Private Music, Public Art: Oyo by Angelique Kidjo

By Daniel Garrett

Angelique Kidjo, Oyo

Produced by Angelique Kidjo and Jean Hebrail
Arrangements by Jean Hebrail and Lionel Loueke
Razor & Tie, 2010

The African musician Angelique Kidjo is a woman of great freedom.  She has refused many of the assumptions, and the categories that give comfort and shelter to the assumptions, that most people prefer and take pride in.  Tradition or modernity? American or African? Male or female? Young or old?  It is not unusual for our insistence on exclusive categories to betray our intelligence and perceptions; but, it is unusual for us to notice that betrayal (others are more likely to see our betrayal than we are).  The once tomboyish (and still androgynous) Benin singer-songwriter Angelique Kidjo, the daughter of a mother involved in theater and women’s rights, and a post office manager father who was a dedicated book reader, grew up in a house of confident and encouraging people, intelligent people who loved music.  Angelique Kidjo listened to the music of Bella Bellow, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and other Motown artists, Miriam Makeba, Curtis Mayfield, and Otis Redding.  She listened to all kinds of music, in different languages.  Full of curiosity and enthusiasm, Angelique Kidjo was a girl whose singing was enjoyed by her community, but as she became a young woman that attitude changed—because women entertainers were viewed with moral skepticism—and Kidjo was criticized and taunted, but with her family’s support she continued to sing.  Angelique Kidjo returns to her diverse musical roots on her album Oyo and presents music that moves easily among and beyond different established musical genres, refusing to be defined by a single category; and thus she affirms creativity and humanity, and becomes herself a figure of inspiration.  Angelique Kidjo’s Oyo has the excitement of collaboration, enthusiasm, and faith, with traditional and modern African songs and American and Indian music too, and featuring the participation of Bono of U2, the jazz musician Roy Hargrove, John Legend (Get Lifted, Once Again, Evolver) and Dianne Reeves (Art & Survival, A Little Moonlight), as well as bassist Christian McBride and kora player Mamadou Diabate, among the musicians.  Angelique Kidjo has said that the word oyo means beauty; and, some of the music on Oyo has an austere quality, and some of it is boisterous and rich, and all of it is good.

How lucky we are that the African girl never stopped asking questions!  Strength is the essential quality one perceives in Angelique Kidjo.  Her knowledge, conviction, and talent have given her a fierce and even fearsome strength—and it is strength that she makes available in her music to us, many of whom remain half-transformed, closer to ignorance than to knowledge, closer to shame than to pride, but still struggling toward the truths of self and world.  The photograph of Kidjo that adorns her album is a dark close-up, in which her eyes look knowing and there is a slight smile on her face; and it is an image that is likely to become iconic.  That photograph is a flag for a deeply interesting, resonant, and satisfying album, Oyo, which presents more than one kind of beauty.

On Oyo Angelique Kidjo is handling some of the fundamental elements in modern musical culture, handling them with mastery and imagination; and my comments do not at all exhaust what is to be found there.  The album commences with Kidjo’s exultant cry in the song “Zelie,” written by a childhood idol of Kidjo, Bella Bellow, a figure of beauty in her person and in her music, a singer from Togo that Kidjo has said she would like to pay further tribute to with the help of Manu Dibango.  Kidjo, her enunciation rounded, her tones wailing, sounds gritty and true and is accompanied by the guitar of Dominic Kanza.  With trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s contribution, Carlos Santana’s “Samba Pa Ti” is elegant and soulful in Kidjo’s Yoruba version, which—shaped by a nice balance of melody and rhythm, and instrumental interplay—has a seductive texture.  Very directly, Angelique Kidjo uses Curtis Mayfield’s early 1970s song “Move on Up” to transmit confidence and purpose to today’s youth, particularly African youth, and with the passionate participation of Bono and John Legend the song becomes a roiling, rollicking anthem for our time, one that inclines us to move our butts and feet as well as think.  (The celebrated Bono has increased his prestige with his charity work on behalf of Africa, and Kidjo uses him to affirm the agency of African youth in African life—that is good voodoo.)  Bono’s voice is lighter than usual (more focused and precise) and more effective for that; and John Legend sounds propelled by a mysterious power, as if he might begin speaking in tongues.  “Lakutshona Llanga” is delicate, with a fluttery rhythm, and mellow (Kidjo allows her voice a soft, nearly wistful quality): the song is a lullaby, and it was sung by Miriam Makeba, a woman who represented African music to the world for decades.  Angelique Kidjo met the South African exile Miriam Makeba when they both performed in the late 1980s at Olympia hall, and a second time at a Swiss festival; and Makeba invited Kidjo to visit Makeba in a South Africa freed of racial apartheid, and when Kidjo did Makeba treated her to a feast—and subsequently spoke to her about an album she wanted to collaborate with Kidjo on devoted to lullabies.  The project did not commence before Makeba’s death, but Kidjo has considered doing it in the future.

The Otis Redding song “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” is rendered as a slow, soul dance song with horns, and a beat echoing gospel music.  The song could find its place in an African village or an American nightclub.  Kidjo’s own composition “Kelele” is bustling music of fast, short (and even sweet) rhythms, rhythms as fleeting as seconds, and choral singing, and blazing horns with a jazzy swing in the African high life style.  One of the most surprising songs is “Monfe Ran E,” Kidjo’s duet with her friend jazz singer Dianne Reeves, in a tribute to Aretha Franklin, a transformation of Ronnie Shannon’s “Baby, I Love You,” which Aretha sang.  (What do Angelique and Aretha share?  Forceful energy.)  The interpretation here is inventive, and funky—warm, sensual, spicy—with Kidjo and Reeves trading verses, and Kidjo singing in both English and an African language (Fon?) and Reeves delivering her English verses with tremendous command and verve and trying a few of the African verses too.  Their voices are sculpted sound.

Kidjo has spoken more than once about how we are all connected, the kind of thing ambitious and visionary artists often say.  She offers her own life and work as evidence, mentioning seeing as a girl many Indian films in Africa, and loving the stories and songs: one film, Aan (The Magician), had a melody she did not forget, and she performs that song on Oyo: “Dil Mein Chhupa Ke Pyar Ka Too,” which has a springy rhythm, and the flute of Steve Gorn.  It is a reminder that the history of civilization is a history of contact with foreign cultures that become familiar.  Culture is the word we give to the arts, and to public rituals, social manners, and family and personal habits, and the values that suffuse them, the word we give to the organized life that surrounds us, that we participate in; and culture changes, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, sometimes to our benefit, and sometimes to our regret.  No matter how intelligent or useful a culture is, it may be seen as irrelevant or insensitive to some people—and they begin to create another culture, a counterculture, out of native and foreign and new elements.  It is not strange for the culture of a minority to become the culture of the majority.  The cycle—the creation and transformation—of culture continues.

Human beings need and want particular things in which to lead lives of decency, order, and security—shelter, food, water, fuel, medicine, waste disposal, and the like; and people affirm and pursue virtues—abundance, beauty, kindness, intelligence, and wit—that they may not find in the houses, or nations, in which they are born: and, they move elsewhere.  What encourages honesty and compassion?  What forms the foundation of knowledge and justice?  What commemorates human relationships?  Failing to find what they need at home, people seek what they need in other houses, other traditions.  Angelique Kidjo has spoken of how the (communist, military) government’s attempt to control the content of music motivated her to leave her country, Benin, once known as Dahomet or Dahomey (Kidjo has lived in France, and now lives in New York).  Angelique Kidjo’s album Oyo suggests what the world has to offer, a treasure trove that has become hers—and through her, ours.  She sings New Orleans jazz composer Sidney Bechet’s pretty song “Petite Fleur” in French, a language she grew up speaking.  (On “Petite Fleur” Colette Alexander plays cello.)  Something about the song reminds me of film noir—dark images of city life: in the absence of duty and surveillance, night in a city can be a time of intimacy and liberty, as precious as it is dangerous.  “Petite Fleur” is followed by a song Kidjo wrote with Vinicius Cantuaria, “Afia,” in which Kidjo’s voice is smooth and soothing, supported by Brazilian percussion, and then James Brown’s “Cold Sweat,” and a theme from composer John Barry’s score for the film Out of Africa, in which Kidjo perceived the story of exile, loss, and remembrance.  Could there be more eclectic musical selections?  The deep groove of “Cold Sweat,” with stop-and-go rhythms that seem both American and African, horns, and chorus, is a demonstration of usually neglected connections (though not neglected by Fela Kuti and his descendants, or publications such as Afropop and Global Rhythm).  Few performers have anything genuinely resembling the wild authority of James Brown—manly and sane but with a self-liberating volatility—but Kidjo, who saw Brown perform in Nigeria, acquits herself reasonably well: her conviction is not in doubt but, here, it is not the same as passion.

On Oyo, Angelique Kidjo performs “Mbube,” written by Solomon Popoli Linda and previously performed by Miriam Makeba.  The song is the basis for what is known in the western world as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”  “Mbube” has a dense arrangement, featuring many rhythms, and it is followed by a traditional song of Benin, “Atcha Houn,” with plucky strings and Kidjo’s staccato voice, a song Kidjo first sang as part of a play when she was a girl.  (There are two “bonus” songs: “You Can Count on Me,” and “Agbalagba,” and the former has a rumbling rhythm and a harmony of light and heavy voices, and the latter song was inspired by the book Say You’re One of Them, a book by a Nigerian priest about the difficulties of African children, and both songs were partly written by Kidjo with Jean Hebrail—and their daughter Naima helped to compose “You.”)  With such diversity, it is hard to know what to compare this collection to: it may be a great album.

It is rare for us to understand anyone or anything that has more depth than we do; and that is the challenge and triumph of artists and art.  Sometimes artists visit the past and reveal the present and issue prophecy of the future, and with the cosmopolitan, personal album Oyo, Angelique Kidjo has done all of this.  Yet, there is no one quite like her, a natural resource, and a woman of transformations.

DanielGarrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art.  He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.