggest local sitcom at the time, Faut Pas Facher. Every night, the distinctive opening notes would signal the start of the nightly comedic show and a mini dance party for me as I sang along to the intro (I mean, with lyrical gems like “my underwear fell down, I don’t know what to do,” my eight-year-old self was LIVING).
Zouglou music is a form of popular music that was birthed by college students in Abidjan in the mid 1990s. Zouglou was created as a way for students to voice their problems with the university system and political environment, eventually evolving into a platform for all social ills to be expressed. In early Zouglou songs, such as “Gboglo Koffi” by Les Parent du Campus, you hear direct references to issues students faced at the university-level (bureaucracy, high tuition, poor facilities) but as the genre evolved and became more popular, through its relatability and danceability, it transitioned from the campus to the streets speaking directly to the various kinds of marginalization experienced by Ivoirians of all walks of life.
The most popular Zouglou song (in terms of international reach) is “Premier Gaou” by Magic System. While for most people outside of Francophone Africa the allure is the irresistible drum pattern and melody, for those who understand the lyrics – and especially for those who were in Abidjan when it came out and remember the original low-budget video – the song was a hit for its hilarious story and wordplay (It’s essentially about a gold-digger getting played). The overall production itself, while very catchy and well-done, wasn’t doing much outside of standard Zouglou music – ie the mixing of traditional and modern drums, punchy synths, call and response and harmonization.
In Zouglou music, tempo can vary with most leaning toward faster rhythms that allows for Zouglou dancing –the left and right shuffling of feet with the arms extending up and down in the opposite direction. The dance was developed to signify a plea to God (hence the upward motion) to appeal the hardships being lamented about in the song, with the downward movement signifying the block caused by said hardship (Akindes, 2002).
Joyfully reliving the Zouglou tracks of my childhood, it dawned on me that I didn’t know of any women who were making Zouglou music. The genre is so male-dominated that the female groups that did exist were often overlooked unless they had a major hit. Even then, outside of that hit, they were not given nearly as much exposure and recognition as their male counterparts. I started to ask around and dig on Youtube for these elusive women and while it is still difficult to find more than a couple of groups online, what I did find was absolute magic. The beauty of Zouglou, is that much like hip-hop, it allowed anyone to tell their story. Thus the problems facing young Ivorian women was not relegated to specific genres such as Zouk or R&B where female vocalists, though much more prominent, were forced to adhere to certain beauty and vocal standards. Rather in Zouglou, anybody from anywhere looking any type of way, had a shot – as long as you had a good story to tell. I’m still digging around on this topic and trying to brush up my dusty French enough to read up about it, but in the meantime, I thought I would share a few of my favorite discoveries in my hunt for the women of Zouglou.
Les Copines – “Déception”
This song has been on repeat for the past month and I was blessed to find the video, which makes it all the more enjoyable. Les Copines are probably the most recognized female Zouglou group due to the popularity of this song. In it, the members of the quartet take turns counseling a woman dealing with a wayward boyfriend, who decides to leave her unexpectedly to move to Paris, through some good old tough love. (“Girl, why are you crying over him, free yourself! You’re annoying me, eh!”) My favorite part is right before the breakdown when they proceed to ferociously insult the deceitful man (“You can’t dress, you can’t even speak well”) then shout (to all women) “Free yourselves, through Zouglou!” Then the dancing commences, while one of the singers in a beautiful melody sings out the names of various women who are either presumably free from shitty men or should free themselves over the fast Zouglou beat.
Serie M – “Les Avocates”
I was also blessed to find the brilliant music video to this song. In it, the group are acting as lawyers in a court for a woman who has been treated poorly by a man. Basically, the woman supported him when he was down and as soon as he got on his feet, he viciously got rid of her to be with someone else. The recurring refrain in this one is, “Women have a good heart” (read: men ain’t shit). The bass line and synths in this song are really what get me, not to mention the amazing hairstyles and dancing. In common fashion, they end the song by shouting out women with good hearts by name and face. True MVPs.
Les Chaden – “Agboloté”
This song is not in French – so I have no idea what it’s about, but the beat is amazing. The way it comes in with ’80s sounding synths, the drums and the improvised vocals that signal a dance breakdown – it’s the perfect marriage of sound.
In 2019 I got the opportunity to travel to Abidjan to document the stories of these incredible women – you can find out more here.