A powerful singer and tireless performer, Angélique Kidjo has been one of the most successful performers to emerge on world music stages in the 1990s and 2000s. Her music not only draws from African traditions but also interprets the ways those traditions developed after Africans were seized and taken to the New World. Thus elements of American soul, funk, rap, and jazz, Brazilian samba, Jamaican reggae, and Cuban and Puerto Rican salsa all show up on her recordings, along with various African styles. Early in her career, Kidjo told Guardian reporter Jonathan Romney that “my records sound like dance music because that’s the only way for Europeans to approach something they don’t know,” and as she evolved into one of the international music scene’s most popular concert attractions, she accumulated a large fan base that happily came on stage and danced with her.
Kidjo is a native of Benin, on Africa’s Atlantic coast adjacent to Nigeria; the first of her eight languages was Fon. She was born in the coastal city of Ouidah, to government postal official Franck Kidjo (an enthusiastic photographer and banjo player on the side) and his choreographer wife Yvonne. Kidjo was lucky enough to have parents who backed her performing ambitions – female popular vocalists are rare in many African countries, and, as she told the Guardian, “It’s very, very rare in Africa to find parents who aren’t there mainly to stop you doing what you want.”
Among her eight siblings were several brothers who started a band when she was young, inspired by James Brown and other American stars who flooded Benin’s airwaves. Kidjo was musically eclectic from the start, listening avidly to juju sounds from neighboring Nigeria, to pop music from other African countries, to Cuban salsa music. But, when asked by the Boston Globe to list her musical influences, she first named “the traditional music which I grew up with, [which taught] me the importance of music as a communication tool.”
Kidjo made her stage debut at age six with her mother’s dance troupe, and in the late 1970s she formed a band of her own and recorded an album that featured a cover version of a song by another of Kidjo’s idols, South African singer Miriam Makeba. In 1980, however, Kidjo found her musical activities restricted by a new leftist regime that took power in Benin and tried to force her to record political anthems. Kidjo fled to Paris in 1983 with the intent of studying law there and becoming a human rights lawyer. But she realised that she was not cut out for political life. “I decided I would try to touch poor people with my music,” she told the Globe.
Her partner in this enterprise was French bassist and composer Jean Hebrail, whom Kidjo married and with whom she has written much of her music. For several years Kidjo played in a French African jazz band called Pili Pili, but in 1989 she struck out on her own, forming a band and releasing the album Parakou. That debut had its intended effect: it attracted the attention of the biggest name in world music at the time, Chris Blackwell of Britain’s Island Records. He signed Kidjo to the label’s Mango subdivision, and her second album, Logozo, was released in 1991. The music on Logozo skillfully mixed traditional African beats with hip-hop and electronic styles and the album gained Kidjo a faithful core of fans who could be counted on to attend her highly participatory live shows.
The year 1994 saw Kidjo create a bona fide international hit; her Aye album received strong reviews and generated “Agolo”, a dance-floor favorite throughout Africa and Europe. She followed that album up with Fifa, which grew from a set of tape recordings Kidjo and her husband made of traditional instrumentalists during a tour of small towns in Benin. The resulting disc mixed such sounds as cow horns, traditional flutes, and bamboo percussion with modern African pop, American gospel, and rap. The album, an ambitious effort that used roughly 200 musicians, featured a guest guitar solo from one of Kidjo’s many admirers in the U.S. music industry, Carlos Santana.
Kidjo’s next three albums formed parts of a trilogy exploring African-derived music styles of the Western Hemisphere. Oremi, released in 1998 on the Island label itself after Mango’s demise, was the U.S. chapter in the trilogy, mixing traditional music from Benin with black American styles and featuring a Kidjo cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child”. The album won Kidjo a spot on the all-female Lilith Fair tour in the U.S. A hiatus in Kidjo’s recording career followed, during which she was signed to the Columbia label and began dividing her time between Paris and Brooklyn, New York.
Part of the reason for the move involved Kidjo’s desire to work with American musicians like Roots drummer Ahmir Thompson and rock singer and bandleader Dave Matthews, with whom Kidjo toured in the summer of 2001. The following summer saw her on the road with Santana in the wake of his smash collaborative success Supernatural. Santana recorded “Adouma,” a Kidjo song from the Aye album, on his 2002 release Shaman.
In 2002 Kidjo returned to her African diaspora trilogy with Black Ivory Soul, an album that focused on the rhythms of the Brazilian state of Bahia, musically linked to Benin by centuries of the slave trade. The final installment of her trilogy, 2004’s Oyaya!, featured music from Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, and other parts of the Caribbean basin. The album included a duet with the octogenarian Guyanese-born French crooner Henri Salvador, and Kidjo also updated rumbas, salsa pieces, and other Caribbean dance music with a variety of African instruments and sounds that closed the transatlantic circle. Another force affecting the album was Kidjo’s work as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF); in “Mutoto Kwanza” she set to Jamaican Ska music a song she had learned in Tanzania from a group of HIV-infected orphans.
Kidjo then joined forces with Razor & Tie for the 2007 release of Djin Djin, followed by Õÿö in 2010, which pays tribute to the music of Kidjo’s childhood in Benin, and featured guest spots from Roy Hargrove, Bono, John Legend, and Dianne Reeves. Õÿö was nominated for Best Contemporary World Music Album for the 53rd Grammy Awards.
Spirit Rising, the live album from Kidjo’s PBS Special performance, was released in North America in 2012. It features a collection of songs from her entire career, played live in Boston with special guests Ezra Koenig, Dianne Reeves, Branford Marsalis, Christian McBride and Josh Groban. On it she sings a version of “Redemption Song” with the Kuumba Singers.
In 2014, Kidjo released another new album, EVE, dedicated to the women of Africa, to their resilience and their beauty. “Eve is an album of remembrance of African women I grew up with and a testament to the pride and strength that hide behind the smile that masks everyday troubles,” says Kidjo. She travelled to Kenya and Benin, from South to North and back, armed with a six track field recorder, to capture the sweet rhythmic harmonies and chants of traditional women choirs.
Finally, on March 31, 2015, Kidjo released Sings, her collaboration with the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra. The album contains orchestral versions of nine songs from previous albums and two original songs, “Nanae” and “Otishe”, and features the singer in superlative voice backed by the strings and wind instruments of the 110-piece orchestra. A truly beautiful album, Sings combines the stately qualities of classical music with the coolness of jazz and the fervour of African and Brazilian rhythms. Says Rhythms Magazine’s Tony Hillier, “Sings is arguably the most ambitious and spiritually arresting album the New York-based West African singer has recorded in a long and distinguished career.”
The Pure Grenada Music Festival warmly welcomes Angélique Kidjo, a bonafide global phenomenon whose performances are always legendary events.