A diminutive woman from a small country, Angélique Kidjo has had a big impact in the world. Born in Benin, Kidjo had initially intended to be a civil rights attorney, but realized the cat’s cradle of law would be more a source of frustration than satisfaction.
After moving to Paris, Kidjo made an international splash with her 1991 Logozo, which featured the sax playing of Branford Marsalis. With a galvanizing series of performances at the Africa Fete concert series, Kidjo was firmly established in the rising field of Afropop.
Kidjo’s unabashed rock/funk take on African music sparked criticism among purists, but she countered, of course, that her music was African since she was African. Despite the carping, Kidjo continued to garner larger and larger audiences throughout the 1990s and continued to insinuate herself into the mainstream, teaming with rock stars such as Peter Gabriel and even landing a song on the soundtrack of Ace Ventura.
With the retrenchment in the music industry, Kidjo found herself as neither fish nor fowl and without a record contract for some time.
Although her 1990s albums were a mixed bag, her most recent trilogy of albums has found her hitting a sweet spot of mixing tradition and modern music. The concept was to create a trilogy of album celebrating the music of three of the great powers of the African diaspora: the U.S., Brazil and Cuba.
While the American-influenced Oremi had some great tunes, its relation to U.S. music was, at times, obscure. The formula gelled perfectly for Black Ivory Soul, where she blossomed among Brazilian musicians, resulting in her most consistently satisfying album to date. She then topped that with Oyaya!, which touched down in Cuba, for the most part, with some visits to other Caribbean genres.
Kidjo herself has noted that she has been able to do more good as a musician than she could have done as a lawyer. She is a UNICEF Ambassador and performs at benefit concerts regularly, including recent ones for AIDS awareness, malaria, Hurricane Katrina victims and Live 8.
Given the kaleidoscopic array of music coming from Africa these days, the early-career criticism of Kidjo seems almost quaint. Nevertheless, Kidjo’s indefatigable energy and raw star power has made her perhaps one of the very few African artists whose fans are not necessarily devotees to world music.
Black Ivory Soul (Sony)