Difference Is No Threat: Angelique Kidjo, Djin Djin

By Daniel Garrett

Angelique Kidjo, Djin Djin
Produced by Tony Visconti
Engineered by Mario J. McNulty
Razor and Tie, 2007

The Benin-born Angelique Kidjo, the daughter of a choreographer mother and a postal worker father (a photographer and musician too) with many children, was singing by the time she was eight years old. Before she was eighteen, Angelique Kidjo was a regional star, drawing inspiration from performers such as Miriam Makeba (Kidjo liked Aretha Franklin and Jimi Hendrix also). Angelique Kidjo is one of those people who seems to have a destiny; who seems to have expected respect and success. Her albums—including Logozo (1991), and Aye (1994), and Fifa (1996), and Oremi (1998), and Black Ivory Soul (2002)—have won her a loyal international audience. I recall being excited about Aye in the mid-1990s, and having a conversation with one person who was skeptical about Kidjo’s Prince influence (she apparently recorded Aye at Prince’s Paisley Park studio), someone who found her African essence compromised; and I recall speaking with another person who attended a Kidjo performance and championed Kidjo’s authenticity: I found the artificiality/authenticity question a bore. The only thing that mattered to me was that Angelique Kidjo’s music sounded good. Angelique Kidjo is a dynamic, intelligent, and intense performer; and with Djin Djin Angelique Kidjo may be posed to consolidate and expand her popularity. Certainly, the musicians she has chosen to work with suggests a diversity of artistic interests and musical constituencies.

The first song of Angelique Kidjo’s album Djin Djin is a light, spirited song—enthusiastic, joyful—and it, “Ae Ae,” written by Kidjo and her longtime collaborator and husband Jean Hebrail and the musician Joao Mota, says that the self-fulfillment of African youth should not mean having to leave Africa for other lands: there should be more opportunities in African for African youth and adults. “Djin Djin,” the album’s title song, a composition about time written by Kidjo and Jean Hebrail with Alicia Keys, is mellow mood music featuring Alicia Keys’s full-bodied but restrained and warm singing and Branford Marsalis’s sweet saxophone sound; and the song is a piece of cosmopolitan candy. Angelique Kidjo’s interpretation of “Gimme Shelter,” the Jagger/Richards song, a Rolling Stones classic, features Joss Stone’s large, sensual voice, matched with Angelique Kidjo’s gritty singing, and an African chorus. Peter Gabriel lends his low, grainy and soulful voice to a song about joy, nature, and birth: “Salala,” a collaboration in composition among Kidjo, Gabriel, and Jean Hebrail. Angelique Kidjo’s wails have become nearly as distinctive as that of James Brown, one of Kidjo’s heroes. “Why are the poor getting poorer? Why are the rich getting richer? Is poverty a crime?” is the theme of “Senamou (c’est l’amour),” a song of love and compassion that opens with an exchange of words between the performers Amadou and Mariam, a married couple; and the song—written by Kidjo, Hebrail, Bagayoko, and Doumbia—has jazzy riffs, rhythmic vocal refrains, and a harmonious chorus.

Sade Adu’s song “Pearls,” written with Andrew Hale, from the Sade album Love Deluxe, is sung by Josh Groban and Kidjo, with Carlos Santana playing guitar; and Groban’s (European) classical sound is unexpected and one does not anticipate that it will work here, but it does: together Groban and Kidjo give witness to a shared vision of a struggling African woman (it is a human claim—and Groban is saying, Why should I pretend not to know this reality? Why should I pretend as if this music is not known to me?). Kidjo’s voice is its clearest here. The song “Pearls” is a piece of musical drama. Carlos Santana has been named as one of Angelique Kidjo’s early influences; and, on “Pearls,” Santana’s guitar is as much a witness of conscience, offering a “worrying” sound. (Angelique Kidjo’s social concern is not simply a “theme”—she has worked as a UNICEF good will ambassador.)

A song about the fragility of love and marriage, with lines about a lover who brings both rain and sunshine, “Sedjedo” is Kidjo’s writing collaboration with Hebrail and Ziggy Marley; and Kidjo and Marley sing duet. Ziggy Marley sounds very much like his father Bob (and for anyone, such as me, who admired Bob Marley greatly, that is eerie though welcomed). Kidjo has been quoted as saying that she wanted the musicians who worked with her to share her roots, with all of them being open to finding what they have in common (she has said that difference should not be seen as a threat); and that significant sharing seems to be her achievement with Ziggy Marley and the other musicians on Djin Djin, and the participation of Tony Visconti, a producer who has worked with David Bowie and Morrissey.

Angelique Kidjo is mostly alone as a voice for the remainder of the songs on Djin Djin. The disintegration of family is the subject of Kidjo/Hebrail’s “Papa,” and Kidjo regains an urgency she may have sacrificed in some of her vocal collaborations. “Arouna,” written by Kidjo and Hebrail, is an affirmation of women, their names, and their individuality; and features a bass-voice chorus, Kidjo’s mid-range singing, and light-sounding instrumentation and percussion, a blend of contrasts. “Awan N’La” (Kidjo/Hebrail) is an affirmation of music. About a woman’s need for love, “Emma” has what seems to be a traditional sound, featuring a small South African choral group, and the guitars of Dominic Kanza and Larry Campbell.

Kidjo and Hebrail’s “Mama Golo Papa” focuses on marital discord, family trouble, a serious theme offset by uptempo music. The album Djin Djin’s last song, “Lonlon,” is an adaptation of Ravel’s “Bolero,” and sounds like a ballad set to a marching beat. I probably prefer Angelique Kidjo’s Aye to Djin Djin, and others may still relish Fifa, but I suspect that Djin Djin will be seen as an exalted peak in Kidjo’s career—in terms of her popularity, if not her artistry.

Daniel Garrett, Louisiana-born and a longtime New York resident, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the founder of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, is a writer of essays and creative work, including fiction, drama, and poetry. His work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, PopMatters.com, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. For IdentityTheory.com, Daniel Garrett wrote about the work of novelist James Baldwin, film director Eric Rohmer, rapper Tupac Shakur, and the music band Kitchens of Distinction; and for Offscreen he wrote about films such as Boesman and Lena, Dirty Pretty Things, I Love Huckabees, Dogville, Father and Son, Moolaade, Paradise Now, Syriana, Walk on Water and Yes, as well as about books on Charlie Chaplin and on Chinese and Palestinian films. For a journal on philosophy and film, Cinetext (or Cinetext.Philo.at), Garrett wrote about Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc, Terrence Malick’s The New World, and the documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars, as well as a comprehensive survey article on popular film art. And, for The Compulsive Reader, Daniel Garrett has written on music, films, and books. Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com or d.garrett.writer@gmail.com