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

fall.

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

inspire us."

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

banjo?"

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,

it seems."

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

recalls.

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?"

Angelique Kidjo, Friday, May 13, 8:30 p.m., McCarter

Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. $32 to $43. 609-258-2787.


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