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World Music Features

Angelique Kidjo

By Wes Orshoski
Published September 21, 2007

Angelique Kidjo brings a massive presence—spontaneous, wide-eyed grins, fireball hips and an utterly goliath-sized voice—to the stage every time she performs. But standing in her Brooklyn apartment, dwarfed by both her Parisian husband Jean Hebrail and their 13-year-old daughter Naima, the African singer seems to shrink, in both stature and demeanor. For the moment, anyhow.

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Angelique Kidjo brings a massive presence—spontaneous, wide-eyed grins, fireball hips and an utterly goliath-sized voice—to the stage every time she performs. But standing in her Brooklyn apartment, dwarfed by both her Parisian husband Jean Hebrail and their 13-year-old daughter Naima, the African singer seems to shrink, in both stature and demeanor. For the moment, anyhow.

It’s Halloween night 2006, and the sidewalks are lined with little girls whose glittery fairy wings flap with every step. Inside Kidjo’s home, Naima is the charming center of attention. Rushing to get her costume in order in time to trick or treat with her friends, she’s darting back and forth from the kitchen to her bedroom, having her mom cut tags and worrying Jean about when she’s leaving, how she’s getting there and who she’s gonna be with. Trying to chop vegetables for dinner, get her daughter ready, and cater to a visiting journalist, Angelique just grins, as Jean and Naima’s conversation switches from English to French and back again.

Any father would be concerned: Barely a teenager, Naima is a striking beauty sure to leave a trail of broken hearts. From her tiara, knee-high socks and Jamaica t-shirt, I’m guessing she’s attempting to be a dancehall queen. But she doesn’t look quite trashy enough. “I wanted to be Jamaican, and I wanted to be a princess, so I decided to be both,” she says, her matter-of-fact tone ending discussion on the topic.

Jean, who busies himself with myriad creative and business tasks for Angelique, is a bit befuddled, between his daughter’s plans, entertaining yours truly, answering emails on his laptop and the stream of axe murderers, Power Rangers and Star Wars storm troopers ringing the doorbell. “Maybe we should go downstairs,” he says. At the bottom of a staircase dotted with framed magazine covers saluting Angelique is a small studio, decorated with black and white African tapestries and housing another Mac and a few instruments. Together for two decades, Angelique and Jean are not only husband and wife, but also co-writers and full-blown musical partners, and this is his lair, where he’s excited to play nearly fi nished tracks from Kidjo’s new album, Djin Djin, produced by Bowie/T. Rex mastermind Tony Visconti.

After delving into the music of Brazil, Cuba and the greater Caribbean on prior releases, (see sidebar) Djin Djin is in many respects a musical journey home to Benin, the West African nation where Kidjo was born nearly 47 years ago. Using a series of percussion recordings she and Jean captured there in the mid ’90s as a temporary foundation, they built a group of songs that, at long last, tip their hat to Kidjo’s home country—at least at their core. Says Kidjo, “This time around, I didn’t want Benin just to be a part of me, but I wanted my country to be rhythmically present.”

But as the album gestates between late 2006 and its May Day 2007 release date, that plan will change, and Djin Djin, like many of her previous efforts, will become a hybrid of influences and sounds. Though built on a bedrock of West African rhythms—some of which pull further west to Senegal, thanks to a host of players, and then even further west to the States—the finished disc includes a country song with weeping pedal steel supplied by Dylan alumnus Larry Campbell, and a fiery cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” featuring rising English soul stirrer Joss Stone.

Also lending a vocal here, or a guitar or horn part there, are Peter Gabriel, Alicia Keys, Josh Groban, Ziggy Marley, Carlos Santana, Amadou & Mariam and Branford Marsalis. If Kidjo fused Western African music with the more classical influenced music of Brazil (combining,