(Review no 159.)

I’d never heard of global music diva Angélique Kidjo – not until last week, I thought. But then, in a feat of gormlessness, I realised I’d seen her perform live in London, just two years ago. It’s not even as though I’ve been to vast amounts of concerts in the last 20 years – I’d say I’ve been to about … four, compared with countless, or at least not currently countable, such events in the 10 years before that. I even snapped a bad, grainy pic of her together with Philip Glass, which heads up this post.

The event in question was a performance in London of the Bowie Symphonies, three works by Glass, inspired by Bowie’s late 1970s ‘Berlin Trilogy’ of post-coke addiction albums: the experimental Low, Heroes and the poppier and crappier Lodger. The final symphony was being performed for the first time. Unfortunately, this new, third part was a bit rubbish, not helped by Kidjo, who intoned Bowie lyrics weirdly (bad weird) to something of a discordant (bad discordant – I know this is Philip Glass we’re talking about here) mess. However, Kidjo is best not judged on the basis of that performance.

Kidjo’s native Benin is a small West African state, which sits between Togo and Nigeria, and is famed for its drumming. Conflict in Benin led her to move to Paris in her early 20s, where she studied music and soon met Jean Hebrail, a musician and producer. They married in 1987, and much of her music has been composed with him.

Kidjo, now 60, has already had a long career, and last week released her 14th album, Mother Nature. She has a distinctive, strong voice, and often utilises Benin’s traditional Zilin vocal technique, described as a blues-like technique originating in the Fon heartland of central Benin.

Her work is hugely eclectic and impossible to pigeonhole, partly because she is a highly collaborative artist, and partly because she has produced work across such a wide variety of musical genres. She has won a fistful of Grammy’s, the most recent in 2020, for an album based on the work of the Cuban “Queen of Salsa” Celia Cruz, whose music Kidjo reinterpreted with an Afrobeat spin.

As well as working with Glass on earlier pieces, based on traditional Yoruba songs, she has also covered the African-influenced Talking Heads album Remain in Light, including the wonderful Once in a Lifetime (“you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife, and you may ask yourself, how did I get here?“), Bob Dylan’s Lay Lady Lay, the Rolling Stones’ Give me Shelter (accompanied by Joss Stone) and Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. But she’s also recorded a song based on Ravel’s Bolero, performed with the Luxembourg Philharmonic, and dueted with Peter Gabriel and Ziggy Marley, while on her new, environmentally campaigning album, has collaborated with Zambian rapper Sampa the Great and Nigerian Afropop singer Yemi Alade, as well as the man whose name is forever synonymous with tantric sex, Sting.

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