Angelique Kidjo does not like being placed in the “world music” ghetto. She believes that all music belongs to the world and that everything starts from Africa — so the music of Africa should not be marginalized.
Her latest recording, Eve, was released in January 2014. It is accompanied by a book, Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music, that tells her life story. It is illustrated with plenty of photographs, including gorgeous photos of the Vlisco wax-pattern fabrics closely associated with African fashions, and includes recipes for some of Kidjo’s Beninese favorites.
I wanted to review the book and CD because I have been trying to learn more about Africa. I write a lot about emerging markets, but I don’t know as much about Africa as I’d like to. Most countries in Africa are far from being stable enough for investors, but some are — and some are closer to changing than others. Kidjo, like many people from the continent, is tired of stories about “the heartbreak of Africa”, and yet, there is a lot of heartbreak to go around. In fact, Kidjo left Benin for political reasons. She has been singing since she was a little girl — her mother operated a theatrical troupe and her brothers had a band. By high school, she was recording and touring in West Africa.
In 1972, Benin endured an overthrow of the government by Communists. Over time, radio stations were no longer free to chose their playlists, and people were to greet each other on the street by saying, “Ready for the revolution? The fight goes on.” Singers made money doing concert tours, but those came with a requirement to sing patriotic songs, praise the leaders, and perform for government events. Kidjo chafed at this and managed to flee the country in 1983 — no mean feat, as she was a celebrity. She flew to Paris, moved in with her brother, and started over doing the same gigs and taking the same music classes as so many other aspiring musicians. She married a jazz musician, started recording again, and, well, the rest is history.
Benin is now a democracy. Angelique Kidjo enjoys a global reputation for putting her great voice to West Africa’s great rhythms and for her work as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador. Her songs bring joy to millions.
Kidjo has been consistent: write songs that combine African styles with jazz rhythms, sing in languages that not all of her listeners understand (whether it be English, French, or Fon), perform with some great musicians, and make audiences dance. The new album Eve fits right in. It is titled in honor of her mother and conceived as a tribute to all women.
The title song is primarily in English, and it is about women’s friendship. The lyrics seem a little labored, but then, English is Kidjo’s third language — and maybe her fourth, given that music is the first. The other songs are in one of several Beninese languages. I have no idea what the lyrics mean, but the songs themselves have much passion. The enthusiasm and passion come through.
Kidjo recorded this with several guest musicians, most notably women’s choirs from different parts of Benin and Kenya. The others include Dr. John, Rostamm Btmanglij of Vampire Weekend, the Kronos Quartet, and the Orchestra Philharmonique du Luxembourg. She doesn’t cut new ground here, but that’s okay; an ordinary Angelique Kidjo album is a mighty fine thing.