Singer, composer, writer: Angélique Kidjo is a force of nature

Angélique Kidjo is making a stop at the Prince Music Theater Tuesday.
Angélique Kidjo is making a stop at the Prince Music Theater Tuesday.
Posted: February 19, 2014

Angélique Kidjo is a human explosion, in voice and in spirit. Talking to her is like surfing a creamy breaker that lifts you high and takes you far, but sets you down in a warm place.

It's a Kidjo wave.

On Jan. 17, Ifé, her collaboration with composer Philip Glass, debuted in Luxembourg.

On Tuesday, she plays the Prince Music Theater, behind her new album Eve, which turns out to be - "But I never knew it at the time!" - a concept album "DEDICATED to the WOMEN of AFRICA/ to their RESILIENCE & their BEAUTY."

Eve, like Kidjo herself, is on the high-tech, high-energy end of the pan-Africa world-music continuum. Spanning the diapason of 21st-century sound technology, she and husband Jean Hebrail create heartfelt, driving music with direct messages.

New classical piece, new album, new tour . . . oh, yes, and new book, too, a memoir, Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music (Harper Design, 256 pages, $27.99). Beneath her name one reads with Rachel Wenrick - associate teaching professor of English at Drexel University.

Spirit Rising really captures the open, committed, bracing Kidjo voice, "which is very much what we were trying for," Wenrick said. "She sat down with Jean and over days and days tried to record as much of her story as she could, much of it in French. That was transcribed, and then had to be translated by Marjolijn de Jager, who works a lot with African writers." Wenrick also "spent lots and lots of time recording Angélique, watching YouTube clips, looking at family photos, learning about her influences, and reading old press clippings."

It sounds crazy, and at times it was, especially near deadline, Wenrick said, "when she was working in her bustling house in Brooklyn, and I was down here, frantically typing in corrections with a newborn strapped to my chest." But Wenrick calls Kidjo "a born collaborator who never takes vacations. I learned a lot about sameness-in-difference from her. Angélique had to help me imagine both village life in Benin and performing in Carnegie Hall. And I'm this person who grew up in Wilkes-Barre. Getting The Inquirer was a big deal - it was the big-city newspaper.

"And yet, the more we worked together, the closer we became. It confirmed for me that, across cultures, languages, traditions, people are far, far more the same than we are different."

Kidjo was born in Cotonou, Benin, in 1960. She is from Brooklyn, where she's lived for 14 years - that is, when she's not everywhere else, especially Africa. "When I'm on tour," she said, in a big, smiling voice that challenged the phone speaker, "I go where I go. I have been living outside of Africa since 1983. But I go back all the time, for various lengths of time. I must go back, I have to. I revisit my family and village, but I go all over."

One such visit, as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador to villages in Kenya, inspired the songs that became Eve. "That visit really hurt me," she said. "In the villages, even when they have enough to eat, they aren't getting the right vitamins, and they become malnourished. And if you are a stunted mother, you can pass this on to your children.

"I would go to one village, and I would see the mothers and children doing fine. But in the next village, I was touched, I was angry, I was in pain, mothers with sons who couldn't walk because of malnutrition. Africa is beautiful, but it is a true roller coaster, one moment hope, the next moment heartbreak. I started to think a lot about the women of Africa. 'Every woman in Africa is a privilege to know,' I was thinking, 'so why not dive into it?' And that is when the songs began to come."

With songs like "Ebile," which celebrates parents' pride in children, or "Bomba," about women's love for their traditional finery, Kidjo recorded the album in New York. Guests included Dr. John, the Kronos Quartet, Christian McBride, and Rostam Batmanglij from Vampire Weekend.

"Then I went back to the villages," she said, "with a boom-box which had the album on it, and a field recorder. And I went to the girl choirs of the villages, and I told them, 'I want you to sing your traditional songs, and I'll work it into the tracks.' I didn't want them in a recording studio; I wanted them where they lived, doing what they did every day.

"I played them the music, and they looked at me as if I'm crazy. 'What are you talking about? Are you kidding us? You want us to sing that?' "

Kidjo taught them what she wanted, and before long, "they'd just take over, just kept singing and dancing. I couldn't get them to stop!"

Eve, among other things, refers to Kidjo's mother, Yvonne, known as Eve, her middle name. Hers is the first voice heard on this album, on the tune "Bana."

"I come from a line of strong women, women who ran their own businesses," Kidjo said. "My grandmother taught me, 'Your first husband must be the business you run.' "

Eve also is the name given to the genetic ancestor of almost all human beings living today, a woman believed to have lived in Africa between 99,000 and 200,000 years ago. So Eve is an album of origins, identity, and history.

Kidjo credits her mother's wisdom for the wide-ranging life she lives now, as an international pop star, performer, and social activist: " 'Keep moving,' she used to tell me. 'I know you. If you stay put, you will die in a year.' "

Angélique Kidjo

8 p.m. Tuesday, Prince Music Theater,

1412 Chestnut St. Tickets: $35, $49.50; Information: 215-972-1000, princemusic

215-854-4406 @jtimpane

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