At some point in the early 1990s, an American magazine published a cartoon in which a microphone-toting Paul Simon bumps into a DAT-carrying David Byrne in the wilds of some jungle. ”Byrne, I presume,“ the caption read. Simon with his South African backup band on Graceland and Byrne with his Brazilian fetishes and bushes of ghosts were parodied for a familiar white-male offense: They had taken their palefaced, postcolonial selves abroad and borrowed music from a tribal heritage, the same way their forebears pillaged tea, chocolate and opium.
If, in these masala days of DJs and trip-hop, the charge seems limiting for all sorts of reasons, its flipside was even stricter: When the singer and songwriter Angelique Kidjo emerged in the late ‘80s from the tiny African country of Benin — with her force-of-nature belt and a solid ear for a pop hook — even fond critics carped about her ”diluting“ the purity of the African sound with European instruments plugged into power strips. ”At times her music suffered from too much outside influence,“ wrote New York Times critic Jon Pareles of Kidjo’s live performance in 1993. Compared to the unadulterated Senegalese griot Baaba Maal on the same stage, Pareles wrote, Kidjo was all ”funk with exotic lyrics.“ Somehow, while Simon revived his own faltering career by infusing it with Ladysmith Black Mambazo‘s rhythms, Kidjo was supposed to have pretended electric guitars had never come to Africa.
She never had much patience for such talk. ”There is a kind of cultural racism going on where people think that Africans have to make a certain kind of music,“ she said back then. When I ask her to reflect on the hoary controversy over the phone from where she now lives, in Brooklyn, I can hear her exhale wearily. ”You know what? There are still people who talk like that, and there will always be people who talk like that. But the people saying I dilute music have never listened to the traditional music that comes from my country enough to understand the history behind the music. It’s easy to have a controversy going on, because it gives you something to write about. But what it demands from you is that you be an honest journalist. That you ask yourself, ‘Is this really true?’“
More to the point, does it really matter? The people who wanted a pure African sound out of Kidjo got it fleetingly then and get even less of it now; not only did she not stop hybridizing, she built her world around it, sorting musical styles into a sort of post-postcolonial Venn diagram: In the spaces where the sets converge, she finds the sound of the black diaspora. Even on her 1996 Fifa, an album dedicated to the music and musicians of Benin, Carlos Santana has a guitar solo. Kidjo‘s last record, Oremi, was a tribute to the American descendants of Africans who gave rise to everything from blues to hip-hop; the record’s first cut is a cover of Jimi Hendrix‘s ”Voodoo Child“; later on the record, Ahmir Thompson of the Roots plays drums. Her latest, Black Ivory Soul, starts with a samba she wrote called ”Bahia,“ inspired by the music of the Brazilian state, whose capital, Salvador, is the only city outside of Africa that’s 80 percent black. On the very next song, Dave Matthews sings a line or two from a Yoruban parable about how youth and wisdom aren‘t necessarily incompatible. In English, French, Yoruba and Fon, Kidjo sings songs she wrote with Brazilian percussionist Carlinhos Brown, guitarist Vinicius Cantuaria and her French husband and co-producer, Jean Hebrail. Produced by Bill Laswell, it’s the first album she‘s recorded live in the studio. It ends with a heartbreakingly faithful rendition of Serge Gainsbourg’s ”Ces Petits Reins,“ acknowledging, generously, that influence flows in all directions. Together, the first two records of her major-label career — the first on Island (Universal), the second on Columbia — form two-thirds of a trilogy that will finish with a tribute to the music of Haiti and New Orleans.
”Slavery, it completely transformed the face of modern music,“ says Kidjo, who brings a multinational band with her to the Roxy on Tuesday. ”And so since the day I first heard of slavery as a child, I had this trilogy in mind. I believe that music is the language, the only language, that we all speak, and I wanted to use it to bring people together, to communicate, to heal, to build a bridge. This is what we have to do now, right? The world is changing, and if we don‘t do something about it, if we don’t learn to communicate with each other, we are in trouble. This is what music is for, and this is what people in Brazil and Africa have done with it.
“In Bahia, just like in Benin, every Friday they play music until Sunday. Not for money — they‘re just using music to get together, to talk, to be together. This music is for me the continuation of the work my ancestors were doing.” She felt eerily at home in the Brazilian state when she first visited it in 1999: “People were always telling me, ’If you go to Bahia it will blow your mind, it‘s just like your country.’ I said, ‘Oh sure, right, you can give me that crap, okay, whatever.’ But damn! When I land in Bahia, I was like, ‘Oh, I can’t believe it!‘ From the first breath I take it was like being at home — the smell of the air, the same red clay, the same species, the same trees, the same food. Even the name of the food was the same. Where I come from in Benin, there is a huge community of Portuguese, which included my mother — her maiden name was Fernando. I grew up listening to the traditional music of Benin, bouniyan, so here I am, growing up with that, and then as an adult traveling to Bahia, I find in Bahia the same music I knew all my life in Benin. And now I’m asking myself, ‘Who brought what back where? Which one came first?’ And I have to say, I don‘t know.”
Last summer, Kidjo played a one-hour set at the Hollywood Bowl sandwiched between Ex-Centric Sound System and Baaba Maal. It was African Funk Night, but once more, Kidjo failed to serve up anything thoroughly African — except, perhaps, in her style and delivery: Dressed in a flowing white pantsuit and platform shoes, she danced into the audience on an elevated ramp, and in the tradition of the Malinese griot, she wound into her patter the deep sense of social responsibility that grounds her very deliberate career. “I’ve just moved to New York,” she told the well-to-do inhabitants of box seats and low-rent bleachers alike, “and I was shocked to see people living in the street. I am from a very poor country, Benin, a very small country. But we take care of our poor.” For a moment after she finished her speech, the only sound in the Bowl came from the late summer night‘s breeze.
Kidjo left Ouidah for Paris in 1983 in part because Benin’s new communist government required that artists of all sorts serve the official government agenda, but she has never given politics a particularly wide berth. “My music has a context,” she says, “because music is for me a communication tool. The role of the musician in my country is to tell the story of the people, to remember the evolution of how we came to be who we are, what we are, and tell us what we can do to improve ourselves. Music tells us what we need to know in order to call ourselves human beings. We cannot forget that. We cannot forget to listen to that. And one of those things we know is that we have to make sure people have what they need to live in dignity. Certainly your country is rich enough,” she chides, “that everyone should have a shelter.”
In Benin, Angelique Kidjo is impossibly famous; a celebrity of such magnitude she considers it “a lot of stress” to come home. Every year, young women dress up in white and cut their hair short to compete in the Angelique Kidjo look-alike contest. When she dyed her hair blond, as she did recently, the streets of Ouidah were full of young women with close-cropped platinum hairdos. “When I dye it green, they‘re all going to go green,” Kidjo laughs. “That’s gonna be cool, right? Yeah. That‘s gonna be cool.” For all their admiration, though, there are still the Beninese patriots who ask why Kidjo sings in English, and French, and hires all those people from other places to play with her. Why doesn’t she play their music? Kidjo‘s answer: This is their music.
“It’s exciting to see how you have no power at all on the musical memory of the people,” says Kidjo, “to understand finally that you cannot decide what music is going to be. Music follows nothing but the deep feelings and desires of human beings. You cannot control it.”