Angélique Kidjo, standing up for women
New album, Eve and an autobiography
Angélique Kidjo is one of the world’s great voices. The artist with Beninese roots has rubbed shoulders with some of the greats, like Aretha Franklin, Desmond Tutu, Alicia Key, and Obama at his inauguration as President. Her travels for UNICEF, supporting women, inspired her new album, Eve, recorded in Africa and New York with a bunch of unknowns and an eclectic guest list: Asa, Dr. John, Kronos Quartet, and even a philharmonic orchestra. At the same time, she has released her autobiography, Spirit rising. To talk about her current work, she invited us into her Brooklyn kitchen, filled with the aroma of crab curry and caramel cake.
RFI Musique: Why have you just written your autobiography when your career is far from over?
Angélique Kidjo: I don’t really think of this book as an autobiography. It’s mainly a book about the life of a little girl who was born in a poor country, started singing at 6 years old, then went to live in France and the United States, where she filled up a prestigious theatre like Carnegie Hall. My message is to tell people what’s possible when you have a passion and the right support. Music has introduced me to so many incredible people and experiences that I wanted to share them. There’s no need to wait any longer to tell everyone, is there?
Your book reveals how important the kitchen is in your life. That’s where you were when you heard that you were number 1 in the American hit parade, Billboard, it’s where you chat to your Mum, and you even include some of your recipes at the end of the book.
Yes, like in my music, I blend influences and combine all my different tastes in the kitchen. A recipe can be cooked in a thousand ways and I’d like people to make my recipes their own, like my music. An old man once said to me that he enjoyed listening to my number Shango while skateboarding. So tracks take on their own lives! When I cook, I sing, and I often get ideas that I record on my telephone. I have to be careful because sometimes I get carried away and burn myself!
What dish would you recommend eating while listening to your new album, Eve?
Moyo, a typical Beninese dish. It’s manioc dough served with tomato and onion sauce that you eat with fish, chicken or tofu. It’s not rich people’s food, but it’s convivial, because you need a lot of people to cut up the onions and grind the flour. Everyone joins in making the dish, rather like this record that I put together with a lot of people, men and women from round the world.
How did you get the idea for this album, recorded in Kenya, Benin and the United States with your friends Lionel Loueke, Asa, Dr. John, the Beninese trio Teriba and Gangbe Brass Band?
On my travels as a UNICEF ambassador, I’ve met some fantastic women, like female refugees in Darfour, who told me the horrors they’ve lived through. It was a shock, I felt like I was going to leave my body! But they had an important request to make: not to consider them as victims any more. I was touched by their beauty, their elegance and resilience, because they wanted to move on. I was keen to pay tribute to the women I’ve met in Africa and elsewhere because us women, we are what holds society together.
You even asked some unknown women that you met in villages in Benin and Kenya to come and sing with you. How did they react?
We had a lot of laughs together. To start with, they couldn’t believe it. They thought they’d never manage, but everything is possible! When I was welcomed to a village in Kenya by women singing, it was so beautiful that my husband recorded it on his telephone and it became one of my songs, M'Baamba.
The album is called Eve, is that a biblical or spiritual reference?
It is a spiritual album, because women in Africa are intensely spiritual. They say that Eve tempted Adam, but that’s a story made up by men, no one ever heard Eve’s version! When you tell someone else’s life, you have a power over that person. Our story, the story of Africans, was told by the colonisers and the slave drivers.
Your mother, Yvonne, sang the track Bana with you on this album.
She sings a song from her childhood that she taught me. My mother has a very beautiful voice that has altered from shouting at her ten children, crying, and breathing in the Cotonou dust. She has hugely inspired me in life and in my career. She was the one who told me: if you aren’t ready to be spiritually naked, don’t get up on stage. I’m proud to have recorded with her. I would have loved to do a duet with my father, but unfortunately he died too soon.
The number Eva tells of your friendship with the singer Asa. Was this disc put together with the people you’re closest to?
Yes, Asa is a good friend. She’s been there when I’ve needed her. Not much is said about the female friendships that start up in a kitchen or a school playground. This song is about the girlfriend who’s there for you when times are bad, who picks you up when you’re down. It’s very universal.
The album includes some classic string work. After Ravel’s Boléro*, are you still weaving bridges between Africa and classical music?
Bach and other classical composers owe much to African traditions, it doesn’t seem so far apart to me, but singing with a philharmonic orchestra is quite an experience! Almost two years ago, a conductor from Luxembourg came to see me after a concert in Montreux to ask if I would like to play with the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra. I had never considered such a thing before. We decided to record and I invited the percussion players from the Gangbe Brass Band in Cotonou, with Christian McBride on bass. And then I asked the Americans from the Kronos Quartet to play on another track, Ebile.
Do you have any other classical and contemporary music projects in store?
Yes I do. I’ve just been working with the composer Philipp Glass, whom I met fifteen years ago, just after the release of my album Orem in 1998. I wrote the poems in Yoruba and he set them to music using a phonetic transcription and based on Yoruba divinity stories. Voodoo is not a religion of the invisible, not at all; voodoo teaches us from a very early age to respect nature and its four elements. In other words, what makes man… and woman!
Angélique Kidjo Eve (SLG) 2014 (Album due for release in France next spring)
Angélique Kidjo Spirit Rising, my life, my music (with Rachel Wenrick)(Harper design) 2014
* Angélique Kidjo’s version of Ravel’s Boléro was recorded with the title Lonlon
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