Africa on her musical map

Native music

Africa on her musical map

Angélique Kidjo, the songwriter and singer from Benin, has kept African languages and an African sensibility at the core of her music, writes Jon Pareles

Angélique Kidjo, the songwriter and singer from Benin, was in Kenya being a do-gooder when the concept of her new album, ‘Eve’, came to her, she said, “ like a light bulb blowing up in your head.”

Kidjo, who is a UNICEF good will ambassador, was visiting small Kenyan villages, seven hours by car from Nairobi, along with the executive director of UNICEF, Kenya’s minister of health and a CNN crew to draw attention to the widespread malnutrition that can leave children stunted for life.

In the village of Merti, where a pilot programme was helping mothers and children, Kidjo was greeted by women harmonising and dancing to a joyful, traditional welcome song. Soon, Kidjo was singing along. Her husband and songwriting collaborator, Jean Hébrail, caught the moment on an iPhone camera, and the women’s voices became the core of Kidjo’s version of the song, M’Baamba, the first song on ‘Eve’ (429 Records).

In an interview at her apartment in Brooklyn — over slices of homemade, salted caramel cake — Kidjo, 53, recalled thinking: “This is the album right here. It has to be about these women, how they prevail in hard surroundings and still smile.” Village traditions, cosmopolitan transformations, female solidarity, African pride and perpetual energy have been constants in Kidjo’s recording career.

She’s an expatriate who has never left Africa behind; in a career of making transnational hybrids, she has kept African languages and an African sensibility at the core of her music.

She has worked with musicians and producers from Europe, Africa and across the Americas, and the inevitable cultural blends have been a major factor in building Kidjo’s worldwide audience. “Ninety-five percent of the audience doesn’t understand her lyrics,” Hébrail said. “So we have to find a way to make it interesting sonically and musically for people who don’t understand.”

Yet her words, her sense of melody and the primal cry in her voice always announce her music as African above all. “When I succeed, and a song comes,” Kidjo said, “there is this sense of relief and of pride, because you succeed without adulterating the truth of it. I don’t want it to be diluted. I just want it to be there the way it is. The modern music can have the life of the traditional music because they have the same bedrock history.”

Along with the ‘Eve’ album, Kidjo has just released her autobiography, Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music, which traces the story of the determined woman with the potent voice who emerged from the small town of Ouidah, on the coast of Benin in West Africa, where her family’s ancestral home still stands. From there, she went on to reach an international audience, win a Grammy Award and stand alongside world leaders as a voice of Africa.

Kidjo has not lived in Benin since she slipped out in 1983 and settled in Paris. She was leaving behind a Communist dictatorship that wanted songwriters to praise the revolution continually, but she was also setting aside her growing stardom in West Africa and losing contact — for six years, until democracy came to Benin — with a family that had been uncommonly supportive of her ambitions.

Multilingual artiste

Yet she still writes most often in the West African languages she grew up speaking, Fon (her father’s heritage) and Yoruba (her mother’s). She also speaks two more of Benin’s local languages, Mina and Goun, along with French, English, the German she studied in school and the Portuguese and Italian she is learning now. 

“It’s the song that brings the language,” she said. “Fon is the hardest language in which I write music. But if the song came in Fon, I have to stick to it.”

Kidjo does not read music. Like a traditional musician, she has an extraordinary memory, singing everything by ear — including, this month, the premiere of Ife, an orchestral piece with her lyrics (from Yoruba creation legends), set to complex, metre-shifting music by Philip Glass. When she attended the CIM jazz school in Paris in the 1980s, she would memorise the music she was pretending to read. Once her instructor realised what she was doing, he exempted her from studying notation, saying that she had the kind of memory he would kill for.

The songs on ‘Eve’ celebrate women’s strength and potential in African contexts. Bomba is about the pride women take in traditional African dresses. Kulumbu suggests that since women suffer during wartime, they should have a say in negotiating the peace. A pair of songs addresses the practice of forced marriage: Cauri, the lament of a young girl whose parents have chosen a husband for her, and Hello, about the happiness of a love match.

During the 1990s, Kidjo recorded her albums using typical pop methods: layering parts together. But a decade ago, she decided, “Enough of this nonsense,” she said. “I want everybody in the same studio. I want the feeling of us sharing. The song is written like that; it can go somewhere else. Let’s give life to those things. If it goes to another route, we follow it because it’s the right one, because we’re all taking the same road. We cannot all be wrong.”

Her core band includes guitarists Lionel Loueke, who is from Benin, and Dominic James, who has worked with her since 2002. Various songs on ‘Eve’ feature New Orleans pianist Dr John, guitarist Rostam Batmanglij from Vampire Weekend, the Kronos Quartet and the Luxembourg Philharmonic. But they also feature Kidjo’s mother, Yvonne (nicknamed Eve), who just turned 87, all sorts of Beninese percussion played by members of the Gangbe Brass Band, and nine local choirs of women Kidjo recorded across Benin. Once she finished her version of the Kenyan song, Kidjo said, she decided: “Now I’ve put East Africa in there. I need to go back to Benin.”

Music on the go

Kidjo and Hébrail had travelled around Benin recording traditional musicians for her 1996 album, ‘Fifa’. When she made ‘Eve’, she reunited with some of them — this time, bringing her own songs for them to perform with her. The traditional women’s choirs were initially surprised at the idea of singing along with a loudspeaker and sometimes skeptical of what Kidjo wanted them to learn. She recalled reactions like: “You think we’re going to sing that? It’s too complicated.” She continued: “Then I start singing with them. Then, at one point, I turn the music off, and we start singing, and then I’ll remove myself, and that’s it.”

Even as they are mixed into the album’s polished productions, the Beninese women’s tracks still hold the sharp, metallic sounds of local percussion instruments and, now and then, the chatter of background conversation. They are live keepsakes from present-day Africa, the voices of the kinds of women Kidjo wants to reach most. “I just want them raw,” Kidjo said, beaming.

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