Solving the Crossover Problem
By Mike Zwerin
4 May 2001 - Angélique Kidjo was on what she called a "mission"
to "rehabilitate" the world's image of voodoo. Voodoo comes
from Benin, where she was born and raised. Slave ships left from the
coast near her village: "Voodoo has a bad reputation. Why? Because
the colonialists found that the voodoo religion brings our people
together. They didn't want that."
When she heard Jimi
Hendrix sing "Voodoo Child," she said to herself: "To be
big and black like that in London in the 60s and to sing about Voodoo
Child was courageous." She covered it on her album "Oremi"
If a European rock band adds percussion, and/or an
oud or a finger piano, they are considered to be going back to the
roots. But when African musicians put a synthesizer and funk licks into
the mix, purists say they are crossing-over into pop music for the
The crossover problem just seems to get worse and
worse. Crossover can be defined as stylistic foul play. It is being said
that Kidjo's music has crossed over from the world music category. Into
exactly what, however, she is not sure: "I'm an African person
bringing my culture to the Western world. I am using technology. And
rhythm and blues. And jazz. I make it available for you by combining
your tools with mine. But then they say it's not pure."
Her albums sell something like
100,000 copies worldwide. Island Records promotes her as a rhythm and
blues act. She has been called the "African funk diva of world
Think about it. Who are the people who decide
what names to give all of those categories? Who thought up "African
funk diva?" for instance? Somebody secure in the knowledge of
exactly what everything really is; and that it can all be conveniently
divided up. People who consider themselves to be "purists"
make Kidjo "laugh. I used to argue about this sort of stuff but
it's too stupid. Nature provides variety. Nature is not pure, for
Godsakes. You cannot go against nature. There is nothing pure' in
this whole world."
Her father had a photography studio.
Her mother was a theater producer and a choreographer. Angélique
started dancing at the age of six. After her brother formed a rock band,
her father bought equipment for them and they rehearsed at home.
and do your homework," her mother would say.
I'm listening to music," young Angélique replied
a succession of spent-energy pants, Angélique Kidjo's tongue was
hanging out. In the air-conditioned comfort of her record company's
conference room, she described the crush and the heat and the fatigue
she felt while surrounded by a crowd of admirers in the airport when she
came to Benin for one of her rare visits home.
The people at
the airport all wanted her to notice them. They wanted to touch her. A
small west African country, Benin does not boast many international
stars. There are girls in West Africa who dress and cut their hair like
her; a prize is awarded in Benin for the best imitation of Angelique
It was after one of her long tours (she has even toured
Australia). She just wanted a quiet visit with her family like anybody
else. Unfortunately that is no longer possible. She makes the best of
it. A small, energetic woman, always on the move, she went dancing,
wrote songs, talked to the media, hung out with her girlfriends from
school."You're crazy," one friend told her. "You come
home to rest and then you never stop."
plenty of time to rest when I die."
She writes her songs
by singing them into a tape recorder and her French husband, who plays
the bass, programs them into a computer: "Thank God he's here, and
thank God for computers." She's always asking him to work faster:
"This is your revenge for slavery," he said. "I'm
your slave now."
"What do I know about computers?
Computers are for white people."
"If this is slavery,"
he smiled: "I'm in heaven."
She described her
husband as "damn white. He can't even take a tan. People ask me how
can you marry such a white man?' I say he's just a man. I don't
see any color.'" Red is the only color she recognizes, everybody
has red blood: "Do you think it would be better if we all looked
the same? Just one color everywhere would be so boring."
was the first album of a trilogy-in-progress geared to the black
diaspora. It spoke to African Americans. So that she could say: "I
know what I'm doing, writing for you guys," she worked on most of
Oremi in America. Branford Marsalis plays on it.
switched effortlessly between English and French (she sings in French,
English, Yoruba and Fon, her native tongue): "Je suis une aventurière."
Kidjo left Benin for Paris in 1983 to study law. Then she began to sing
and record music that would be classified as "Afro-funk" and "Afro-
jazz fusion." Purists criticized her music: "It isn't African
any more." they said. She shook her head. Disbelieving, she
repeated: "Afro-funk!' What is that supposed to mean? What do
you call English music? Does anybody ask the Rolling Stones if they play
"I don't know what to call the music I'm
making. I just put everything I've got together. Bingo. If it's a tabla,
put it there. A violin? It goes here. I don't want to think about it.
What are all these categories about, anyway? Why don't they just file
all the records in the same bin in one big category from A to Z? They
could call it Music.'"
Island Records (Universal Distribution)
Mango (Universal Distribution)
Kidjo: Keep On Moving: The Best Of... * To be released on 15 May
Columbia (Sony Distribution)
External Related links:
Angélique Kidjo's Website
Kidjo's 2001 North American Tour Schedule
Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock
critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years.
He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Mike
Zwerin is the author of several books on jazz and the jazz and world
music editor of Culturekiosque.com.
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