Angélique Kidjo tells The National why she’s taking on Talking Heads for her Abu Dhabi gig
Angélique Kidjo on mixing her influences
Angélique Kidjo is not renowned for her puritanical approach. On stage, she might sing songs by George Gershwin or Jimi Hendrix alongside traditional melodies from her native Benin.
Hailed as the Queen of African music, the sonorous songstress has long raged at white critics who claim that her work is inauthentic.
Once named one of the world’s 100 most influential women by The Guardian, Kidjo’s last tour paid tellingly diverse dues to her own heroes: a three-part celebration of African legend Miriam Makeba, American soul great Nina Simone and Cuba’s salsa queen Celia Cruz.
But even viewed through this multi-hued prism, Kidjo’s latest project remains a hearty head-scratcher: a complete in-concert recreation of rock band Talking Heads’ 1980 masterpiece Remain in Light.
Bathing that album’s fidgety, urban claustrophobia in a burst of summery euphoria – with help from the horn section of celebrated Afrobeat revivalists Antibalas – the work makes its first appearance outside the United States at New York University Abu Dhabi.
The concept comes wracked with the issues of appropriation and influence that Kidjo, at 57, professes to care little for. Steeped in African polyrhythms, Remain in Light was the product of Talking Heads and producer Brian Eno overdosing on West African grooves – especially Fela Kuti – and repurposing those dense, hypnotic textures through their artily detached New York poise. For Kidjo, the result was a revelation.
Remain in Light was one of the first records the young singer heard when she arrived in Paris in 1983, fleeing Benin’s communist regime.
The music was at once familiar and foreign. “It felt both close and far – for me, Remain in Light showed that we are all homo sapiens and that music is in our DNA – and we all come from Africa,” says Kidjo, who now lives in New York but is speaking from France, where the fates of tour scheduling have landed her once more. “I wanted to bring Remain in Light back to Africa – because it all started in the part of Africa I come from.”
The show will mark Kidjo’s fourth live performance of the project – more American gigs are booked around the May 5 release of her version of Remain in Light, the 14th studio album of her 35-year career. During the world premiere, at New York’s Carnegie Hall in May last year, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne made an appearance duetting on the centrepiece Once in a Lifetime, music that the Byrne has squarely refused to perform alongside his own bandmates since Talking Heads split in 1991.
Observers praised Kidjo, Byrne less so, and speculated if the performance was truly spontaneous or just made to appear so. In Kidjo’s telling, it began when she received an email from Byrne’s assistant two hours before curtains up, when the elder statesman of cerebral rock couldn’t find a ticket for the sold-out show.
In between breathless laughter, she recalls running around the hallowed venue’s corridors, in the middle of her set, trying to hunt down the last-minute VIP box that the hall had stumped up.
“It was very courageous of him to just jump in like that – he hadn’t even heard my version of the song,” Kidjo recalls. “David Byrne is an artist, fully – he’s open. He has a way of saying things which are profoundly true.”
The sway that Byrne’s voice holds over Kidjo may have to do with more than music. Talking Heads reached the singer at a crossroads in her life – and Remain in Light’s flow of energy from the western world to Africa mirrored her own flight in reverse.
Born in Benin’s largest city, Cotonou, in 1960, Kidjo grew up in a liberal family. Her mother worked in the theatre, played clarinet and sang, while her father – who played the banjo because “everyone else plays guitar, and where’s the fun in that?” – was the proud owner of a record collection that stretched from traditional Yoruba music to contemporary African stars such as Kuti, Makeba and the recently parted Hugh Masekela, slotted alongside James Brown and Stevie Wonder.
“We grew up not knowing how much privilege we had and how unusual it was at that time,” she says. “For me, I’ve always been surrounded in a setting of love, care and curiosity. My father’s philosophy was: ‘Your brain is your ultimate weapon – use it.’ It’s not given to you to sit on.”
This utopian cocoon of ideas and affection was abruptly shaken following the military coup of 1972, which led to the foundation of the socialist People’s Republic of Benin three years later, in place of the post-colonial nation known as the Republic of Dahomey. Kidjo remembers how the communist purge even pierced the family threshold, after her father refused to take a political position.
“He told them: ‘I’m a postman, I don’t do politics – I don’t know nothing about it and I don’t want blood on my hands’,” Kidjo remembers. “From that moment, he said to us: ‘Watch out, you don’t know who is your friend anymore. If you don’t want me or your mother to end up in jail, your freedom of speech in this home is gone.’
“The warmth I was talking about completely disappeared, because you’re always afraid – even of your own family. The country was transformed into an open jail cell.”
For Kidjo, who was already a regional star, it was crippling for her career. Concerts were subject to permission, as were visits to play in neighbouring nations such as Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Togo. She refused to perform for the heads of state or pen the patriotic anthems they demanded. As pressure mounted, her family hatched an escape plan.
Joining her older brother, who had fled five years earlier, Kidjo was forced to make radical lifestyle readjustments. Rather than a renowned entertainer, in France she was forced to work menial jobs – cleaning hotel rooms, braiding hair, babysitting – while taking gigs as a backing singer.
She saved to fund studies at jazz school Le Cim, where she met future husband Jean Hebrail, who is her musical director on Remain in Light.
Discovered on the Parisian club circuit by Island Records’ founder, Chris Blackwell, Kidjo’s fortunes changed dramatically with the release of Logozo in 1991. Featuring star saxophonists Branford Marsalis and Manu DiBango, her major-label debut rocketed to the top of the Billboard World Music chart. Recorded at Prince’s Paisley Park, follow-up Ayé spawned the single Agolo, which was nominated for Best Music Video at the Grammys in 1994, while Carlos Santana guested on third album Fifa a year later.
Kidjo’s music continued to evolve in sonics and scope. Next came a trilogy of LPs – Oremi, Black Ivory Soul and Oyaya! – exploring the African roots of American music, a recurring theme in her work.
A raft of A-list guests joined her on 2007’s Djin Djin including Josh Groban, Alicia Keys, Joss Stone, Ziggy Marley and, perhaps inevitably, Peter Gabriel. The result would win Kidjo her first Grammy; she would pick up a pair more for her two more recent releases – Eve (2014), a tribute to the women of Africa inspired by self-captured field recordings; and the full circle of Sings (2016), backed by Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg and bathing familiar material in glorious orchestrations.
Parallel to these musical milestones have been career landmarks: in 2011, The Guardian placed Kidjo on its list of the world’s 100 Most Inspiring Women, while the BBC included her on a list of the continent’s 50 Most Iconic Figures. In 2014, Forbes ranked Kidjo among the 40 Most Powerful Celebrities in Africa.
These accolades say as much about Kidjo’s ever-more-visible advocacy work as they do her music. While now based in New York, Kidjo has remained a committed and coherent voice on the problems facing her home continent, since 2002 serving as a Unicef Goodwill Ambassador.
In 2007, she founded The Batonga Foundation, a non-profit organisation providing African girls secondary-school and higher education.
“When you’re born a girl in Africa, you don’t have an identity of yourself,” she says. “You are the daughter of your father, who can marry you off to any man he wants.”
When we talk, it is just a few days after American president Donald Trump reportedly dismissed African nations in derogatory expletives. Rather than launching into a justifiable tirade, however, Kidjo quietly probes the wider issues.
“We cannot be complacent. We’ve been complacent all the way – that is why this is happening today,” she answers. “If we had been a society that called a lie, a lie – that called bullying, bullying – we wouldn’t be here.
“Our social network brought this to us, so it’s up to us to find a solution and to make a stop of it.
“I’m always a hopeful person, and I think the day is going to come when we wake up and realise working alone is not the answer – working together is the way we make a change.”
Angélique Kidjo performs Remain in Light at the East Plaza, New York University Abu Dhabi, on Saturday, February 3, from 7pm. For tickets and more information, visit www.nyuad-artscenter.org