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 multilingualism, 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 ’60s and early ’70s: 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 challenge 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
(You think I’m worthless
but you’re looking at
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 move 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 the 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 by 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, and the desire to flee from self-reflection and look outside for solutions:
What you want
Is not always what you need
Except right in front of me
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) allows 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 with an 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.