Corrections or additions?
This article was prepared by Richard J. Skelly for the May 11,
2005 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
The Sound of Music: Africa, Paris, Brooklyn
‘Oyaya!" the title of Angelique Kidjo’s current release on Columbia
Records, means "joy" in Yoruba, the native language of the West
African vocalist. In a telephone interview from her Brooklyn home,
Kidjo is joyous and fast-talking, and her shows are similarly
fast-paced, percussion-heavy affairs.
"I want to give back through the music," Kidjo says, "and ‘Oyaya!’ is
part of a trilogy of albums I started back in 1997. They look at the
roots of African and pop music today."
Kidjo’s diversity as a vocalist and entertainer garnered her a part in
a "Salute to the Blues" concert held at Radio City Music Hall in
February, 2003. The concert marked the start of "The Year of the
Blues" – 100 years since W.C. Handy first began writing blues songs.
The film from that concert, "Lightning in a Bottle," starring Kidjo,
Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Keb’ Mo,’ and others, will be released this
But what Kidjo and her band do can best be described as world music,
not American blues. Kidjo appears at McCarter Theater on Friday, May
13, accompanied by her musical director and guitarist Ruben De la
Corte, percussionist and drummer Latabi Diouani, pianist Thierry
Vaton, and bassist Stephane Castry.
"I’m always amazed to see the power of music and how it drives the
best in us; when good music comes, everybody is beautiful. And that
has been my whole life’s work since I started singing: there is only
one human race, and I’m trying to emphasize that in all my work,"
Kidjo says. "For me, music is a way to remember how little we are, how
we have to be thankful every day when we wake up in good health and we
have that blessing, to make sure we are close to the people who
Kidjo made a name for herself, even before her move to America in
1997, with her brilliant fusing and cross-pollination of West African
traditional music with American R&B, funk, blues and jazz, while
blending in her influences from Europe and Latin America.
"Oyaya!" integrates African and French lyrics to music from the
Caribbean, and Kidjo explores a range of indigenous Caribbean styles,
including salsa, calypso, merengue and ska. She sings in French,
English, Yoruba, and Fon, another West African language. The album was
produced by Steve Berlin, who has worked with the Mexican-American
rock group Los Lobos and the Tex-Mex group Los Super Seven. "Oyaya!"
is dedicated to Timothy White, a former Billboard magazine editor who
died suddenly several years ago from a heart attack. White, a
thoroughly knowledgeable music writer and historian, was a steadfast
supporter of Kidjo’s work for years, as was Island Records founder
Chris Blackwell. Since her career got rolling in the early 1990s with
Island, Kidjo has shared stages with Carlos Santana, Cassandra Wilson,
the Dave Matthews Band, and Miriam Makeba, among others.
Raised in Benin, a country in West Africa between Togo and Nigeria,
Kidjo was number seven in a family of nine children, and the last
girl. "I grew up with sports, music, and arts in general, and always,
reading lots of books. Both my parents were only children. My father
had a sister who died when he was very young, so we were all, and
still are, very close. We were told we could come back to the house
with any topics for discussion. We discussed things a lot.
When I asked later about why her parent had such a large family, Kidjo
says her parents said they didn’t plan to have so many kids, but
realized how fragile life is. "And in Africa, you have to realize, not
all infants survive. My mom had 14 pregnancies to have us nine kids."
Fortunately, Kidjo’s father ran the post office in Benin. Her mother
was a theater director and started the first theater group in Benin.
"She mixed the theater with ballet, and that’s how I started at six
years old," Kidjo says. In addition to her theater job, her mother
made additional income by running a fabric shop.
"My mom introduced me to singing, dancing and acting," Kidjo says,
"and my dad used to play banjo for us. He was probably the only person
in all of West Africa who even had a banjo, much less played one.
Years later, I thought, how the hell did he get hooked up with a
Turns out her father got his banjo when he went away to France to
boarding school, says Kidjo. A French student at his boarding school
taught him to play. "When we were kids, my dad used to play Harry
Belafonte and all these other old songs on banjo, and he knew some
Spanish tunes and songs from a couple of really big movies as well."
Kidjo didn’t get her first big break until after she dropped out of
law school in Paris. She went to music school instead and followed her
passion. She made her singing debut in Germany in 1988. "I thought I
wanted to be a lawyer, and I realized that law and justice don’t often
go hand in hand. I realized in order for me to a be a good lawyer I
would have to learn politics as well, because law is used to balance
the unfairness of life," she says. "When I realized that, I ran away
from law school and went to a classical music school for two years.
Then I went to a jazz school for three years."
Interestingly, she had her first brush with racist attitudes at the
first music college she attended in Paris. "People of African origin
in general have a tough time finding jobs in France," she says, "and I
realized the classical school I was at initially was mainly intended
for Caucasians. So I left and went to study jazz instead."
In general, the uptight Parisians, she argues, "need to be more
open-minded about the differences in people, and they believe much of
their unemployment problem has to do with too many immigrants coming
into the country. These are some of the backwards attitudes some of
the educated French people still hold onto. I mean, c’mon, this is the
21st century, time to get your shit together," she says, in a rare
flash of bitterness.
Fortunately for America, Kidjo moved to Manhattan in 1997 and a year
later to Brooklyn, where the diversity of cultures will not question
her or her husband’s ethnic backgrounds. She married [Caucasian]
Parisian Jean Hebrial in 1987 in Paris.
"I had been coming to America to tour, but the decision to come to
America was inspired by this trilogy of albums I wanted to record, and
also, my husband wanted very badly to come here. He could so not stand
the snobby attitudes of his fellow Parisians."
Kidjo also credits White, the late Billboard editor, and Blackwell,
with prompting her to move to America, as well as her husband, a
bassist with whom she writes much of her music. Even though he stopped
touring with her some time ago, he handles her business affairs when
she is on the road, preferring to stay at home in Brooklyn. "Still, he
practices bass every day," she says.
"We’ve been married for 18 years now, and sometimes we act like an old
couple," she says. "Yes, I married a French man and I fell in love.
Love is a weird thing and an unpredictable thing, and thank God we
can’t control it! As soon as we can control something, we destroy it,
In 1996, when Kidjo had become something of an international singing
sensation, she returned to her native Benin to perform. "I went back
after 14 years, and it was amazing. It was overwhelming. I had to
perform in a stadium, and frankly, it was scary, because the people,
they all want to touch you. Can you imagine being touched by 30,000
people? The whole stadium stood up as soon as the lights came on," she
Now she visits relatives at least once a year, if not twice, "because
my parents and aunts and uncles are all getting older and things
happen fast. I remember I lost a member of my family and came back one
year expecting to see that person, only to be told he died from some
stupid thing like dysentery," she says.
‘Oremi," her first album for Columbia, explored the roots of
African-American and country music, while "Black Ivory Soul" delved
into music from Brazil. "Oyaya!," released last spring, completes the
trilogy of albums and explores the musical styles of the Caribbean.
Now that she has completed her trilogy of albums for Columbia/ Sony
Music and the obligations of her contract, Kidjo is not sure what her
next move will be. It may involve releasing her next album
independently. "I’m thinking about all the different options," she
says. "I have always been with a big label, even before, in the 1990s,
with Island Records. But I may release my next album independently.
I’m writing more music now, as we speak, and I’m just following my
inspiration at the moment," she says. "You must always follow your
inspiration, you can’t compromise that at all."
Not surprisingly, Kidjo isn’t at all afraid to mix politics into her
live shows or her albums. She’s always spoken her mind. "Since 9/11,
I’ve noticed that everybody seems to be living in fear; we should be
joyful instead," she argues.
"It’s another way of seeing life. We can be joyful and still fight
terrorism. Joyful music makes us want to move but when you are afraid
the terrorists have already won 50 percent of the battle," she says.
"I travel around the world, and I can feel the fear. We can’t afford
even one minute of fear; I won’t allow any of these Al-Queda wackos to
come into play in my life. They don’t have the right to play with
anybody’s life. You cannot kill in the name of God! In which religion
is it written that you can kill in the name of God?"
Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. $32 to $43. 609-258-2787.
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