Mom’s theater group (age nine)
Kidjo Brother Band (age nine)
The Sphinx (early teens)
Random local bands hired by her promoter in
whichever country she’s performing in (late teens)
It’s best not to speak about the purity of music with singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo. She simply doesn’t believe it exists. While this might sound odd coming from a woman born into a musical family in Benin who traces her ancestry to the female warrior Amazons, Kidjo couldn’t care less about adhering to a “traditional” sound. Heralded by luminaries such as David Byrne, Gilberto Gil, and Carlos Santana as one of the most important singers to come out of Africa in the last twenty years, Kidjo, with relentless curiosity and mutability as an artist yields a music composed of samba, zouk, rock, Afro-funk, world beat, Caribbean pop, and other less identifiable but equally surprising genres.
Kidjo’s liberal upbringing was incompatible with the Communist regime that took power in Benin when she was a child, and so, with her father’s encouragement, she fled to France. After a few years studying law in Paris, she began using music to speak to and for those forced into the margins of society. In the past twenty-odd years, Kidjo has topped the charts in numerous countries, written and recorded nine albums, and served as an honorary ambassador to UNICEF.
At a recent show in San Francisco, she jumped down from the stage and began mingling with the audience, asking them to sing along in a jubilant call-and-response. Chances are that most people didn’t know what they were actually singing, as Kidjo’s language of choice is Fon, Benin’s primary language, but it hardly mattered. She swept though the crowd, and one could hear each section singing louder as she passed. Older blushing hippies found themselves calling out with beautiful, tone-deaf voices, while younger audience members challenged Kidjo to what seemed like a preemptive dance routine. The young clapped their hands along with the old and everyone followed the petite, strawberry-blondhaired woman like sailors to a siren’s call.
This interview was conducted over the phone from Kidjo’s house in Brooklyn. Her voice engaged even as it disarmed—as if she were singing her sentences.
THE BELIEVER: Do you believe that sound evolves with us? Or do you think that, at its core, music can speak to something greater, maybe something already inside us from our first waking moments?
ANGÉLIQUE KIDJO: Singing comes before speaking. The first human being on this planet, even before he or she was able to speak, was surrounded by music. The sound of the birds is music because you can put notes to it—same with the wind in the trees. I think we started mimicking these sounds before we started speaking, so that is why music is so deeply involved. It speaks to us. Any music is mine. I don’t care if I don’t understand the language—I’m going for it.
We hope you enjoy this excerpt.
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