Angelique Kidjo

Interview: Angelique Kidjo

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 01.27.14 in Interviews


Angélique Kidjo

Africa couldn’t have found a more tireless and powerfully-voiced advocate than Angélique Kidjo, an onstage powerhouse whose fortifying new album Eve celebrates motherhood, daughterhood and sisterhood from the Garden of Eden to the present. Kidjo gets even more specific in her recent autobiography, Spirit Rising: My Life and Music, which recounts her exile from and return to her native Benin. Music and biology entwine throughout the memoir; one chapter describes the birth of her daughter in somewhat surprising detail, while another recounts Kidjo and husband-collaborator Jean Hébrail’s backcountry expedition to capture and preserve endangered Benin rhythms for her 1995 album Fifa. The same heartbeat pulses through both.

Angélique Hounsinou Kandjo Manta Zogbin-Kpasselokohinto Kidjo was born in the coastal town of Ouidah in 1960 to a Fon father and Yoruban mother. Growing up with seven brothers (and three sisters) might well be one path to becoming a feminist — and, in Kidjo’s case, to becoming a musician as well. With their father’s help, some of the brothers formed the first modern band in Benin, with pre-teen Angélique their featured vocalist. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo, the ubiquitous Benin stars who backed Kidjo when she went solo, eventually supplanted the group in terms of popularity; yet they barely rate a mention in her book. “I had some issues with them at the time,” Kidjo tells me over the phone from her home in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. “They always came late to rehearsals. They’d say, ‘We’re in Africa, not Europe.’ And I’d say, ‘My father taught me that 10 o’clock means 10 o’clock!’”

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo went on to write and perform songs praising Benin’s Communist government. Kidjo, however, refused to do so. Fearing her artistic voice would be squelched, and believing she would be refused a passport, she fled her homeland for France in 1983, under cover of darkness.

In Paris, Kidjo cleaned hotel rooms during the day and studied and performed jazz at night. “My first day at school they said, ‘What are you doing here? Jazz isn’t for African people!’ And I’m like, let me teach you something.” Jazz’s origins, Kidjo says, lie in gospel and traditional African music, “when we start scatting and improvising in the middle of a song.” Her band on Eve includes Christian McBride (bass), Bahnamous Bowie (keyboards) and fellow Beninese Lionel Loueke (guitar). “They’re not just jazz musicians,” she says. “They’re multitalented musicians who understand the complexity of the world’s music.”

Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, whose parents liked to play Kidjo’s early “Malaika” after dinner parties, also appears, playing guitar on “Bomba” and keyboards on “Hello.” “In the studio we worked very fast,” he says, via email. “Angélique and her husband were prepared for anything and encouraged me to just try ideas and see what would happen.” He ended up contributing some funky Motown guitar and flute-like whistling samples. “It was a surreal and extremely rewarding experience,” he adds. “She was probably the first African music I heard growing up, and her voice will always give me a special feeling in my heart.”

In 1991, Kidjo released Logozo, the first of her 10 often-conceptually-conceived albums. Kidjo easily adopted a racially mixed, technically enhanced Afro-Parisian sound rich in synthesizers, reverb and strong African drumming, with her big voice at its center. “African musicians always mixed synthesizers and guitars with African drums,” she says. “It has only ever been the Westerner who thinks that because I’m an African, I should be like a museum piece, not changing.” Oremi, Black Ivory Soul and Oyaya! comprise a trilogy focusing on Africa’s influence on the music of the Americas, Brazil and the Caribbean, respectively. In 2010 she released Oyo, a mix of traditional songs and popular music from Africa, Bollywood and the United States that she heard growing up.

In Africa, a song’s story or message traditionally supersedes the singer, and Kidjo regards Eve as a book of stories about women. It begins, she explains, with “Bomba,” which concerns “the beauty and determination of women in dire situations in the poorest environments you can imagine,” and how they still take pride in making and wearing beautiful garments. “Eva,” with the Nigerian-French singer ASA, imagines a future international coalition of women helping one another through hardship. And “Kulumbu” notes that while women are often war’s first victims, they are never invited to the peace talks.

Kidjo has no problem identifying as a feminist. But having to continually defend herself suggests that something remains wrong. “We shouldn’t justify any choice we make,” she says. “We have the right to do everything we want, and to be left alone.”

Eve is also about money, and the United Nations goodwill ambassador remains astounded that her mother underwent 14 pregnancies on her husband’s modest salary. She writes compellingly about her two widowed grandmothers who devoted the rest of their lives to entrepreneurialism. Kidjo adores the marketplace, because that’s where the women go — even if she can’t go to Cotonou’s markets unrecognized anymore.

“In Kenya I go to the market and the ladies say, ‘I know you! You are Angelina Jolie.’ And I say, yes. Yes I am.”