Writings of the general word's body

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Angelique Kidjo

Angelique Kidjo performed on 28th September (see article from Friday, above) at London's Barbican Centre as part of the Passage of Music season - and following the release of her latest CD, Djin Djin. I wasn't at the Barbican but I did see Kidjo in concert at the South Bank centre in London (after her last CD, Oyaya!) in early 2005 and reproduced below is my piece on the show, published 2 years ago in the Lagos Guardian.

A Musical Journey With Angelique Kidjo
By Molara Wood

Angelique Kidjo's career has marked her out as a musical adventuress who is never afraid to push the limits of her sound. Singing in English, French, Yoruba, Fon and lately in Spanish, her music embraces the cultural crossroads of her native Benin Republic in particular, and West Africa as a whole, but travels wider in its appeal.

Her latest album, Oyaya! is the final instalment of a trilogy that saw Kidjo taking her artistic explorations further geographically and historically, celebrating the African roots of music from around the world. In the first part of the trilogy, Oremi, the singer focused on music from the United States. The second, Black Ivory Soul, drew on the African influences in the music of Brazil. With Oyaya! the attention turns to the link between Africa and the musical traditions of Latin America and the Caribbean Diaspora, with 13 new songs in a variety of languages, sounds and styles. It features a mix of modern and traditional instruments including the balafon and kora. The album's release took Angelique Kidjo on a promotional tour of Europe and America, stopping in London recently for a concert in the city's South Bank.

After an evocative supporting performance by poet and singer Zena Edwards, Kidjo finally emerged in front of an audience that appeared to have come a long way with her as a singer. Very few, it seemed, were new converts to her music. Clad in a pale tunic and orange trousers, she launched straight into the singing, dancing all through in her inimitable style. On the second song, Kidjo was beset by what is now euphemistically known as a "wardrobe malfunction." The monitor pack on her waistband was not working properly and in turn affected her ear-plugs. A technician came onstage to fix the problem but only raised unintended comedy, fiddling under the star's tunic as she sang. But like a true performer, the Paris-based singer soldiered on with the errant electronic device, which remained a cause of concern for most of the show.

An energetic performer, Angelique Kidjo enjoys dancing as much as singing, frequently breaking into catapulting dance moves. It was wonderful to watch, but after a few songs, the act was wearing thin. Perhaps because her lone dancing was out of step somewhat with Latin sound, which requires 'two to tango'. The show became so 'samey' that by the time she sang Congoleo - easily the most outstanding track on the new album - it hit a lower note than might have been expected. Much needed freshness came when Kidjo moved to establish a rapport with her audience on Bala Bala, a Cuban influenced cha-cha-cha. "Good evening London, how you guys doin'?" She spoke about the new album, the title of which she said means 'joy' in Yoruba. Some Nigerians, to whom the word 'joy' would vary slightly in Yoruba from its Benin variety, looked momentarily bemused.

According to Kidjo, she embarked on the musical trilogy when, with Oremi in 1997, she started following the trail of African slaves into the New World through music. "If any positive thing came from slavery, it was the music." Without slavery, she suggested, there would be no Country music, Bluegrass, Rock 'n Roll, or much of what passes for music in the world today. The trail can be heard in music from as far away as Cuba and Colombia, added the singer, telling the audience to prepare for a musical journey. "You're gonna be sitting here without a ticket and I'm gonna take you on a trip."

First stop was Cuba, with the first track from the new album, Seyin Djro, which got many people off their seats to dance. With the front of the stage filling up, the security personnel moved to push the dancers back. If they thought this would please the singer, they were in for a shock. Kidjo aligned herself firmly with concert-goers, and barked at security men: "Hey! Leave them there to dance." Then the music moved on to Haiti with Dje Dje L'Aye, which she said was her way of asking people to enjoy life at an easy pace.

Angelique Kidjo took the audience back in time to the first part of the trilogy, with her gutsy cover of Voodoo Child by Jimi Hendrix. She once called 'Voodoo Chile', the first single from Oremi, a tribute "from an African voodoo child to an American voodoo child." On the South Bank stage, a guitarist gave a poor man's imitation of Hendrix, but on the album, Kidjo had kept her tribute pure and guitarless - in recognition of the fact that no one can play the instrument like the man himself. Then it was back to Cuba with another new song, the salsa and bata-drums- infused rhythm of Conga Habanera.

The concert had a magical, show-stopping moment with Angelique Kidjo's heartrending performance of the song, Malaika, which appeared on her 1991 album, Logozo. It was her mother's favourite song, said the diva, who has been singing Malaika since the age of nine. Kidjo and her acoustic guitar player occupied the only pool of light in the darkened concert hall, as she brought everything to a standstill with her rendition. It seemed like nothing could surpass the performance, but Kidjo still had an ace up her sleeve.

She ran through more new songs, including the eco-friendly Le Monde Comme Un Bebe; and the bolero N'Yin Wan Nou We. The Jamaican ska, Mutoto Kwanza (meaning 'children first' in Swahili), was inspired by the singer's encounter with orphans in Tanzania. She went to the country in her role as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF and had asked the children if she could write a song about them. They agreed but did not want a sad song and told her: "make it danceable." A similarly uplifting story, this time from Cuba, was behind the track Djovamin Yi, dedicated to the memory of Celia Cruz. Kidjo had asked the many poor musicians she met in Havana how they coped with the US embargo on their country. "We manage," was the dignified response.

Touching on the second part of her trilogy in song with Afirika, Kidjo said: "It's true in Africa we have a lot of problems. But we also have a lot of joy, otherwise I wouldn’t be here." Declaring, "I'm banning stress out of my life," she whipped up the audience into singing the song's refrain, "Ase Mama Afirika", and marched off the stage. Concert-goers did not have long to wonder where she had disappeared to, as she soon surfaced among them, raising excitement levels through the roof. And so it stayed for the next twenty minutes as Kidjo worked her way through the audience, shaking and hugging as many people as possible - singing to Africa.

The star returned to the stage but spirits stayed high with the meringue number, Oulala. The Grammy Award nominated hit, Agolo, from Kidjo’s 1994 album Aye, followed. With Tumba, co-written with Carlos Brazil in the country that shares his name, Angelique Kidjo began her long goodbye to the audience. "If you feel like sitting down, fine. But better if can stand and dance because it is your song." And fed up at last with the monitor pack and ear-plugs, the singer yanked the devices off.

She took her bow and exited the stage but the audience, on its feet and clapping, wanted more. And sure enough, Kidjo reappeared to sing Love Can Never Be A Jail. A bouquet of flowers and another exit later, she re-emerged, teasing the audience: "So, we all agree this is the last song? We'll see." But Guantanamo ("not the jail", she informed) was not the last song; that honour fell to Macumba. And then it was truly over.

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