Album Review: Star Feminine Band – In Paris : Afro-pop energy from Benin’s ‘band like no other’.

The Breakdown

Upbeat songs with a punch, mixing highlife heat with the sweetest hooks and speaking out for rights, empowerment and equality - this is a ‘girl band’ like no other.
Born Bad Records 8.8

If you missed catching onto the joyous pop of Star Feminine Band when their self-titled debut burst onto the scene a couple of years ago, then now is the time to get connected with their second album ‘In Parisavailable from 7th October through Born Bad Records.

This all-girl, teenage group from Natitingou village, Benin make music forged in friendship, sparkling with youthful energy and powered by commitment rooted in their own history. In 2016 local music educator Andre Balaguemon had an idea to knock through the barriers preventing young women breaking into the male dominated Beninese music scene. Spreading the word through provincial radio he assembled this youthful collective on the basis of enthusiasm and drive rather than musical experience. For a group that only picked up and learnt their instruments in 2016 their trajectory to releasing their debut four years later and playing the Roskilde Festival in 2022 sounds like the stuff of dreams but this has been Star Feminine Band’s journey.

On the surface it all sounds close to a ‘Pop Idol’ façade but there is nothing manufactured about this group. From daily practice planned around their school days, to thirty hour bus trips to the capital Cotonou for travel visas to Covid quarantine on arrival in France, they are bound together by a determination to get their joyous music heard. Delivering upbeat songs with a punch, mixing highlife heat with the sweetest hooks but still managing to speak out for rights, empowerment and equality, they are shaping up to be a ‘girl band’ like no other. ‘In Paris’ therefore marks out another step forward where their singularity is running deeper, their vision is getting clearer and, as was always intended, their voices are maturing to tell their own story.

Opener ‘We Are Star Feminine Band’ is a straight ahead statement of intent delivered with a beaming smile of pride. As is SFB’s style the music, a bubbling blend of fast paced, calypso squeezed highlife, is there to welcome and draw you in. It’s not about confrontation but the lyrics, sung in English, speak with a defiant joy. ‘We are Star Feminine Band/ We are musician sisters/The music is our job/ We are strong…’ tells it simply and directly. For symmetry perhaps, the group adopt a similar tone on the album’s final track ‘Women Stand Up’. A glorious reggae roll, all vamps, rim-shots and rambling bass, the references to the Marley/Tosh classic may simmer but the band’s whirling fairground Farfisa and tight vocal unity make the track their own. You get the feeling that as well as singing out to others they are also reminding themselves.

That move on this record to sing some songs in English could be seen as a shift towards convention but this would be over-simplifying. Here is a band that are sharing and experimenting as they go. Delivering songs in a new language, learned together online, brings the listener up to date with where they are at but not necessarily where they are going. Besides, the album is an impressively multi-lingual record, with songs expressed in their local Waama, Ditamari dialects as well as French, and that diversity brings more strength to the messaging.

It’s clear on ‘In Paris’ that Star Feminine Band are determined to be forthright and direct. Take ‘Le Mariage Forcé’, which chips away at the practice of arranged marriage to a mix of bouncing jit, keyboard colours and glistening harmonies. Infectious, fearless, and pulling no punches (‘Forced marriage prevents our evolution, by making us slaves of the home’). Or ‘L’excision’, which addresses FGM to an edgy, urgent soundtrack where clicking percussion and vibraphone riffs scuttle under the yearning chorus. Cleverly, these are songs that you’ll want to listen to rather than just think you need to.

Musically you also realise that conformity is not on Star Feminine Band’s agenda. Ska, soul and more than ever on ‘In Paris’, indie-pop mingle with their foundations of highlife, Afrobeat, Congolese rumba plus Beninese vodun/ sato stylings. There’s a spirit of experimentation and chance taking here and while that daring sometimes gets overplayed, it gives the album real youthful energy. ‘Peba Ikisina’ is one of those surprises, a skittering skank bounce, a ‘Telstar’ keyboard whirl and harmonies that arch with a sixties swoon. Then there’s ‘Igoussounon’, switching dizzingly between near jazz-rock riffing, ska drops and hip-hop call outs. Yes it can sometimes get hard to pin down what might be coming next on the album but then you realise that this glorious free-flow approach is probably key to Star Feminine Band’s identity.

In Paris’ certainly captures a developing sound highlighted by the strong, distinct, emergent voices on tracks like the pop swinger ‘Ete We Gbetoyi’ and the soulful ‘Le Droit De L’enfant’. Of all the songs may be ‘Nous Sommes Les Memes’ stands out with its effortless tempo shifts, tight rhythmic hugs and all-round confident panache. Not that Star Feminine Band have gone slick. ‘In Paris’ may have been recorded in France rather than a museum rehearsal room in Natitingou but that raw garage band exuberance remains and is something they will hopefully always cling onto. Still, from the evidence of the progression, invention and integrity shown on this LP, that difficult third album just won’t be a problem for Star Feminine Band.

Get your copy of ‘In Paris’ from Star Feminine Band from your local record store or direct from:

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