Angélique Kidjo

The Queen's Wisdom

Angélique Kidjo is putting on a four-day »Reflektor« festival in the Elbphilharmonie – and shows why she is justly seen as the new »Mama Africa«.

Long before the current debate about diversity and inclusion arrived in the world of music, Angélique Kidjo was already living these values. »Music integrates, it gives you the space to be what you want to be,« says the singer, who is without a doubt not only one of the truly cosmopolitan voices of Africa, but of the entire planet. And she's convinced that »if every political system was structured around the principles of music, the world would be a better place«. Born in 1960 in the port of Ouidah in the West African state of Benin, Kidjo has been absorbing cultural influences from a wide variety of styles and periods since early childhood. Her mother was a choreographer and theatre director, while her father was an absolute music freak who collected records from all over the world and taught his daughter to play the banjo. Ms Kidjo was already appearing on stage at the age of six and had a band of her own when she was eleven, playing local traditional music as well as soul and funk. After she turned 20, she decided to leave Benin: the communist government of the time was not to her taste as a freethinker.
 

A born fighter

Paris was her new destination: the young woman took acting and singing lessons there, and enrolled as a law student – a clear indication of her convictions, with human rights remaining an important concern of hers. In the early world-music scene, Kidjo appeared with keyboarder Jasper van’t Hof's fusion band Pili Pili: this was the first time her resolute and  charismatic voice was heard in an international setting. From the early nineties on, no one interested in African music could ignore her any more: her cheeky appearances wearing a zebra costume, her traditionally-inspired dance performances, songs like »Agolo« from her debut album »Ayé« (1994), with which Kidjo made the  Afro pop of the time funky, sung in the languages Fon and Yoruba.

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In the last 25 years, Angélique Kidjo has long since transformed herself from a bold Amazonian newcomer to a grande dame who forges stylistic links on her albums and in concert between Africa, Cuba and Brazil, who sings for presidents and religious leaders and gives keen support to pan-African cooperation between other female artists. It doesn't really play a role any more whether she is based in Benin, Paris or New York – Kidjo is a true cosmopolitan. So it comes as no surprise that has has inherited the honorary title »Mama Africa« from her legendary South African colleague Miriam Makeba (1932–2008).

Angélique Kidjo is now putting on a four-day »Reflektor« festival at the Elbphilharmonie – and she uses this carte blanche to present a programme with a strong female emphasis. She sometimes appears on stage herself, but most of the singers and musicians are colleagues of different generations. Two completely new projects she has created herself form the core of the programme, and it's not surprising that one of these is devoted to one of the strongest women in history.

Trailer: Angélique Kidjo talks about the »Reflektor« festival she is curating at the Elbphilharmonie

Royal summit meeting

»Nowadays people are always talking about equal rights for men and women. But this was already achieved three thousand years ago in the wisdom of the Queen of Sheba,« says Angélique Kidjo in interview. She sees the Biblical meeting between the ruler of Sheba, who is believed to have originated from Yemen or Ethopia, with Solomon, King of the Israelites, as a symbol of an exchange between rational people. In the riddles that the Queen sets Solomon, Kidjo finds an illustration of the core of humanity: »Do you simply exercise power, or do you speak to others and let them inspire you to take your power to a higher level? That's what this meeting is about.«

The idea that she adopt the role of the »Queen of Sheba« came from the Franco-Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf, who is a great fan of Kidjo's. The singer recalls: »We were wondering what we could do together. We definitely wanted the relationship between the Middle East and Africa to play a role – and that immediately made me think of the Queen of Sheba legend. I chose seven of the many riddles that she set Solomon, and wrote texts about them in Yoruba. Ibrahim composed the music, with his trumpet obviously representing the voice of Solomon«. In the musical depiction of this tête-à-tête from the tenth century B.C., Kidjo's powerful voice enters into a breathtaking dialogue with the trumpet's quarter-tone loops and improvisations. Maalouf (who has a second »Reflektor« evening together with the guitarist François Delporte) brings all his virtues into play here: the power of rock music, the playfulness of jazz, and the spatiality and emotionality of an orchestra.

Kidjo & Maalouf with an extract from their programme »Queen of Sheba«

The subjects of the riddles are timeless: »It's all about how we use our tongues, about whether we tell the truth or lies – words have the power to kill or to heal.« One riddle refers to a wondrous bird,  another to a mysterious liquid and a third one to a fabric with strange properties. Kidjo and Maalouf weave all these riddles into the fiery speeches of the queen before an alien throne, with her passion, her sorrow and her proud femininity. A powerful meeting between two equals that highlights equality as an age-old subject, calls for understanding between different religions – and is also an impressive visual experience when Kidjo comes on stage in fantastic costumes.
 

Songs of love

In her second new project, Kidjo tackles a duo with a classical pianist for the first time – and in an entirely surprising way: In »Les Mots d’Amour« she and Alexandre Tharaud focus on the classical French chanson. »After a concert he once admitted to me that he is very fond of this music,«Kidjo says. »I was really surprised, and felt that we should make something out of that.« So they started to exchange mountains of texts that might be suitable for a concert together. The choice went to chansons by Édith Piaf, Claude Nougaro, Serge Gainsbourg, Pierre Perret, Josephine Baker and Barbara, but the exact selection is still open to change, and will probably include a setting of Bach in Yoruba.

Angélique Kidjo & Alexandre Tharaud: »La Foule« by Edith Piaf

Needless to say, the subject of »Les Mots d’Amour« is exactly what the title promises. But Kidjo is keen to make it clear that these are not simply pretty little love songs: they highlight the dark side of love as well. »Vulnerability is a strength,« she says. »If you always try to avoid getting hurt, you won't really live. Without pain there is no life and no love; without setbacks there can be no success. But the message is clear: life goes on!«
 

Many guests, one idol

Alongside these two projects of her own, Angélique Kidjo has put a whole variety of guest concerts on her »Reflektor« programme, and invited almost exclusively women to appear in them. She explains this with the difficult situation of women in the music business: »It's still not easy for a woman to assert herself, especially if she comes from Africa. We only have a minimal presence in the Western world. So I seize every opportunity to help young African women get ahead. There is no platform where we can exist if we don't make it for ourselves.«

The first person to take up the interests of African women was without a doubt Miriam Makeba. Angélique Kidjo spent a lot of time with Makeba and learnt from her, and she regularly refers to her as a role model for her own music – something she has in common with Laura Kabasomi Kakoma, known as Somi, who is 20 years her junior. The singer from New York with Rwandan and Ugandan roots specialises in concept albums whose musical narratives tell of the kinship between African and Afro-American culture.

In her new programme »Zenzile«, Somi continues this dialogue between the continents, and pays her respects to her role model Miriam Makeba at the same time. »I did my best to understand Miriam's voice and its different tones,« the singer says. »So I immersed myself in the history and culture of South Africa. I didn't want to sound like her, I wanted to create a dialogue between her voice and mine. In the process, I asked myself what her songs would sound like today, performed in the sound of the 21st century?«

Somi: »Pata Pata«

In the end, Somi selected 17 of Makeba's pieces with which she has a deep  and intuitive connection. Her »reimagining« of these songs is highly varied: the piece »Milele« is given a contemporary Afropop feeling, while she turns »Malaika« and »Ring Bell« into jazz ballads with clever harmonies. As for Makeba's theme tune »Pata Pata«, Somi has added darker colouring, stripping it of all the dance-song clichés. »Transforming the songs into jazz numbers in particular is also a metaphor for the freedom that Makeba was always fighting for.«
 

Polyglot and polychrome

Until recently, Dobet Gnahoré was one of the young West African artists based in Europe. But she recently moved back from Paris to her native Côte d'Ivoire, where she develop the repertoire for her new programme »Couleurs«. »I took a great deal of inspiration from my roots and from the country's different languages. ›Couleur‹ refers to the visible and audible colours, including the colours of emotions«. Gnahoré sings in French and English, as well as in her people's own language, Bété, and in Dida, Djoula, Adjoukrou and Koulango – which is just a small selection from the huge range of 72 local idioms.

Dobet Gnahoré sings »Lève-toi« from her album »Couleur«

The music, however, is not limited to the Côte d'Ivoire, but ranges all over the continent, from South African influences to a desert-blues groove from the Sahara: the 41-year-old singer, who trained in music, dance and acting at the famous Ivorian artists' village of Ki-Yi Mbock, has always cultivated a pan-African philosophy. Gnahoré's song lyrics concentrate on femininity in all its different forms: she celebrates the future of clever women and motherhood, encouraging girls to strive for self-empowerment. »I am undergoing a phase of intense growth,« she admits. »I am in a process of emancipation and self-assertion, of rediscovering my sexuality.«
 

A wealth of different facets

The singer Oum El Ghaït Benessahraoui, known simply as Oum, is one of the bravest voices in Morocco where support for modern Arab women is concerned. She combines various cultural facets of her home country: »The music of Marrakesh flowed through my ears and into my body,« Oum recalls her teenage years, »I didn't have a choice.« The music of the Berbers, Arab-Andalusian sounds and North African Châabi pop are found in her songs alongside influences from Western soul and electronica; short-necked Arab lutes are heard alongside the electric guitar and the trumpet.

OUM: »Taragalte« (Soul Of Morocco)

Oum sings in Derija, the local version of Arabic; but she has also adopted the culture of the Sahrauis, the West Saharan nomad tribe that her father belongs to. Oum says that »the Sahraui have an outstanding feeling for improvisation and poetry, and they show women incredible respect«. Oum wants to act as a role model for women in her native land: »For those who raise their voices and those who remain silent; for those who wear a veil and those who don't.  Representing all these different facets and accepting them as riches, embodying all this and still feeling comfortable in one's own skin – that's what Moroccan culture means to me.«
 

Cosmopolitan archipelago

Cesaria Evora became internationally synonymous with the music of the Cape Verdean Islands. But since the barefoot diva died in 2011, the music of this archipelago has undergone rejuvenation and become more cosmopolitan – and the singer Lura is one of its leading figures. She has rediscovered African rhythms like Batuque, Ferrinho and Funaná, which she combines with soul influences. Melodies and texts by major writers, such as the poet and minister of culture Mario Lúcio, featuring everyday island stories form part of her repertoire, as do political subjects like emigration; she enriches all this in her compositions with anecdotes that have their own sly humour.

Lura: »Bla Bla Bla«

Adventurous and cosmopolitan

Angélique Kidjo rounds off her selection of strong African women with a singer who is still as good as unknown in Germany, even though Shungudzo can actually look back on a thoroughly adventurous, cosmopolitan biography: she was born on Hawaii, but has Zimbabwean nationality with ancestors on several continents. Shungudzo stands for a global pop that is timeless and boundless. The ingredients of her sound design include indie folk, retro soul and avant pop, while her poems and video clips are bursting with imagination untouched by any dictates of fashion. Shungudzo believes in the healing power of dance and in political change brought about by music and texts. »She possesses immense creative vision, and takes songs in a completely new direction,« Kidjo says about her young kindred spirit, who made a guest appearance on her last album, »Mother Nature«.

Shungudzo: »It's a good day (to fight the system)«

PS: One man after all

The griot can be defined as a custodian of history and a storyteller, as a praising poet but also a critical voice, as the heart of West African society. Ablayé Cissoko from Senegal embodies this thousand-year-old role in its modern form. His chosen instrument is still the kora, the combination of lute and harp with up to 21 strings. But while deeply cultivating the griot tradition, he breaks new ground, working for example with Persian classical musicians or with the American-German trumpeter Volker Goetze. Angélique Kidjo has invited him to give a solo recital at her »Reflektor«, and justifies her choice in just a few words: »I simply wanted to present a fine musician. As my father once said, talent doesn't have a gender!«

Text: Stefan Franzen, Stand: 7.12.2022
English translation: Clive Williams

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