The language of the world
Angelique Kidjo melds native Benin traditions with soul, Latin
Published September 2005
By Jim Trageser
If she'd not become the internationally popular singer she is, Angelique Kidjo likely could have found work as a translator at the U.N.
While a recent interview was conducted, at the request of your loyal correspondent, in English, Kidjo is fluent in eight languages a product of the multi-ethnic household she grew up in in West Africa's Benin. Ask her what they spoke in her house, and be prepared to write quickly:
"Many different ones," she laughed. "French. Yoruba. My mother's language, Lingala. My mother was from the Republic of Congo. English sometimes because the mother of my mother is from Nigeria. Chinese for a year, my brother had a trainer from China and he didn't speak French or Yoruba!"
Beyond the melting pot that was their house, Kidjo said her love of languages was further nurtured by her family's love of music.
"My father used to play us songs from his youth, like Harry Belafonte and a lot of Spanish music, too," she said. And with older brothers in the house, she said she was also exposed to "The Beatles, the Stones, Motown, Philly sound, rock 'n' roll of that time."
She said it was largely American and British popular music that helped her improve her English.
"I would be singing everything I heard phonetically, even if it didn't make sense. English, Spanish, Portuguese. Cameroonian language."
Given this background, it's little wonder that from the beginning of her recording career, Kidjo has performed music that is a mix of the world's musics. Ask her about Western critics who complain she's abandoning Benin's rich traditional heritage, and there's a touch of anger in the response.
"In my country, if you hear something you like, you incorporate it into the traditional music. If the music doesn't evolve, it means we're not evolving. It becomes a museum piece.
"Our music is our breathing. It speaks to our culture.
"When I was growing up, I was listening to traditional music next to James Brown next to Jimi Hendrix next to the Beatles next to the Rolling Stones next to Indian.
"So if you categorize traditional music and put it in a box, you will kill it. The traditional musicians would refuse it, too."
Her most recent album, "Oyaya!", is a celebration of Caribbean and Latin American music and to prepare for it, Kidjo visited Cuba.
Having grown up under Benin's previous left-wing dictatorship, the Castro regime felt all too familiar, Kidjo said. "When I arrived, I felt exactly the same way I felt in Benin under the Communist regime: Being spied on. I hated it."
Kidjo said it may be the brutality of the current Cuban government that has made Cuba such a fertile launching pad of so much great music.
"Music lets the people keep their freedom somehow," she explained. "While they are playing their music, they are free. That's what makes me like Havana. When it comes to music, you see faces light up, the people feel free and you feel their love of their country. That's one thing no regime can take away.
"That's what music meant really deeply in Cuba."
While in Cuba, Kidjo said she had an opportunity to attend a Santeria Mass. Santeria is the Cuban cousin of Haiti's voodoo, a similar melding of Catholicism and West African animism.
"The funny thing is you grow up singing those songs, and then thousands of miles away you hear people singing it in a language they don't understand," Kidjo said of her Santeria experience.
It was Benin's former Communist government that first drove Kidjo out into the world. She fled the country in 1980, moving to Paris. Since then, the formerly Communist government has held free and open elections, and today Benin is a rare example of peaceful transition to democracy in Africa.
While she returns frequently to her hometown of Quidah, Kidjo and her husband are raising their daughter in Brooklyn. Still, with the rise of Internet cafes in Benin's larger towns and cities, Kidjo said she and her family are able to stay in close contact and that her daughter is even learning some Yoruba when they go home.
As for the inability of critics to categorize her music as Western pop or African, Kidjo said such concepts are rapidly being bypassed by history.
"The era of categorizing things in record stores is disappearing, because people are moving around and the Internet lets them listen to anything. Before, you had to go through the process of a record company, you had to have A&R, and you had to put it in a category world music, rock and roll, etc.
"All these tools today are becoming obsolete because of the Internet and because we live in a global world, like it or not!
"It is the world's music."