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About Angelique Kidjo
The explosive growth in the popularity of world music during the past several decades has broadened the boundaries of our world, reminding listeners of the vast cultural wealth and diversity in this wired age. The music of African-born songstress Angï¿½lique Kidjo offers another perspective: that the world is also much smaller than we think, and that no matter how far flung its peoples may be, subtle lines of interconnection span the globe, uniting its people. This is reflected with her latest release, Oyaya!(which is the word for “joy” in Yoruba, Kidjo’s native language.)
Angelique Kidjo, whose work has garnered her three Grammy nominations, has cross-pollinated the West African traditions of her childhood in Benin with elements of American R&B, funk and jazz, as well as influences from Europe and Latin America. Throughout her career, she has collaborated with a diverse group of international artists like Santana and Gilberto Gil. Her duet with Dave Matthews on the song Iwoya,, which appeared on her last record Black Ivory Soul, was a critical success that helped diversify her fan base. The third part in a trilogy that previously explored African roots in music from the United States (Oremi) and Brazil (Black Ivory Soul), Oyaya! fuses African and French lyrics to music that draws upon musical traditions of the Caribbean Diaspora. With her husband, Jean Hebrail, Kidjo penned 13 original songs in a variety of indigenous Caribbean styles, including salsa, calypso, meringue and ska. Kidjo sings the numbers in English, French and African languages Yoruba and Fon.
Oyaya! was produced by Steve Berlin, best known for his work with Los Lobos and Los Super Seven, and the String Cheese Incident. Recording primarily in Los Angeles, Berlin and co-producer/arranger Alberto Salas assembled a group of talented Latin and African musicians. The album is dedicated to the memory of the late writer and Billboard magazine editor-in-chief Timothy White, Kidjo’s dear friend and a steadfast supporter of her career.
The birth of Oyaya! can be traced back to Kidjo’s own travels and performances in a number of Caribbean nation, but it was her experiences in Cuba that had the most profound effect on the album’s concept and spirit.
“I went to Cuba two years ago and met some old musicians there,” Kidjo says. “It gave me strength and inspiration, because you realize that music is really the thread of the memory of humankind. You saw old people that, once they picked up their instruments and started singing, were transformed into something else. You have the example of the Buena Vista Social Club, but actually going to Cuba, you understand why the Buena Vista Social Club worked: It’s not something fake. It’s their life.”
Music’s ability to cross borders, transcend boundaries and unite people is one of the key inspirations behind Oyaya! The search for joy is the subject of the album’s opening track, “Seyin Djro,” which takes the form of a boisterous Puerto Rican bomba. According to Kidjo, the song title translates as “the wish of my soul” in Mina, a language native to the African nations of Togo and Ghana. “My soul is searching for joy and laughter,” Kidjo explains of the song.
The scintillating calypso style native to Trinidad supplies the catchy beat of “Congoleo,” sung in Fon. The track offers a perfect example of Kidjo’s trademark fusion of ancient and modern sounds, pairing a contemporary organ with the balafon, a traditional xylophone-like instrument from Guinea. “The balafon is the first ‘piano’ I ever heard, before I ever heard a piano from the western world,” says Kidjo. She points out that “Congoleo” moves to rhythms originally brought to the Caribbean by African slaves, but forbidden by their masters. “They played them in their convents and ceremoniesï¿½ in Haiti during the voodoo ceremonies, in Cuba for Santeria, in Brazil for candomble,” she says, “From those African rhythms, you get all the music that people are dancing to today!”
In “Bala Bala,” based on the Cuban cha-cha-cha rhythm, Kidjo reflects on need to accept life as it is. “‘Bala Bala’ means ‘the essence of things’ in Fon,” she explains. “The lines on our handsï¿½can we change them? No. We are born with them, and that’s the way it is. There are certain things in this lifetime of ours that we just have to accept, and we shouldn’t be judgmental.”
Acceptance of life’s ups and downs is the subject of “Oulala,” set to a Dominican meringue beat and featuring steel-drum superstar, Andy Narrell. Sung in Fon, the song tells the story of Aminata, a girl who smiles in the face of adversity. “I tried in that song to explain the capacity of the human being to rebound, despite whatever happens. Aminata can fall, and she will stand up, smiling.
The beautiful “N’Yin Wan Nou We,” sung in Fon, is based on the sultry Cuban bolero. “It means ‘I love you,'” Kidjo explains, “but if you want to translate it literally, it means, ‘I love your smell.’ It makes sense: If you don’t like somebody’s smell, how are you going to spend your life with them?” she adds with a laugh.
“Conga Habanera,” a sizzling Cuban salsa tune sung in Fon, percolates to the beat of the bata drums, which were brought to the Caribbean by slaves from Nigeria. “Those drums are important for the Yoruba, and for the Santeria religion,” Kidjo says. “You see bata drums in Cuba, in Brazil and other places, but the way they play the rhythm is different. What I’m saying is, ‘Let me tell you about the tales, the rhythms, that my ancestors brought to Cuba.'”
“Le Monde Comme un Bï¿½bï¿½” (recorded by renowned French producer Renaud Letang) is set to the much-traveled mazurka rhythm, which developed on the slave routes between England, France, Haiti and Martinique. Kidjo performs the dreamy ballad as a duet with the legendary French-Caribbean Jazz singer Henri Salvador, who was born in French Guiana in 1917. “Henri came into the studio to do the song, and it was an amazing experience,” Kidjo says admiringly. “There was a love story between him and the microphone; when he put his voice on that microphone, I had goose bumps!”
Kidjo was moved to write “Mutoto Kwanza,” a Jamaican ska tune song in Mina, while serving as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. “That song was inspired by the children of Tanzania,” Kidjo explains. “HIV and AIDS are devastating their villages. They have nothing except for the help that UNICEF is bringing to their villages. And their motto was ‘Mutoto kwanza, oye, oye,’ which means, ‘Children first.’
The sonorous sounds of the kora, a many-stringed Malian lute, sing out in “Adje Dada,” sung in Mina, the language of Togo. “It means ‘lying,'” Kidjo says simply. “What I’m saying here is that you are the only one that knows if you are telling a lie or the truthï¿½knowing that lies never give you joy and peace.”
Kidjo dedicated “Djovamin Yi,” another Cuban salsa tune sung in Mina, to the late queen of salsa, Celia Cruz. “We played together in Paris,” Kidjo recalls, “and every time she would see me afterward, she would say, ‘My black sister!’ I’ve known Celia ever since Africa, because she came to Benin with Johnny Pacheco when I was growing up.
Jacob Desvarieux of the renowned Guadeloupian zouk band Kassav lends his voice and guitar to “Dje Dje L’Aye,” a Haitian kompa sung in both Yoruba and Fon. In “Macumba,” sung in Fon,, Kidjo explores the subtleties of Changui rhythm from Guantanamo.
Kidjo closes Oyaya! with a timely message in “Bissimilai,” composed in the Puerto Rican plena form and sung in Fon. “I don’t believe in anyone who tells me, ‘You’ve got to kill yourself in the name of God,'” Kidjo adamantly states. “Every time you take a life, you’re taking God’s life.” The track features a chorus of Muslim women, which Kidjo recorded on a trip home to Benin. “The traditional music in that village is very close to gospel music,” she says.
Ultimately, that theme of interconnection and universalism is the glue that binds the disparate threads of Oyaya! “There’s only own humankindï¿½I believe that to my gut,” Kidjo confirms. “The reason I believe this so strongly is because I was raised in Africa, and if you are raised in nature, you understand and respect every life. That’s something that some people try to keep away from one another, because once you understand that, there’s no need to hate anybody anymore. There’s no need to say ‘they’ and ‘we’…we are all one.”
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