Category Archives: Soul/R&B

The Chambers Brothers – The Time Has Come – Classic Music Review

I want to report my father for sexual harassment.

The incident occurred at my parents’ house last month, an hour or so before dinner. Alicia and I had come over a couple of hours early so that she and my mother could play chess. They love playing chess together because they have roughly equal skills and different styles of play. They also share exceptional concentration abilities and the chess-essential virtue of patience. My dad and I are too restless and too easily distracted to succeed at chess, so while maman and Alicia faced each other over a small table in one corner of the room, my dad and I stretched out on pillows and carpet in the opposite corner, talking baseball, politics and music.

“So, when are you going to start taking requests?”

“I already am—just not from you, dad!”

“Come on, there’s still some important music I think you should cover.”

“I’ve already said no more Dylan and no more Beatles.”

“I get that, but I’m talking long-forgotten gems.”

“Name one.”

“Well, there’s Triangle. You promised me you’d do The Beau Brummels’ masterpiece.”

I sighed and said, “Yeah, yeah, I know. I just haven’t been in the mood.”

He leaned over a little bit closer to me and said, “I thought you were always in the mood.” And then he winked at me. 

“Maman! Dad’s trying to hit on me!”

“He will not live to see the light of day,” responded my mother, still gazing at the chessboard, a faint, wicked smile crossing her lips.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa—I was just making a little joke, for christsakes,” dad pleaded.

“No, you invaded my space, implied I was a slut—”

“But you are a slut! You call yourself a slut!”

“That’s beside the point. Then you, you—winked at me! I know a hit when I see one and that was a hit!”

“Bullshit. I didn’t invade your space, I was stretching to ease my aging back. I winked because it was a joke.”

“Tell it to the judge.”

“We’re a long way from California, sunshine. You have no case here. Look—I’ll let you make it up to me.”

“What? I’m the victim and I have to make it up to you?”

“I’ve been wrongly accused. I deserve justice.”

“You deserve a swift kick in the nuts, you lecher!”

“I’m wearing a cup. Listen—how about The Chambers Brothers?”

That gave me pause. A psychedelic gospel album? That’s like putting mustard on chocolate cake, but somehow they managed to pull it off.

“Oh, all right.”

Then he winked at me again! But this time I didn’t detect any Trump-Ivanka vibes. I smelled a rat.

“Did you just get me all riled up to throw me off my game and give you want you want?”

Now if this had been a really bad movie, my mother would have cried “Checkmate” at that moment. Instead she cried, “Merde” and shook hands with the victorious Alicia.

From now on, I’m letting Alicia handle all negotiations with my father.

*****

The Chambers Brothers were born into a poor sharecropping family in Lee County, Mississippi, a place better known for the county seat of Tupelo, where Elvis emerged from the womb. They grew up singing gospel in a Baptist church, and might have never escaped the armpit of the south if eldest brother George hadn’t received his draft notice in 1952 (funny how often bad news leads to a lucky break). When George received his discharge, he made the wise choice not to return to Mississippi but to settle in the somewhat more enlightened but still racist city of Los Angeles. Eventually, the other three brothers (Willie, Lester and Joe) followed suit. They toiled in the gospel circuit for several years without a whole lot to show for it, then decided to make their music more folk-friendly to cash in on the latest manifestation of the folk revival in the early 60’s. Gigs for folk audiences led to several connections, a trip to New York and a breakthrough performance at the Newport Folk Festival, courtesy of Pete Seeger.

We’re now in 1965, the same year Bob Dylan pissed off most of that Newport crowd by electrifying his performance. Shortly thereafter, Dylan invited the brothers to the studio where he was recording Highway 61 Revisited. Joe Chambers picks up the story here:

So he (Dylan) asks us if we’ve ever been to a discotheque. We never heard of such a thing, and he told us it was a place where they played records and people danced. So he takes us to this place called Ordell’s, and the announcer says there’s some special guests in the house and he called out our name. So we went up there, picked up some guitars and figured we’d do our coffeehouse set, only speeded up. Brian Keenan was the house drummer. We ended up staying there for three weeks. (Bill Locey, Los Angeles Times).

That house drummer would wind up a full member of The Chambers Brothers, an act that blew a lot of minds way back when. The concept of a white guy drumming for four black guys violated a series of cherished god-given racist assumptions about the order of things. White = boss/Black = worker. White = front/Black = back. White = clumsy/Black = rhythmic. Even open-minded hippies had a hard time getting their heads around the last one until they heard Brian Keenan play. Keenan’s power and command was exactly what The Chambers Brothers needed to cross the divide into the world of rock, and soon The Chambers Brothers’ live performances became must-see events.

Now under contract to Columbia Records, the brothers also found themselves under the thumb of Clive Davis, the studio head who contaminated American ears with Donovan and later (with Arista) brought Ray Davies’ artistic ambitions under heel, turning The Kinks into a run-of-the-mill arena rock band. Clive Davis lived by certain rules that the business world of today refers to as “best practices,” which in plain English means, “the shit that’s worked in the past so therefore it must work in the future because we lack the imagination and intelligence to come up with anything better.”

Clive’s best practice with new bands was to get them to produce singles, and if the singles sold well enough, he would grant them permission to do an album. This best practice did not work with The Chambers Brothers, who released an early, shorter version of “Time Has Come Today” to no fanfare whatsoever. That they recorded the song after Clive Davis specifically told them not to should tell you that The Chambers Brothers were committed to their music, and not afraid of blowing their shot at stardom by standing up for what they believed in. Eventually, word got through Clive’s thick head that album-oriented rock was becoming the cat’s pajamas after the release of Sgt. Pepper in 1967, and later that year, The Chambers Brothers recorded their first album, The Time Has Come.

As for the mix of gospel and psychedelic . . . well, it’s there, sort of. The only true psychedelic number is “Time Has Come Today.” There are psychedelic touches in the other tracks, but the album is really a mix of gospel, soul, funk and one of the most honored long-form songs to come out of the psychedelic era. That’s not a bad thing: The Chambers Brothers were very good in multiple genres, and there are only a couple of tracks that qualify as album filler–an impressive ratio for a debut album.

Things get smokin’ right away with “All Strung Out,” an exuberant, high-speed number that came to The Chambers Brothers via Rudy Clark, the man who gave us “It’s in His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop Song)” and the Young Rascals’ “Good Lovin’.” Now, I suppose you could say that the heavy reverb on the handclaps echoed in the heavily-reverbed cymbal in the introduction kinda sorta hints at something psychedelic, but once Lester Chambers and his brothers step up to the mike, it’s clear that we’re into pure soul, delivered with a touch more roughness than you hear in the Motown hits of the era. And I suppose you could say that the opening lines (“I got a habit/But I can’t kick it”) is a faint nod to the target audience of Timothy Leary acolytes, but once Lester really gets going it’s obvious that his addiction is to one hot broad who’s threatening to drop out and turn on with another guy. The production style certainly reflects the era’s obsession with creative panning, particularly noticeable on the bass, which opens at a spot slightly to left of center, disappears, then reappears on the right channel. While I prefer the bass in dead center where it can expand to cover the entire soundscape, I’ll ignore the period fetish and pronounce “All Strung Out” an exciting performance and a great way to open the album.

There is no psychedelic influence on the next cut, The Brothers’ version of Curtis Mayfield’s modern gospel piece, “People Get Ready.” I have a rather strong aversion to any song that celebrates any religion, but I have a slightly greater tolerance for gospel music, especially when delivered with luscious, multi-layered harmonies and sincere feeling. They grab me as soon as the vocals come in, a layering of hums and oohs in perfect harmony spanning a couple of octaves. They continue to hold my attention throughout the verses with a well-crafted vocal arrangement mixing solo and harmonic singing that allows room for spontaneous expression when one of the brothers is feeling it. Throughout the song, Brian Keenan supports the vocalists by solidifying the swaying rhythm and cuing the vocalists through short builds on the fills to further inspire their passion. The finish is nothing less than fantastic, moving from Keenan’s high tom roll to elongated vocal harmony, followed by the brothers raising their voices on high to create a thrilling conclusion. Man, if someone promised me I could hear these guys in church every Sunday, I might have temporarily suspended my agnosticism for an hour a week just to let the sound of those voices send tingles up and down my spine.

We shift back to soul with the first original composition on the album, Lester Chambers’ “I Can’t Stand It.” It’s a damned solid piece of soul reminiscent of the more upbeat numbers from The Temptations, but you might not recognize how good this song is if you listen to it in stereo. That crazy obsession to fiddle with the panning knob wreaks havoc on the piece, placing the drums in a narrow band of sonic territory on the left where Brian Kennan’s energetic drums are transformed into fuzzy mush. Meanwhile, the cowbell is far, far away on the opposite channel, again sopping with reverb, and seems disconnected from the rest of the action. The singing is fabulous, especially on the high-note background vocals, so if your equipment allows it, switch to mono, adjust the EQ accordingly and I guarantee you’ll have a much better experience.

Lester also wrote the “Romeo and Juliet,” a slick doo-wop number where his vocal versatility comes to the fore. In the a cappella intro and in the opening lines of the verses, he sings in a smooth, warm voice I’ll call “romantically engaging.” In the closing lines, he adds some grit to the vocal that transforms the message from romantic to something more carnal, making his play for Juliet much more realistic. Yes, sweet is nice, especially when it’s short-and-sweet and gets to the fucking point! Lester oscillates between the two voices, indicating a man who senses some reluctance on the part of the lady, requiring him to gently nudge her past whatever her hangup is while introducing the promise of masculine delights in a measured manner. In the end, both Lester and his supporting brothers throw all caution to the wind and engage in an extended burst of unbridled passion. Shit, if Juliet doesn’t respond to that, he should dump her prissy ass and come over to my place! I leave “Romeo and Juliet” wondering what the hell is wrong with Juliet and why people don’t talk about Lester Chambers as one of the best lead vocalists of the era.

Perhaps it’s because too many Chambers Brothers efforts contained too much filler in the form of covers, and our first piece of evidence of this trend comes in the form of “In the Midnight Hour.” I don’t know what they were thinking, but trying to outdo the Wilson Pickett original is a pretty tall order. Once they get past their attempt at placing their own stamp on the song via an extended rock introduction that foreshadows the style of “Time Has Come Today,” they wind up giving us a pretty straightforward and rather uninspired copy of the original version that goes on way, way too long. Side one ends with a love song featuring heavy gospel overtones, “So Tired.” The voices are lovely but the song drags and never reaches a true emotional peak. With a little more work and maybe a touch of piano, this one coulda been a contendah.

Flipping over the disc, we encounter “Uptown,” an early piece of funk spiced with a sharp horn section arranged by composer Gary Sherman. The song was written by Betty Mabry, model, singer and (briefly) the spouse of one Miles Davis, renowned for introducing Miles to Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, strewing the seeds that would lead to Bitches Brew. The song celebrates a jaunt up to Harlem for the purpose of letting the hair down and indulging in large quantities of soul food, giving off the feeling of going home after a long stretch on the road. It’s a solid, upbeat performance that helps get the album back on track.

We really get back in the groove with “Please Don’t Leave Me,” a George Chambers composition anchored in his active bass pattern and featuring an extended guitar counterpoint courtesy of Willie Chambers. Willie doesn’t limit himself to fills, playing right through the vocals as if they’re recording the instrumental version simultaneously. This is a place where the panning really works, with Willie nice and clear in the right channel while the brothers deliver their clean harmonies just slightly left of center (but not so far as to interfere with George’s engaging bass runs). One of the smoothest performances on the album, “Please Don’t Leave Me” would have been a nice segue to “Time Has Come Today” . . . but alas, it was not to be.

What we get instead is one of the worst songs ever conceived, the Burt Bacharach-Hal David stinker, “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” I don’t know who believed that this completely soulless song was a good fit for The Chambers Brothers, but Gary Sherman’s melodramatic arrangement makes it an even lousier fit, forcing the band to perform way outside of their comfort zone. What I loathe about this song is that it doesn’t make any fucking sense! Listen to the words, people!

  • “What the world needs now is love, sweet love/That’s the only thing that there’s just too little of”—Sure, if you’re a well-fed white person living in the first world. Because Americans are so ethnocentric, Burt and Hal may have been oblivious to cyclical famines in the Horn of Africa, but I don’t know how they could have missed that LBJ had been waging a War on Poverty “with the goal of eliminating hunger, illiteracy, and unemployment from American life.” Too little love? What about fucking food? Jobs? Education?
  • “Lord we don’t need another mountain/There are mountains and hillsides enough to climb/There are oceans and rivers enough to cross/Enough to last till the end of time.”—I had no idea that the lord was busy creating so many mountains in the 60’s that people had to ask her to stop, so I asked my dad exactly how many anti-mountain, anti-hillside, anti-ocean and anti-river movements popped up during this decade of protest. “Uh, let me think . . . yeah . . . that would be a grand total of zero.” So while Burt and Hal were intent on dissing Mother Nature, Angelenos were choking on smog, Middle Americans sat on the banks of their ample rivers watching the oil scum flow towards the Gulf of Mexico and the only people crazy enough to swim in the ocean were surfers with wetsuits. “Lord we don’t need any more air/water/ocean/mountain/hillside/pesticide pollution” would have been far more apropos.
  • “Lord, we don’t need another meadow/There are cornfields and wheat fields enough to grow.” Hey Burt! Hey Hal! What was your problem with nature? Or with feeding people? Jeez, talk about privilege! Tell us the truth—were you guys really saboteurs implanted in the music business to feed the American people a steady diet of right-wing propaganda cleverly disguised as apparently harmless pop songs? Insidious!
  • “There are sunbeams and moonbeams enough to shine.” Okay, now you’re just babbling. Yeah, yeah, the world needs love. Can’t agree more. Get the fuck off the stage.

I’ve heard the song defended as “one with nice sentiments.” Exactly. Sentiments are what you feel when you want to acknowledge something that would be nice but you really don’t care enough to actually make it happen. Fuck sentiments.

Maybe . . . maybe the strategy here was to place a really crappy song just before the album opus to make that opus seem even more impressive. If that was the strategy, it was a wasted strategy. “Time Has Come Today” is one of the great musical achievements of the era, and it didn’t need a lick of help from Burt, Hal or Jackie DeShannon.

The psychedelic period confirmed the commercial viability of long-form songs, and for the next several years, nearly everyone who was anyone shifted to longer songs in order to remain relevant to the burgeoning album-oriented rock crowd. Some attempts worked better than others. There is no reason on earth why “Cowgirl in the Sand” (a song I love) had to last ten minutes and seven seconds, but plenty of reason why “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” (a song I loathe) had to go seven plus. Long-form songs are great when you have a strong musical statement underpinning the composition; they suck when the length consists of little more than time-filling jams. “Light My Fire” is a good example of a song that works in either format, but once you’ve heard the uncut version, you feel tremendous disappointment when you don’t hear Ray Manzarek’s organ take  the lead after the second verse. That’s because The Doors had a strong theme to work with and they created a marvelous build in the instrumental section that completely holds your interest. I can actually “sing” the entire middle passage of “Light My Fire” because the secondary melodies they create extend the continuity of the main theme, intensifying its penetration into your memory banks.

“Time Has Come Today” takes a different path, using the longer form to create a meditation on the mystery of time itself. The original song was essentially the shorter version, an ode to the phenomenon of generational change. While the single flopped, co-writer Willie Chambers couldn’t let it go. What was nagging at him was the feeling that there was still an artistic vision that had yet to be realized:

“I was in my room one evening just lying there, and all of this psychedelic music was trying to happen,” he said. “But it didn’t make any sense. It had no rhythm, it had no meaning. It was just a bunch of noise, and they called it psychedelic music.

“I was lying there and that long extended version came into my head. I got excited. I jumped up, I ran to everybody and said, “I’ve got an idea. This is going to be our contribution to psychedelic music. When we get to that one chord right there we’ll just stay there. We’re going to scream. We’re going to have a clock.” (Songfacts)

The choice to remain on a single chord opened up endless possibilities for variation, and for several months they played the extended version on stage, experimenting and wowing crowds in the process. In August 1967 they entered the studio to put their masterwork on tape, technically and emotionally supported by producer David Rubinson and engineer Fred Catero, who were just as committed to the realization of Willie’s vision as the band members were. Incredible as it may seem in our world of multiple takes, tracks, patches and post-production effects, the performance you hear on the album was recorded with virtually no rehearsal in a single take. All the band members wore headphones during the recording, allowing the musicians and the guys in the booth to react and respond to spontaneous ideas and in-the-moment energy. David Rubinson recalled the experience:

As the effects started coming the through the band’s headphones, they reacted spontaneously with their own screams, shouts and laughs “and I reacted to what they did with the speed of the tape machine. Also, if I flicked the tape, it would go in and out of phase and make these weird sounds, and it just got crazier and crazier. But from having seen them live so much, I knew exactly when the crazy part was going to end—Brian was going to play this big drum fill and it was going to come back to ‘Now the time has come…’ so I was able to shut everything off exactly on cue. We grabbed lightning in the bottle—boom! When they finished, they were screaming and yelling and came running into the booth and we played it back and it felt so good.” Mix, March 3 2013

The echoing cowbells of the introduction lead us to the almost symphonic theme with its powerful skin-and-cymbals crashes and timeless guitar riff. The longer form placed Lester Chambers’ commanding, expressive vocal in the proper context: the verses now serve as a frame to the piece, expanding the message from a trite ode to the Generation Gap to one concerned with the inevitability of change. The music of the opening verses is driven by a rhythm best described as determined, expressing acceptance of change while also recognizing its power to displace those impacted by it:

Time has come today
Young hearts can go their way
Can’t put it off another day
I don’t care what others say
They say we don’t listen anyway
Time has come today
The rules have changed today
I have no place to stay
I’m thinking about the subway
My love has flown away
My tears have come and gone
Oh my Lord, I have to roam
I have no home
I have no home
Now the time has come (Time!)
There’s no place to run (Time!)
I might get burned up by the sun (Time!)
But I had my fun (Time!)
I’ve been loved and put aside (Time!)
I’ve been crushed by the tumbling tide (Time!)
And my soul has been psychedelicized (Time!)

Change has set people free, but has also placed them in an uncertain world, disconnected from old relationships and the comforts of a place called home. I believe they’re using “home” in both the physical sense (the dual phenomena of runaway teens and inveterate hitchhikers) and psychological sense (the loss of the familiar). The conflict between the freedom of living in the moment and being “crushed by the tumbling tide” of too much change coming too damned fast is brilliantly established. It is within that context that we move into the extended instrumental passage and take what is literally a journey through the unknown.

The rhythm gradually slows to something far below the normal heart rate over shouts of “Time!” until George Chambers starts moving the clock hands forward with an insistent bass rhythm, soon joined by the eerie sound of echoing cowbells gradually forcing the song into overdrive. The shouts of “Time!” turn into compressed echoes fading into something approaching white noise until we hear a lengthy modal guitar solo on the right channel, pounding and rolling drums on the left and the continual pressure of the echoing cowbell slightly off-center. Lightening the space with “A Little Drummer Boy” makes me smile, but the air soon dissolves into the darker modal pattern of the first part of the solo. The boys take it down a notch to allow the sounds of screams and insane laughter come to the fore over stronger bass punctuation and synthesizer-like effects. Eventually screams become more siren-like, the percussion more wooden and arrhythmic, and in deep background a persistent, pounding build of guitar, bass and drum is building up steam as the overall volume diminishes. Soon the build approaches full strength, and with an elongated shout from Lester and a final rolling attack from Brian Keenan, we come full circle to the repetition of the final verse. And man, do I feel psychedelicized! Fucking reborn! One more descent into slow time follows, then Lester cues the stirring finale with a grunt, and the Brothers stick the finish like a 10.0 gymnast.

Short Version:

Long Version:

What amazes me about the song is that it still sounds fresh and powerful today, even to a psychedelic skeptic like me. But what amazes me even more is how The Chambers Brothers have virtually disappeared from the conversation about great music from the era. People know “Time Has Come Today” and maybe “Love, Peace and Happiness,” but shit, there isn’t even a Wikipedia page devoted to this album. When I was considering albums for my Psychedelic Series, I eliminated The Time Has Come from consideration early on, in large part because it wasn’t psychedelic enough. The Time Has Come is what many albums of the era should have been—a cornucopia of different styles and sounds that reflected the period’s emphasis on expanding the limits of mind and morality.

I had a great time listening to The Time Has Come, and I hereby forgive my father for his sins, reminding him that if he tries it again, his daughter is a skilled practitioner of the martial arts who has no qualms whatsoever about attacking a man where it hurts the most.

Angélique Kidjo – Oremi – Classic Music Review

As I pondered how I might approach this review, I reflected on my deep feeling of admiration for Angélique Kidjo and wondered how I might communicate that respect in a way readers could understand. So I decided to come up with a most-admired list.

Since a true list of the people I most admire would include people neither famous nor rich, I won’t share the whole list with you. I find it difficult to admire public figures because you never know if you’re dealing with an image or a living, breathing human being, so I’m afraid my most-admired list is both short and unimpressive. I’m including people who have passed into the Great Beyond, so I guess I’m cheating. I’m also cheating by making this an international list, as the majority of these lists are country-specific. And because I refuse to divide my list by gender, an arbitrary, sexist division I find deeply offensive . . . I suppose I’m cheating there, too.

So here’s my list of my most admired people. I’m cheating again because I refuse to rank them from most-admired to least-most admired AND I couldn’t come up with the magic number of ten! Okay! I’ll admit it! I’m a fucking cheater! Let Robert Mueller try to extradite me! The extradition treaty between France and the United States specifically prohibits the extradition of French citizens! I’ll tie him up in the arcane procedures of the French court system so long he’ll say the hell with it and do something more productive, like putting Trump & Co. behind bars where they belong instead of picking on a helpless French refugee!

Uh, where was I? Oh yes, the list:

  • Bob Gibson
  • Françoise Hardy
  • Catherine Deneuve
  • Louis Armstrong
  • Angélique Kidjo
  • Joan Miró
  • John Mayall
  • Albert Camus
  • Joe Strummer

Since you don’t have time to do it and you probably wish I’d get the fuck on with the review, let me quickly extrapolate the qualities I considered when compiling this list. Clarity of purpose. Class. Performance. Commitment. Willingness to take risks and defy convention. Courage. Artistic integrity. Citizens of the world.

Angélique Kidjo embodies all those qualities. When I made the decision to escape the gun-ridden, increasingly dysfunctional world of the United States, I relied on her example to help me get through the transition. Of course, her escape from a communist dictatorship in Benin was much more challenging and dramatic than my intra-company transfer, and when she arrived in Paris she faced far more obstacles as an African woman than I did as a fair-skinned blonde. I also had the advantage of having visited France regularly for years, while her move to Paris was her first trip. She brought with her an idealized, romanticized version of France expressed in the tripartite model of liberté, égalité, fraternité, only to find that not all Parisians of the 20th century had shed themselves of the cold, dismissive racist attitude of superiority embodied in their colonist ancestors. She spent much of her first few years in France hungry, cold and ignored—but never defeated.

She conquered all obstacles with an indomitable will, a firm belief in the dignity and rights that should be afforded to all human beings regardless of color or gender and an exceptionally compelling voice. Her autobiography expresses her essence in its title: La voix est le miroir de l’me—“the voice is the mirror of the soul.” The title was dumbed down for American audiences to Spirit Rising, but her life story is compelling in any language. Angélique Kidjo is the ultimate example of how a person who began life with no power and no connections can blast through the walls of privilege and have a significant impact in the world—as a goodwill ambassador with UNICEF, as the recipient of the Ambassador of Conscience Award from Amnesty International, and, above all, though her endlessly compelling, exciting music. Drawing influence from multiple genres and from multiple cultures, Angélique Kidjo embodies human diversity while clearly demonstrating its virtues.

Oremi (“Friends”) was her seventh studio album (you’ll see it described as her fifth elsewhere, as some sites choose to ignore her pre-Island work). It is the first part of a thematic trilogy exploring the African roots of American music (and by “American” we don’t mean the exclusive use of that adjective by the citizens who are under the fantasy that they live in the greatest fucking country in the world, but all Americans, North, South and Central). Oremi focuses on the intersections between African and African-American music, so the general gestalt reflects values from funk and soul with a sprinkling of jazz. Since most American music outside of the indigenous variety is derived from or has been heavily influenced by African music, this allowed her a wide range of possibilities that delightfully fill all three albums: Oremi, Black Ivory Soul (South American emphasis, heavy on the Brazilian-African connection) and Oyaya! (Caribbean intersections)One of her qualifications to take on this daunting task is her multi-lingualism, capable of singing in Fon (one of the Beninese languages), French, English and Yorùbá, giving her the unique ability to integrate different forms of vocalization and diverse singing styles in a completely natural manner. On Oremi,  she applies that formidable talent to the styles of music she sang and danced to as a kid—the Afro-pop and world music stylings of Miriam Makeba as well as the imported American music of the late 60’s and early 70’s:  The Jackson Five, James Brown, The Temptations and . . . Jimi Hendrix.

After a suitably enthusiastic introduction that also establishes the basic groove largely through the human voice, the exploration of the African-American connection begins with a cover of the Hendrix classic from Electric Ladyland, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” The challenges facing any artist who covers a classic is how to make it their own while respecting the essence of the original. As Angélique recalls in Spirit Rising, this took some time:

From the moment I decided I would cover it, the song was always in my head. Since I couldn’t very well ask any musician to compete with Hendrix’s virtuosity, I had to find something to sing in place of the guitar riff. Until I figured out that piece, I wouldn’t record it. It took years of that song floating around in my head until one day I woke up and said, “Jean, here it is.” I replaced Jimi’s guitar riffs with Beninese chanting, and then we slowed down the tempo to make it more hypnotic and haunting.

Amon Min keledje
Vodoo vi amon
Amon min keledje
Vodoo amon

(You think I’m worthless
but you’re looking at
the real
Voodoo child)

Kidjo, Angelique; Wenrick, Rachel. Spirit Rising (Enhanced Edition): My Life, My Music (Kindle Locations 1853-1863). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Using the chant to establish the rhythm was an inspired choice, in sync with Angélique’s oft-repeated insistence that Beninese music is all about the rhythm. Even after the bass and drums relieve her of some of that responsibility, the chant still appears in the fills, reflecting another crucial aspect of Beninese music: the rhythm exists to inspire the dancing and the singing, all combining to create a completely holistic musical experience. You feel the urge to move as soon as you hear the first pass of the chant, and as the rhythm is reinforced on multiple levels, your movement requires no thought or effort—you simply have to wiggle, shake and move your feet.

But as you are moving through the first verse, you’re also treated to variations of Angélique Kidjo’s show-stopping voice thanks to superb engineering that layers her multi-faceted vocals as if she were a one-person quartet. While the chant continues in the fills, she sings melody of the first verse in a “soft soul” style, deep and breathy. She amplifies that style with a more powerful octave leap layered over the softer lead vocal on the first repetition of the opening lines. Another repetition of the chant leads us into the chorus, where we simultaneously hear Angélique vocalizing near the top of her register (ah-ha-ha) while harmonizing during the underlying rendition of the chorus. The layering of her voice is wonderful but the experience of having her voice come at you from all sides also adds to the magic and mystery of the moment. The deliberate arrangement is also intended to inspire Western listeners who consider voodoo is a form of evil sorcery to explore its origins as a natural religion:

Every time you talk about voodoo, the conversation goes to a dark place. With this song, I was trying to rehabilitate the reputation of Vodun, the rich animist culture I’d grown up with.

Kidjo, Angelique; Wenrick, Rachel. Spirit Rising (Enhanced Edition): My Life, My Music (Kindle Locations 1866-1867). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Angélique’s version of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” is one of those covers that surpassed the original—a totally engaging experience on every level of music appreciation.

The soft jazz stylings of “Never Know” allow Angélique to mingle her softer voice with a diverse group of background vocalists, with male and female African singers providing the spice and Cassandra Wilson providing the scat. All the vocalists seem to float over the background beat, spontaneously responding to the rhythms, creating a naturally soothing and engaging soundscape. As is true with many of her songs, “Never Know” was composed Angélique and her husband, Jean Hébrail (additional credit on this one goes to R. Nevil). The bilingual lyrics talk about the struggle between needs and wants, between inner peace and endless tension, the desire to flee from self-reflection and look outside for solutions:

What you want
Is not always what you need
Looking everywhere
Except right in front of me

Inner peace
Or private war
Lose the key
Just when you find the door

“Babalao” features Angélique’s more powerful voice, along with some fabulous male background singers who sing at the lowest reaches of the human voice over the strong, funky beat. As a deep-voice whore, I find the song intensely sexy, and my nearly-complete ignorance of African languages (except for a few basic phrases of Jula I learned in Côte d’Ivoire) allow me to ignore the storyline, a tribute to the therapeutic role of the Yoruba priest in many African and African-colonized societies. For me, “Babalao” is a dance song with an irresistible groove that could brighten the mood at any late night dance club.

My absolute number one favorite song on Oremi inspires a different kind of dance—one where I can imagine myself in a knee-length muslin skirt, twirling to the rhythm on an isolated beach on a bright, sunny day. Though I do not understand the lyrics, Angélique’s summary of their essence happens to reflect one of my most deeply-held values:

“Loloyé” is a love song that I wrote based on one of my father’s sayings. When my mother began to do theater in Benin, she was traveling alone with her group a lot. A woman came to see my father and said, “Really now, Franck, how can you let your wife go so far away by herself? Aren’t you afraid she’ll cheat on you?” My father told her, “Love should never be a prison. When you love someone, you’ve got to let them be free.”

Kidjo, Angelique; Wenrick, Rachel. Spirit Rising (Enhanced Edition): My Life, My Music (Kindle Locations 1886-1889). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Angélique sings this composition in her prettiest, clearest voice, and when that voice mingles the whispery timbre of the background vocalists and the gently-flowing 6/8 beat, the effect is sweet and gently liberating. As the song moves toward the conclusion, the voices come together to form a chorus and a stirring build. Towards the end of the build, though, we hear a child’s voice join in on the chorus (“Eé éi yo lolo yé, Ea bolo iyo lolo yé). This is Naïma, Angélique’s daughter, named after Coltrane’s famous tribute to his wife on Giant Steps:

After we wrote the song, we did a demo version, then we took a break to have lunch. All of the sudden we realized our four-year-old girl wasn’t with us. We called her name, but she didn’t answer. She was lying on the bed listening to the song with headphones on, so she hadn’t heard us calling her. She was looking at my lyrics, even though she couldn’t read yet. I said, “What are you doing? We’ve been looking for you all over the place.”

She said, “I really love this song, Mama. I have to sing it with you!” When we were recording in New York a few months later, our little daughter asks, “So, when do I get to sing the song?” She hadn’t forgotten. They had to give her a high stool to get her mouth near the microphone. But after they did, in a matter of seconds, she quickly changed into a diva. I’ll never forget it. She says to us, “Could you please lower the light a little? I can only sing when the light is dim.” You can hear her little voice, so sweet and tender, in the song’s final refrain.

Kidjo, Angelique; Wenrick, Rachel. Spirit Rising (Enhanced Edition): My Life, My Music (Kindle Locations 1897-1902). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Naima was too young to hit the notes perfectly, but the joy and genuine feeling in her voice is irresistibly charming.

We shift from sweet and enchanting to high heat with “Itche Koutche,” a high-powered funk number the couple co-wrote with Branford Marsalis, who also provides a smooth-and-steamy soprano sax solo that he nailed in fifteen minutes. Man, if your body doesn’t feel like dancing to this sucker, check your ancestry because you’re probably related to Mike Pence! Angélique powers through this piece with hearty growls and heartfelt exclamations that inspire you to shake your ass until it’s ready to fall off.

Oremi continues to provide contrast with the passionate plea for love and understanding called “Open Your Eyes.” Performed over a soft funk beat, Angélique shares the lead vocal with fellow Grammy nominee Kelly Price, both singers delivering stirring performances urging the human race to “remove the blinders, so we can see.” The cynic of today, looking at the growing divisiveness in the world would probably dismiss the song as one likely to fall on the deaf ears of the selfish and stupid, but to me it’s a reminder that even though respect for human rights should be obvious to anyone with a brain and soul, we still have a long way to go to build trust among the various communities that make up human civilization. Great song, even greater message: we can’t stop trying.

“Yaki, Yaki” begins with a deep male voice (sigh!) voicing short syllables of laughter, soon echoed in a brief snickering response from Angélique. According to the liner notes, the song’s message is “Never let anybody decide what’s good for you/Stand for yourself!” Damn straight, sister! This is a lesson that Angélique has taken to heart throughout her life, as recounted in various stories in Spirit Rising. The song itself is a choral delight, with spirited voices coming from all angles, merging together beautifully in the chorus.

“Give It Up” is a late-night funk piece encouraging self-help in the form of “You have to talk/express your pain/so I can help you.” It’s amazing how many of us roll up into a tiny ball when faced with problems, avoiding all the people in our lives who have experienced similar problems and are willing to help. The layered voices here are used with great effect, mirroring the insistence one needs to break through a frightened human being’s false shield of invulnerability. The title track, which follows, looks at the problem from the opposite end of the spectrum, as expressed in the explanatory liner notes: “I’m searching for a friend/That could be like a brother for me/Those kind of friends seem rare today.” Angélique isn’t being duplicitous, she’s being truthful: we have moods of hope and despair, times when we’re inspired to help and times when we just want to say fuck the human race. The expression of the need for friendship in “Oremi” is deeply powerful, a frank admission of the vulnerability that is exposed when we finally do reach out to someone. I think pairing these two songs illustrates Angélique’s empathetic understanding of a fundamental human problem: we can all use a friend but develop too many protections that get in the way of friendship.

The antidote is to not give up, as it is the sad fortune of the human race to make it as difficult as possible to achieve what we truly want. “Orubaba” provides that antidote with the message, “At night, you can dream, think and grow/Don’t be afraid of it.” The music here is upbeat and optimistic, and I believe this song’s message of daring to dream is targeted at the women in the listening audience, who too often give up their dreams in the face of an onslaught of societal expectations.

“No Worry” continues the emerging theme of battling despair with hope. As Angélique notes in Spirit Rising, the song is about “how you can overcome sorrow, loneliness, and despair. You need to accept them as a way of life because sorrow goes hand in hand with joy, just as life goes hand in hand with death. It is like this for all of us. You also can’t know love if you haven’t known sorrow.” Here the rhythm takes a back seat to a lovely acoustic guitar and sweet-tempered background and call-and-response vocals. One of the more purely beautiful songs on Oremi, “No Worry” provides a gentle lead-in to the closing piece, “We Are One,” a piece many people know through The Lion King II.

Many artists and philosophers have expressed the message of human unity but I don’t know of any who expresses it with the conviction of Angélique Kidjo. Using her excellent interpretive ability (she did not write the song) and exceptional command of vocal dynamics in a performance that covers the dynamic range from gently modest to passionate intensity, Angélique delivers the message of unity in a deeply inspiring fashion:

As you go through life you’ll see
There is so much that we don’t understand
And the only thing we know
Is things don’t always go the way we planned

But you’ll see every day
That we’ll never turn away
When it seems all your dreams have come undone
We will stand by your side
Filled with hope and filled with pride
We are more than we are, we are one

The vocal mix of Western pop stylings with African spontaneity is truly thrilling, reminding us again of the astonishing value of human diversity. “We Are One” is a moving tribute to human possibility, an optimistic, forward-looking anthem of deeply-stirring beauty.

Sigh. Here I am listening to this beautiful music by this courageous and talented woman whose remarkable life completely denies the validity of racism and sexism, still feeling the underlying tension that many people all over the world feel day-in and day-out because of the sick, racist, hateful and divisive energy emanating from the United States. Moving to France gave me some breathing space, but the USA is the perpetual elephant in the room, making life feel lousy for everyone on the planet, no matter where they live. I will say that listening to Oremi reminded me that there are still good people in the world who don’t want to destroy the planet, who don’t hate people for their differences and who have no desire to infect the human race with their sick, twisted take on life. There are still people working on the quest for greater human understanding. I’ll close this review with a passage from Spirit Rising where Angélique talks about her motivation for launching the trilogy, as it confirms two fundamental truths: that people have the power to act in the name of increased human cooperation; and that multiculturalism is the greatest source of learning and understanding known to humanity:

Africa is often regarded as being superfluous, a continent of savages—not part of the modern “enlightened world.” I’ve always wanted to recreate that lost link with the diaspora to prove that my continent has made immense contributions to contemporary culture. In the late nineties, as I began thinking about what I wanted my next recordings to be, I kept coming back to how the music of slaves transcends borders. I thought that if people understood this, they would understand Africa differently. After focusing the last album on the rhythms of my homeland, it seemed the natural next step was to trace the routes they’d taken with the slaves.

And so I began to think of my next album as a trilogy. I could collect music from each part of the Americas, North America, South America, and the Caribbean, and show people how the music all has the same African roots. I decided then that it was time to leave Paris. In America you have all those black and white, Native American, and Latino communities. People of all colors and backgrounds live there. I’d always imagined singing with Cuban singer Celia Cruz and American legend James Brown, and they symbolized the Americas in many ways. But I also wanted to meet other American artists, no matter what ethnicity they belonged to. I wanted to write music with them, to share with them the idea of a common humanity so that a musical dialogue with Africa could begin.

Kidjo, Angelique; Wenrick, Rachel. Spirit Rising (Enhanced Edition): My Life, My Music (Kindle Locations 1784-1787). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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