Music Interviews
4:04 pm
Sat January 25, 2014

Angélique Kidjo Shares The 'Shiver' Of Hearing A Beautiful Voice

Originally published on Sat January 25, 2014 6:53 pm

Grammy-winning artist Angélique Kidjo is one of the biggest names in African music, and at 53, she's still moving at the speed of light. Her latest album, Eve, is out Tuesday and includes collaborations with some fellow stars: Kronos Quartet, the Luxembourg Philharmonic and Dr. John.

Eve also showcases the voices of women from Kidjo's home country of Benin, and the opening track, "M'baamba," features women she met on a trip to Kenya as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador. She says that in one village in particular, the singing that greeted her on arrival was so impressive that she ran over and started singing along.

"I mean, God knows what they were saying! I don't speak the language, I don't understand the language; I just jumped in," Kidjo says. "After that, I had a vision. The song that I had been writing, before, was already about women's issues. So I was like, 'This is it. I want the world to hear these beautiful voices and feel the same shiver that I felt.' "

Kidjo spoke with All Things Considered guest host Kelly McEvers about the making of Eve and about her new memoir, Spirit Rising, released earlier this month. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: That's the voice of Angelique Kidjo, the Grammy Award-winning artist from Benin. Her voice is larger than life, and so is her personality. When she came here to NPR West, she filled our hallways with her big laugh. She says she's been like that since she was a little girl.

ANGELIQUE KIDJO: I mean, from the moment I wake up in the morning, I'd be running so much my mom is like, can you calm down for a moment? I'm like, what for? Do you have something for me? No, not yet. Boom. I'm already gone. And she's just like, oh, my God.

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: At 53 years old, Angelique is still moving at the speed of light. Her 11th studio album, "Eve," is out on Tuesday. On it, she collaborates with some big names - the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra, Kronos Quartet, Dr. John. She also showcases the voices of African women. Her first song, "M'baamba," features women she met on a trip to Kenya as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.

KIDJO: I arrive in the second village. And as I walking in, I have those women standing with their beautiful gown. The voice come from out of this world. My heart start tingling, my - shiver everywhere, and I was just like - and then I joined the singing without even thinking. It was just - those are situation where you feel like you're in another world. And while I was experiencing that, my husband was smart enough to see me reacting to it, took the iPhone and filmed me singing with the ladies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "M'BAAMBA")

KIDJO: Only God knows what they're saying. I don't speak that language. I don't understand the language. I just jump in. And after that, then I had a vision, because the song that I had been writing before was already about women issues. So I'm like, this it. I want the world to hear this beautiful voice and feel the same shiver that I felt.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "M'BAAMBA")

MCEVERS: You know, you say that you've done a lot of talking about African women. I mean, you're - like you said, you're a UNICEF goodwill ambassador. But with this album, you say you wanted to let the women kind of speak for themselves. How did that work? How did you go out and make these field recordings with women in your home country, Benin? What did you say to them?

KIDJO: I mean, the first experience I have of the field recording was in 1995 where I just assumed that because I grew up in the city, there's going to electricity outlet everywhere. So I learned hardly. And I have to plug all my equipment on the battery of the car. So this time around, I went there with a boombox and a recorder, a digital recorder.

So I brought a lot of batteries to be - I mean, I can open a store of battery right now as we speak. So I went first to Porto-Novo. There, I met two groups of women. And when I stopped playing the music, the reaction for every single women group was the look they gave me, like, you kidding us?

MCEVERS: So you were playing them songs - your own songs that you had written.

KIDJO: My songs. They look at me, and I say, OK, don't panic. I'll do it with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KIDJO: Because they were so eager to give me songs, to be with me, that they don't want to mess it up. So would I start singing with them, and then step-by-step, the music call. You cannot just stay without reacting to it. You start singing and singing and singing.

MCEVERS: So all you had to do is play just a little bit of your own music...

KIDJO: And that's it.

MCEVERS: ...and then turn it off and then they would just follow through.

KIDJO: And they just go.

MCEVERS: Wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: You have won a Grammy. You received classical training in Paris. I think people might be surprised to hear that you don't read music.

KIDJO: Yeah, I don't.

MCEVERS: How do you pull that off?

KIDJO: You know, I have a very great memory. I mean, when I was in the jazz school, I was going to a class of reading music. And after three months, the teacher told me, uh-uh. She called me aside and said come here. See, I saw you. You memorize everything. You know the whole book by heart. If you stay here, you're going to kill your memory and that's going to be hard for you. Get out of here.

I'm like, I was so - it was a boring class. I'm like, why, I'm like, (singing) do-re, do-re-mi (unintelligible) but what the hell is this, right? This is just bad (unintelligible) in my life. And when he said that, I said, God bless you. Hooray. I'm out of here. I ran fast. I'm like, I'm never going to come back. I was so glad I'm not doing it.

MCEVERS: I'm speaking with Angelique Kidjo. Her new album is called "Eve." And, in addition to the new album, you've also released a memoir earlier this month. It's called "Spirit Rising." You go back to your childhood in the West African country of Benin and to your first time performing on stage. Can you tell us about that?

KIDJO: Oh, wow. That was the freaking experience ever. That's the first time I experience the expression all your bone is shaking in your body and you can hear going (makes sound). But I'm like, hey, this is kind of cool. I have the light in front of me. I can hardly see anyone in the public. It was all dark back there. The only one spotlight in the whole theater, and it was on me. So I'm like nobody's seeing me. I can goof around, I can sing my song and get the hell out of here.

MCEVERS: What was the song you sang?

KIDJO: (Singing in foreign language)

MCEVERS: Thank you.

KIDJO: You're welcome.

MCEVERS: It's great. How old were you when you sang it?

KIDJO: Six.

MCEVERS: Six. Your book talks about, too, how you started as this really naive girl in the beginning, you know? You were from a family of musicians, but you were from a, you know, a small village. And now, you're this huge public figure on the world stage, you know, sort of representing your continent. How did you make that - how did that transition happen?

KIDJO: That happened two moment in my life. That first one, I didn't even know the impact it has before the second one arrived. When I first saw the cover of Jimi Hendrix on an album with his big afro and my brother was trying to wear the afro wig too. He said: I want to look like him, and I want to play like him and sound like him. I said, by the way, I wanted to ask you: what is this language he's singing? I understand nothing. He look African, but it's not an African language I can recognize.

He said: No, he's not African. He's African-American. I look at him, I'm like, yeah, right. I'm 9 and I'm stupid, you think. How can you be African and American at the same time? He say: He's a slave descendant. I say: What is a slave? What is a descendant? What's going on? So I went to ask my grandmother. She start telling me the story of slavery. I'm like, ah, you're losing your mind. I didn't believe it. And then when I turned 15, for the first time, I heard about apartheid when I saw Winnie Mandela on the Nigerian TV that we're smuggling(ph) to...

MCEVERS: Apartheid.

KIDJO: Apartheid. It's just like your whole world collapsed, because you're living in a family, in a household where you are taught by your parents that a human being is not a matter of color because we all one human family. And then suddenly, both of them - my 9 years old story and apartheid story just collide. It's just like explosion in my life.

And I get so angry. And then I went into my room, and I wrote for the first time what we can call today engage a political song in the album "Aye" where the song is called "Azan Nan Kpe" which means the day will come.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AZAN NAN KPE")

KIDJO: The first draft of that song was so hurtful I can't even start to remember it. When I start singing it, my father said to me: No, it's not going to happen here. Not under this roof. I told you violence and hate will not have any space in this house. Music has always been the last resource for me to dig down deep down in myself beyond anger, beyond pain to find that place that is always there of light, peace and love, to bring it out. Because if you let hate and violence into your heart and into your soul, there's no way you come back out of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AZAN NAN KPE")

MCEVERS: How do you, as an artist, you know, counter all the negative images we see out of Africa? You know, I mean, on one hand, you're supposed to be this, you know, international spokesperson about the challenges that some Africans face; but then on the other hand, your music is about victory and joy and music and dance. Does that kind of mean you're pulled in two different directions sometimes?

KIDJO: The negative image of Africa is the story that have been told by other people. We African have never told our stories. And the present today with the technology is showing a different story, a different vision from Africa. For me, as an African, I feel comfortable in my body enough and in the culture that I hold because my culture have impacted and inspired all the music of the world.

Whatever is out there, you take back, you find Africa in it. You can bring more to your own culture by being open. I have always been open to every different culture. That's what make me rich. That's what make me the artist that I am, because I don't - I really don't care. I don't care the skin color you have. I don't care the language you speak. When it comes to music, I am at the service of the song and also the beat.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: That's Angelique Kidjo. Her new album is called "Eve." That comes out on Tuesday. You can hear the full album at nprmusic.org. Her memoir is "Spirit Rising." That's out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: And for Saturday, with the volume turned up, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. Follow us on Twitter: @nprwatc. Tomorrow, I'll speak with David Crosby, who's back with his first solo album in more than 20 years. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.