The sound and soul of Angelique Kidjo

Ladi Opaluwa*

Though Angelique Kidjo left her country, Benin Republic, over three decades ago in search of musical glory, sounds from around Africa have continued to inspire her music

[caption id="attachment_21711" align="alignleft" width="300"]Photo: Photo:[/caption] In the 90’s, before the music industry boom, songs that dominated the music scene in Nigeria were mostly foreign. One of those was ‘Wombo Lobo’ by the Beninese musician, Angelique Kidjo, though many were unaware of her otherness or that Benin, the republic in West Africa, was different from Benin, the state in Nigeria. This ignorance is pardonable. ‘Wombo Lombo’, from the album, ‘Fifa’, is sung in English and Yoruba, one of three main ethnic groups in Nigeria, and common to the artiste’s country as well. Besides Yoruba, her mother’s native tongue, Angelique also sings in Fon, her father’s language, French, English, and on an occasion, Swahili, as in the song ‘Malaika’. For a singer who left her country, first for Paris, over thirty years ago, her sound and style has remained distinctively African. She is a “symbol of Africa’s creativity, energy and beauty,” Aljazeera wrote in a profile of the artiste. “Her music is a unique blend of her own very West African heritage combined with funk, jazz and Latin music, and much more.” Angelique Kidjo was born in 1960, in Cotonou, Benin Republic. By age six, she had begun performing with her mother’s theatre troupe and as a teenager sang with her school band, Les Sphinx. She then recorded the album, ‘Pretty’, whose success saw her go on a tour of West Africa. However, political tension in her country forced her to leave for Paris in 1983. Once there, she enrolled at the jazz school, the CIM, and worked as a backup singer in local bands and at various odd jobs to pay her tuition at the school where she met the musician Jean Hebrail, who became her husband and collaborator and with whom she had a daughter. By the turn of the decade, she had gained some popularity and recorded the album, ‘Parakou’. She enjoyed international success with the albums that followed. ‘Logozo’, released in 1991, made it to number one on the Billboard World Music chart. The single, ‘Agolo’, off the album ‘Aye’, earned her a Grammy nomination, and ‘Wombo Lombo’ from ‘Fifa’ was huge all over Africa. Meanwhile, the album, ‘Djin Djin’ won her a Grammy for Best Contemporary World Music album. And her next, ‘Oyo’ earned her another Grammy nomination. Through her success, she has remained rooted in the African culture. Writing in the New York Times in 2014, Jon Pareles noted that “Village traditions, cosmopolitan transformations, female solidarity, African pride and perpetual energy have been constants in Ms. Kidjo’s recording career. She’s an expatriate who has never left home behind; in a career of making transnational hybrids, she has kept African languages and an African sensibility at the core of her music.” And though she has not lived in Benin since she left in 1983, “…her words, her sense of melody, and the primal cry in her voice always announce her music as African above all,” Jon added. For her 2014 album ‘Eve’, she travelled across the continent with a six track field recorder, sampling sounds of traditional women choirs and recording with local musicians. The album was dedicated to the beauty and resilience of the African woman. Her own resilience too, paid off, as ‘Eve’ debuted at no. 1 on Billboard World charts and also won the Grammy for Best World Music Album, a classification she is not too happy with. She has campaigned for African music to stop being categorised as “world music”. “For the painful reason of slavery, African music is behind every kind of music in the world. From classical to jazz and soul, it has spread because it is a music that allows human beings to express something and find hope even in darkness. African music speaks to everybody, regardless of their race or language,” she told The Telegraph. Besides the varied African and African American musicians, including Fela, Hugh Masekela and James Brown that she grew up listening to, Angelique cites Miriam Makeba as a major influence and role model. “I learned through her how to harmonize and how you can use your voice as a powerful tool to talk about things that are universal that touch everybody,” she said in an interview with NPR. Her memoir, ‘Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music’, was published in 2014 by Harper Collins. *Source This Is Africa]]>

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