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Angelique Kidjo

Angélique Kidjo:
Solving the Crossover Problem

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 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" (Island).

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 money.

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 music."

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.

"Come and do your homework," her mother would say.
"I can't. I'm listening to music," young Angélique replied

Imitating 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 Kidjo.

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."

"I'll have 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."

Oremi 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.

She 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 English music?

"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.'"

Angelique Kidjo

Angelique Kidjo: Oremi
Island Records (Universal Distribution)

Angelique Kidjo

Angelique Kidjo: Fifa
Mango (Universal Distribution)

Angelique Kidjo: Keep On Moving: The Best Of... * To be released on 15 May 2001
Columbia (Sony Distribution)

External Related links: Angélique Kidjo's Website

Angélique 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

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