Afro-Pop’s reigning queen comes to town 

World-music vocal sensation Angelique Kidjo graces the 2008 SMF

TO CALL ANGELIQUE KIDJO an impressive booking for this year’s Savannah Music Festival would be a supreme understatement.

This hit-making Beninese singer/songwriter is truly a global sensation — a modern-day legend of world music and high-profile humanitarian whose appeal crosses all manner of stylistic and demographic boundaries: She is fluent (and performs) in four languages; incorporates elements of Afro-pop, Caribbean zouk, Congolese rumba, jazz, gospel, blues and Latin pop into her original material; and her records have made inroads in both concert halls and cutting-edge dance clubs.

Fresh from winning the Grammy for Best Contemporary World Music Album, the NYC-based Kidjo brings her sultry grooves and universally praised live show to town. She spoke to me after a California gig.

You just won the Grammy for Best Contemporary World Music Album. How much does that sort of recognition matter to your international standing or fan base?

Angelique Kidjo: It€™s hard for me to say. As soon as I won the Grammy, I started a new tour so I did not have a lot of time to think about it! I just enjoyed the moment. The Grammy staff must have thought I was crazy €” I was jumping up and down all over the place! I just hope it allows me to keep on making albums I love.

This latest, Grammy-winning album features guest appearances by a number of well-known artists familiar to U.S. audiences (such as Carlos Santana, Branford Marsalis, Josh Groban and others). This has become increasingly commonplace when trying to break acts with firmly established international fan bases, but whose style may seem slightly unorthodox to American listeners. Whose idea was it to bring in such big-name cameos, and how much of a difference (and of what sort) do you think that may play in how the record is ultimately received both in this country and across the globe?

Angelique Kidjo: What I wanted to do with this album, was to bring people to the roots of my culture: the way we play the percussion in my country and how it shapes the music. So many styles of music have been influenced by Africa, so these artists from all the corners of the world were able to fit easily. The album is very true to myself and maybe this is why even the hardcore world music fans have not been complaining that I sold my soul!

You are highly revered for the commanding and often hypnotic quality of your vocals. You began to sing publicly at age six, but at what point did you realize you had a very special and unique vocal gift?

Angelique Kidjo: I think my secret is that I keep on learning all the time. I was successful as a teenager singing African pop songs, but I went to Paris to study classical music and jazz. I have tried to sing so many different musics. It shaped my voice, I guess, but I know I will always sound African, and I am proud of that.

The band assembled for this latest album could legitimately be called global in its scope, as it features standout performers from far and wide, each of whom bring a unique spin to their instruments and the material. Who was in charge of selecting the backing players, and how were they chosen?

Angelique Kidjo: First of all, I wanted to have percussion players from my country, because the way they play is really special €” it is like a science. Then I suggested the rest of the cast to the producer, Tony Visconti. He was a little anxious in the beginning, but the rehearsals went really well. The recording was like a great party! I sang my vocals live with the band which Tony said he had not done since 1974.

Tell me a bit about the vibe during the recording process. I can only imagine that to make such rapturous and lush music, there had to be a great camaraderie among all the players, and you as well. I read that Electric Lady Studios was outfitted like a den or clubhouse for the purpose of setting the mood. How much pre-production or just €œhang time€ went into developing that familial spirit, so that the music could be played and recorded so sympathetically?

Angelique Kidjo: I knew a lot of the musicians before the recording and the quality they all shared is a lack of ego! Everything was all about the music, and about doing what has never been done before. Electric Lady has this great room downstairs where you can record a whole band live. Because we had rehearsed before, everyone knew the songs €” except that we added a few at the last minute. We were not supposed to record €œGimme Shelter€, but we made it happen in a half-hour. We found this guitar riff that was not in the original and we added all the parts on the fly. That must be the way all this great music from the €˜60s was composed and recorded.

Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T. Rex, Morrissey) seems an unusual choice for a producer. How did he come to the project? Was he someone you had worked with before, or perhaps always wanted to work with? Or was there a particular album he€™d produced which led you to him?

Angelique Kidjo: First of all, Tony is a legend in Paris (where I used to live) because he has produced the hippest French band there is: Rita Mitsouko! When I met with him he told me he had worked with this famous African band from the early €˜70s called Osibisa. They were one of my favorite bands. That meant he knew how to get the magic of African music. African musicians like me don€™t like the studio €” we love to be on stage. You have to know what you€™re doing to create the same vibe in the studio, so the musicians feel like they are in front of an audience. So, in fact, Tony was a natural choice!

Visconti€™s often made out to be a bit of a taskmaster. What was he like in the studio?

Angelique Kidjo: I am kind of a taskmaster myself, so I think it was a perfect fit!

I never cease to be amazed at the versatility and taste of multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell (Bob Dylan, k.d. lang, Levon Helm, Willie Nelson). Every time I€™ve seen or heard him play he seems to have an innate sense of just how to color an arrangement for the betterment of the song itself. Are there any anecdotes you can offer on Larry€™s contributions to this record, and do you foresee working with him again in either a live or studio setting?

Angelique Kidjo: The first time I recorded with Larry Campbell, it was for the soundtrack of an African movie. Steve Jordan was recording the drums and I asked him to help me find musicians because I had just arrived in New York. He brought Larry €”who played the steel guitar€” along with bassist Pino Palladino. We gave them the charts and turned the tape recorder on. They played the song once. 3 minutes later, the session was finished! It was beautiful, and could not sound better. The only problem was, we had booked the studio for three hours! A waste of money, I guess! Then one day I went to see Emmylou Harris playing in the Park in Brooklyn, and I saw this great fiddle player who looked familiar. It was Larry. I could not believe he played violin as well.

You spent time as a resident of Paris, which is something of a nexus for the whole of world music, and now you live in New York City. What precipitated that move, and what are the biggest day-to-day differences for you personally between the two cities?

Angelique Kidjo: With the album Oremi, I started a trilogy exploring the African roots of the diaspora of the Americas. The first stop was the U.S., and I had to live there to really feel the music and its culture. Then, my family and I discovered that we love New York! There are also a lot of musicians there from all over the world. However, it is true there are less African musicians there than in Paris.

I can only imagine that your everyday environment contributes greatly to the way you approach your craft. Have you noticed any changes in the way you get your musical inspiration or go about composing music since you relocated?

Angelique Kidjo: Not really. I always compose with my partner Jean. We have our little routine. It does not really matter where we are, and a our songs have been composed all over the world. Sometimes you remember the exact location where you composed a particular song. The song €œAfirika€ was written in winter, looking over the backyard of the place we used to live, on Ninth Street in Brooklyn.

You€™re also known as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. How has acting in that capacity affected your musical art and vice versa?

Angelique Kidjo: It has inspired me a lot. I€™ve met so many people in so many countries in Africa. Those people and their stories are my real inspiration. After seeing all the struggles they go through, it is kind of impossible to go back to your home as if nothing happened. Music allows you to keep that memory and that message alive.

As a human rights activist, you€™re primarily known for publicizing the plight of sub-Saharan Africans and the Darfur conflict. To date, what do you feel has been the biggest stumbling block towards ending the violence and suffering in Darfur?

Angelique Kidjo: I feel there are big geo-economical interests that are preventing the resolution of the conflict, which is sad. The politicians should always remember that there is no human life more important than others. I understand you have to take care of your people, but it should not be based on the suffering of other nations.

There are always naysayers who discount the work that musicians or other entertainers do for humanitarian or charitable causes. Was that ever a concern for you, or do you relish the opportunity to use your celebrity for good in this manner?

Angelique Kidjo: You know, I wanted to be a human rights lawyer before being a singer, because I could not bear injustice. When UNICEF asked me in 2002 to be a Goodwill ambassador, I could not refuse, because I remember how important they were in my own childhood. They gave me all the vaccinations. I think the fact that I am an African woman must help when I come on TV in Africa to talk about education and health. I hope it makes a difference.

I know that Jimi Hendrix was an important icon and inspiration for you as a child, and you famously performed a blazing rendition of one of his tunes at Radio City Music Hall a few years back in Martin Scorsese€™s documentary film on The Blues. What was it like to cut this album in Hendrix€™s historic Electric Lady Studios?

Angelique Kidjo: It meant a lot for me! It was like all the pieces of the puzzle were coming together. This is what is so great about music. All musicians speak the same language. This is why they can jam together €” even if it does not please the purists!

How much influence does Hendrix€™s music and/or world view still hold for you?

Angelique Kidjo: I like his energy, his spontaneity and the way he drove his band. That€™s what I am trying to do on stage.

You€™re out on the road right now. How have the shows been going? Has winning the Grammy boosted the crowds€™ excitement?

Angelique Kidjo: I don€™t know what to tell you. I am just trying to give all I have on every show!

The Savannah Music Festival has been gaining notoriety nationwide over the past few years. Were you at all familiar with this event before being booked?

Angelique Kidjo: I had heard of the city but not the festival. I am looking forward to playing there, as it seems to be an important historical place.

Tell me a bit about the show you€™ll be performing here. How much of your repertoire will it cover, and what will your road band€™s lineup be like?

Angelique Kidjo: I play a lot of the new album Djin Djin with an instrumentation very similar to the album: two guitars, percussion, drums and bass. The band has been playing with me for a while now so it is very tight, and generally, the audience can€™t stop moving! I also play old songs that my fans always want like €œMalaika€, €œAfirika€, €œAgolo€ or €œTumba€.

Any concrete plans for your next project?

Angelique Kidjo: The muse has to come visit me first!

What: Angelique Kidjo with Ana Moura
Where: Trustees Theater
When: 8:30 pm, March 29
Cost: $50 - $15 at www.savannahmusicfestival.org or by calling 525-5050.
Info: www.kidjo.com, www.anamoura.com

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Jim Reed

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