When it comes to classifying her work, Angelique Kidjo is not unlike many artists. She is resistant to the idea that what she does can be neatly accounted for or encapsulated with a single word. However, while many musicians feel that genre has the effect of boxing them in, Kidjo is more concerned that the genre to which she is most commonly linked shuts too many other forms of musical expression out.
“World music,” according to the Benin-born singer/songwriter, is not a good description of what she does. “We all live in the same world,” she explains. To her mind, all music ever produced is technically “world music.” And besides, if it is her African heritage that makes her a “world” musician, then every type of music should fall into the same category.
“We are all African,” Kidjo says with certainty. “There is something in everyone that can relate to Africa.”
Still, it can’t be denied that there is something very worldly about Kidjo—both as a musician and a person.
Ever since Kidjo began recording her songs in the early 1980s, she has been a musical explorer, never content to dwell on one style too long. She has reached out to a wide variety of artists, including Carlos Santana, Peter Gabriel, Alicia Keys, Josh Groban and Ezra Koenig, always with an open ear, so that through the process of collaboration she might learn to speak their musical language.
She has proven herself an apt pupil of musical styles over the years. On her 1991 release, Logozo, she melds her West African roots with the stripped-down sounds of early-’90s dance-pop on “Batonga.” On 1990’s Parakou she brings the tempo way down on “Blewu,” with soft droplets of percussion, sparse, ethereal synth swells and her very own, made-up language (which sounds like a combination of her native tongue and French). More recently, on “Move On Up,” she leaves it all on the table as she belts out the lyrics in English over fevered conga-soul drumming and back-up vocals from Bono and John Legend.
She sings her songs in various languages because there are certain feelings and emotions that can only be accurately represented in certain languages, she says. And she “doesn’t have any power over” which language the song will be in.
“When it comes out, it just comes out the way it comes out,” Kidjo says matter-of-factly.
But on a more personal level, Kidjo feels a kinship with all of humanity, and she has worked hard over the course of her decades-long career—in music and humanitarian work—to pull others together in a spirit of global harmony.
“I try through my music to empower people,” Kidjo says. “There are problems, but there are solutions to those problems.”
The latest solution Kidjo is offering is a two-disc, CD and DVD live set of songs spanning her career. The album, released at the beginning of this year, is titled Spirit Rising.
Kidjo pulled out all the stops for Spirit Rising. She says it took years to get everyone she wanted involved to WGBH Studios in Boston, Mass. at the same time. Finally, in 2011, she brought together a long list of musicians from a variety of backgrounds, including the aforementioned Koenig and Groban, along with Dianne Reeves and Branford Marsalis, to perform songs like “Batonga” and “Move On Up.” Kidjo brought along a full choir, horns, a string section and dancers from the award-winning Broadway production, “FELA!”
She says she created a DVD so that she could bring the power of her live performance into people’s living rooms. “People tell me all the time, ‘When we listen to your CD, we have fun, but when we come to your show we have even more fun!’”
It’s safe to say the production won’t be as grand at The Rio Theatre on Nov. 18, but Kidjo insists that won’t matter. She says that all her songs can be sung a cappella or with acoustic guitar accompaniment without losing their meaning or punch. Hers is a humble form of songwriting, no doubt learned during her humble upbringing under the warm African sun.
Angelique Kidjo will perform at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 18 at The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $30. For tickets, visit kuumbwajazz.inticketing.com, or call Logos Books & Records at 427-5100. Photo: Nabil Elderkin