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It's Angélique Kidjo's birthday, and her country's too
Angelique Kidjo, a Beninese singer, at Carnegie Hall in New York, March 4, 2020. Kidjo is probably Africa’s most widely respected international vocalist, and one of its hungriest synthesizers of culture and ideas. Brad Ogbonna/The New York Times.

by Giovanni Russonello

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Beninese vocalist Angélique Kidjo was born into one of the most hopeful moments of the 20th century. Just two weeks after her birth in 1960 — in Ouidah, Dahomey — her country finally gained independence from France. It was one of 17 African nations to declare independence that year.

As she grew up, breathing the air of new freedom, Kidjo came to see that by ridding itself of colonialism, Africa had not shut itself off from the rest of the world. African people were already spread across the globe, and so were elements of their music and culture. Listening to black music from all over on her family’s stereo, she felt as if she was receiving a report from afar.

“Music that comes from Africa and that went somewhere, it eventually comes back to Africa,” she said recently in a phone interview. “It’s that back-and-forth that we tend to wipe out.”

Kidjo is probably Africa’s most widely respected international vocalist, and one of its hungriest synthesizers of culture and ideas. (She’s also a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador.) Her most recent LP, a tribute to Celia Cruz, won the Grammy for best world music album. It explores the close ties between Cuba and West Africa, throwing in contemporary influences that come from neither place; the young British jazz band Sons of Kemet backs her up on some tracks. Before that, “Remain in Light,” from 2018, celebrated the art rock of Talking Heads — while sending a subtle message about where a lot of that music had come from in the first place.

Kidjo and Benin will both turn 60 later this year, and on Saturday she had planned to ring in the milestone at Carnegie Hall with “Daughter of Independence,” a program of mostly African songs from the 1960s, with help from a few all-star confidantes, including Senegalese singer Baaba Maal and American singer-guitarist Brittany Howard. The show was canceled Thursday afternoon over concerns about the coronavirus, but not before Kidjo had spoken to The New York Times.

She discussed her musical and cultural upbringing; hearing Beninese shadings in music across the world; and why she wanted to present a concert of African music that included musicians from the United States, too. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: Was it your idea to do a show tying together the independence movements across Africa with your own life?

A: It was. It has always been something really interesting for me to be born French, and then two weeks after, my identity and my nationality changes. I became Dahomeyan. Not many people have that kind of experience in the world.

As I was growing up, I would hear so much music, and my mom and my dad would tell me the stories of this song and that song. I especially remember the song “Independence Cha Cha,” which was written in Congo. That is really the anthem of the Year of Independence, and it was celebrated all over Africa. Not one African person doesn’t know that song. Because it’s part of our identity.

Q: Tell us about the musicians you invited to Carnegie Hall.

A: I think it’s important to invite the new generation of African musicians together with the older people, who know the history. So I invited Baba Maal. I have [guitarist] Lionel Loueke. And I have Yemi Alade, [a singer] from Nigeria, representing the younger generation. I just did a duet with Yemi Alade and the video is out on one of my old songs that she wanted to cover. It’s called “Shekere.”

Through growing up and knowing more about independence movements and learning and reading a lot about the civil rights movement, I realized that those movements of independence in Africa also inspired the civil rights movement in this country. So I’m trying to tie those stories together, because when you go to school in Africa you don’t learn much about slavery or the civil rights movement, and I think that music can help us also have a conversation about it and see the connectivity in our history. So I also invited Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes.

Q: It seems as if you’ve always tried to make that global feedback loop manifest in your music.

A: Music has allowed me, from an early age, to understand that the world does not stop at the doorstep of my house. And that’s something that I’m really grateful to my parents for. They brought it to me while I was at a very early age, a sponge, just absorbing all kinds of music — not questioning if the person that was playing was African or not African, or white or yellow or red. I never thought about a human being as a color, because music has allowed me to see people in voice-color only.

And the African story needs to be told by Africans, because our story has been told by others. I believe that’s what it will take in order for us to live together — to be able to understand that the world we live in is not just in one color, it’s multiple colors. Our life looks simple, but it’s complex. But telling each other’s stories makes things simpler. It brings us closer together.

Q: West African music, specifically music from Benin, has been hugely influential in America. I wonder if you’re ever listening to something and say, “Oh, that reminds me of home” — even if the performers, as Americans, might not even know that they’re doing it.

A: New Orleans is an interesting example of that. The music of Mardi Gras, we have it in Benin too. We have it every year in December where music is out, people have costumes on, people dance. And the Beninese influence is in many different rhythms. Because Benin is a small country, yes, but we have so many different types of rhythm. And it’s everywhere! When I was doing Celia Cruz, that is Beninese. That clave in Cuba — and that you find in funk music — it comes from Benin.

Q: You talk about growing up as Benin’s independence was basically growing, alongside you. Do you have memories of how the country felt in those early years?

A: What I remember is the sense of freedom and the joy that goes with it. You had parties all the time. As a child I didn’t understand — the sense of joy, of love, it’s amazing. That fearlessness, knowing that the world is yours. And people were moving forward in the struggle. You had so many intellectuals in Benin. Benin was called the Latin Quarter of Africa; so many doctors. It was absolutely amazing.

Q: Did your parents encourage your development as a singer?

A: They were not professional musicians, but they loved art and sports. In the house, music was at the center. I was born with asthma and my mom and dad said, it doesn’t matter how hard it’s going to be, you’re going to run, you’re going to sing, you’re going to work out. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to have the career that I have.

And my mom had passion for theater, so she started a theater group in the ’60s and until today as we speak, she’s the woman that had the largest theater group that ever existed in West Africa. My mom had a store, selling fabric, and she invested all the money in the theater. People tried to tell my father to stop her from doing it. But my father said, “Why should I? If my wife is happy doing theater, what’s wrong with that? She’s not doing anything wrong. And let me tell you, if my wife is happy I’m the happiest man on the planet.”

My father always used to say, “If your dream is not big enough, why talk about it?”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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