Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on Nov 24th 2009 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
But it's on 'Oyo,' the upcoming album from Angélique Kidjo -- due for release in February, though she gave Around the World an early listen and a chance to talk with her about it. The follow-up to the Benin-born star's 2007 contemporary world-music Grammy Award-winning album 'Djin Djin' contains all those things and more. And it's not just an exercise in random eclecticism. This is all music that inspired Kidjo in her youth in Africa to become the artist she is today, and in that regard is a soundtrack for her mission to provide health care and education opportunities for children in Africa and elsewhere in her role as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and with her own Batonga Foundation.
"This is the story of my childhood," she says. "All these songs brought me to where I am today, inspired me to do the music I have been doing for many, many years. This music has always been my Bible, the thing that reminds me what is the mission of the arts."
Yes, even 'Petite Fleur,' a lovely tune composed in the '40s by New Orleans clarinetist Sidney Bechet. Her father, she explains, was a jazz fan and musician -- he was playing clarinet in a band himself when he met Kidjo's mother-to-be -- and made recordings of Bechet, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and others household staples.
Yes, even the jaunty Bollywood song 'Dil Main Chuppa Ke Pyar Ka,' a persistent memory from childhood that eventually became an obsession -- but more on that later.
And yes, the American soul was essential to her evolution and wide reach as an artist. Beyond that, Redding's 'I've Got Dreams to Remember' almost serves as a thematic centerpiece for her collection of memories:
Angélique Kidjo, 'I've Got Dreams to Remember'
But it's the last song on the album (not counting two bonus tracks) with which the story actually begins. 'Atcha Houn' was the spark plug for Kidjo in her childhood back in the Atlantic coastal town of Ouidah.
"It's the first song I sang onstage," she says. "I was 6 years old, in the mid-'60s. My mom had a theater group. They were doing a play based on the life of one of our kings."
In the story, she says, the king was very protective of his beautiful daughter, punishing those who looked at her the wrong way. And there's a younger daughter, a little girl who would calm the king with song. Little Angélique spent much time around the theater with her mother, playing dress-up with the costumes, mimicking the actors and absorbing the lines and the songs. You can probably see the next part coming:
"The little girl who played that role [of the young princess] was sick one night. My mom said, 'She's not here. You get ready. You're going to sing.' I said, 'I don't think so!' Mom said, 'Yes you can! You always tell those funny stories at home and we all laugh.' But this really scared me. Suddenly, she pushed me onstage. I fell. I can hear all the bones in my body clicking. The spotlight was on me, so I couldn't see the audience, thank God. People were laughing because my eyes are popping out of my head, looking like a trapped animal, and they thought this was all part of the play. But when I sang, they stopped laughing. Since then, I've been hooked."
She says that from the start she knew that the song had to be either the beginning or end of the album. Ultimately, for the opening slot she chose another song very much evocative of the time and place of her childhood: 'Zelie,' the first hit by Bella Bellow of neighboring Togo. Kidjo's version, modeled very much after Bellow's original (seen in this video clip), serves as a forceful invocation for the album.
"She's another African singer but who died too early to be known [internationally]," Kidjo says of the tribute. "She died in a car accident in 1973 and used to sing beautiful. That particular song was something I really loved because of the story -- the last night a girl is with her family before she gets married. Girlfriends and cousins, all the women gathered in a room with the men and sing, 'We are not giving her to you completely. You only really deserve her if you respect her and see her as the most precious thing in your house.'"
Another African woman honored is Miriam Makeba, perhaps her strongest role model early in her career, represented here with the lullaby 'Lakutshona Llanga.'
"People like Miriam Makeba gave me pride of being a girl from Africa," she says. "When you are a certain age, you are so-called marry-able. If you're a boy and a musician, no one wants you to marry the girl because they don't see that as a job. But if you are a girl and a musician, they see you as a prostitute. So Miriam Makeba came into my life and that's the moment I saw you could do it. So either I would become a human rights lawyer or a singer and fulfill my dream."
Those three all make sense on the same album. But where do the rest of the selections come in? The soulsters, she says, were big on the soundtrack around her house and these songs (Franklin's 'Baby I Love You' done in duet with soul-jazz star Dianne Reeves, Brown's 'Cold Sweat') were things she'd sing all the time, to the point of people's annoyance.
"I could sing all the bass lines," she says. "They said, 'The girl would be jiving her mouth.' They called me Jive Mouth!"
Santana, too, was a star in Benin, right alongside Jimi Hendrix -- whose 'Voodoo Child (Slight Return)' Kidjo definitely transformed into a vocal tour de force with her version on the 1998 album 'Oremi.' With 'Samba Pa Ti,' she takes a different tack, giving it a loose jazz feel with spectacular trumpet from guest Roy Hargrove. Another major guest, John Legend, turns up on Curtis Mayfield's funky 'Move On Up.'
"I was in Brazil and thinking about a song to dedicate to children," she says. "A song that can uplift them to really think about what the future will be, what they are up against. My daughter picked that song and I said, 'Exactly!' I said, 'Who can do this with me?' And John Legend came to mind because he has a program to build wells and schools in Africa and has been there. I thought if there was one artist in America apart from Alicia Keys who could understand, it's him. He said, 'Yes, let's do it for the kids in Africa.' We needed to give them something they can sing along and dance along. This is it -- 'Move On Up!'"
Throughout, she gets sturdy, personable support from musicians with as wide a reach as the musical selections. Guitarist Lionel Loueke brings a direct connection, having grown up in Ouidah as well.
"I saw him growing up," Kidjo says of Loueke, who has been playing with Herbie Hancock of late, as well as making his own dynamic albums, the latest of which, 'Mwaliko,' blends African traditions and modern jazz and is due for release Feb. 9. "His father was principal of my high school and I was in school with his bigger brother. For me, it just brings everybody together.
Joining him are bassist Christian McBride, one of the top names in modern jazz both as a leader and inventive accompanist, another top young figure in drummer Kendrick Scott and Senegalese percussionist Thiokho Diagne.
The point of all this is that her internationalism is not something that came to her only after she fled what was then a dictatorship in Benin in 1993, first settling in Paris and then for the past 20 years in New York. The global music perspective came to her in her Benin childhood.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the story behind the Bollywood tune's place in this. She explains that Western movies were too expensive for the African market, but trade with India brought an influx of films from the Asian subcontinent -- and then later Chinese martial arts movies.
"This particular movie, I was haunted by the song," she says. "Moments in my life I would think of that song. I didn't know the lyrics and couldn't find it. A movie from the '50s. My brother worked for an airline and was going to India and I said, 'I'm going crazy. I need to find this song.' He said, 'Do you know the name?' I said, 'I only know two lines.' I sang them to him and he sang them to a colleague. We didn't have the dialect right, but the colleague was able to find the song and give me the name of the movie -- 'Aann.' So he sent me the lyrics and meaning of the song and here I go. Wow! That movie I've seen more than 10 times and every time I bribed my father to go with me. I remember the last time I saw it was alone. Father was tired of seeing it."
It's a memory even more poignant as her father passed away last year and her last trip to Benin was for his funeral.
"This album is dedicated to him. He was the one that made my meeting with all that music possible."