Born: July 14, 1960 Primary Instrument: Vocalist
A powerful singer and tireless performer, Angelique Kidjo has been one of the most successful performers to emerge on world music stages in the 1990s and 2000s. Her music not only draws from African traditions but also interprets the ways those traditions developed after Africans were seized and taken to the New World. Thus elements of American soul, funk, rap, and jazz, Brazilian samba, Jamaican reggae, and Cuban and Puerto Rican salsa all show up on her recordings, along with various African styles
Kidjo is a native of Benin, on Africa's Atlantic coast adjacent to Nigeria; the first of her eight languages was Fon. She was born in the coastal city of Ouidah on July 14, 1960, to government postal official Franck Kidjo (an enthusiastic photographer and banjo player on the side) and his choreographer wife Yvonne. Kidjo was lucky enough to have parents who backed her performing ambitions--female popular vocalists are rare in many African countries. Among her eight siblings were several brothers who started a band when she was young, inspired by James Brown and other American stars who flooded Benin's airwaves. Kidjo was musically eclectic from the start, listening avidly to juju sounds from neighboring Nigeria, to pop music from other African countries, to Cuban salsa music. But, her firsr love was the traditional music which she grew up with.
Kidjo made her stage debut at age six with her mother's dance troupe, and in the late 1970s she formed a band of her own and recorded an album that featured a cover version of a song by another of Kidjo's idols, South African singer Miriam Makeba. In 1980, however, Kidjo found her musical activities restricted by a New Leftist regime that took power in Benin and tried to force her to record political anthems. Kidjo fled to Paris in 1983 with the intent of studying law there and becoming a human rights lawyer. But she realized that she was not cut out for political life.
Her partner in this enterprise was French bassist and composer Jean Hebrail, whom Kidjo married and with whom she has written much of her music; the pair has a daughter, Naima Laura, born in 1993. For several years Kidjo played in a French African jazz band called Pili Pili, led by pianist Jasper van t'Hof, but in 1989 she struck out on her own, forming a band and releasing the album “Parakou.” That debut had its intended effect: it attracted the attention of the biggest name in world music at the time, Chris Blackwell of Britain's Island Records. He signed Kidjo to the label's Mango subdivision, and her second album, “Logozo,” was released in 1991.
The year 1994 saw Kidjo create a bona fide international hit; her “Aye” album received strong reviews and generated Agolo, a dance-floor favorite throughout Africa and Europe. She followed that album up with “Fifa,” which grew from a set of tape recordings Kidjo and her husband made of traditional instrumentalists during a tour of small towns in Benin. The resulting disc mixed such sounds as cow horns, traditional flutes, and bamboo percussion with modern African pop, American gospel, and rap. The album, an ambitious effort that used roughly 200 musicians, featured a guest guitar solo from one of Kidjo's many admirers in the U.S. music industry, Carlos Santana.
Kidjo's next three albums formed parts of a trilogy exploring African-derived music styles of the Western Hemisphere. “Oremi,” released in 1998 on the Island label, was the U.S. chapter in the trilogy, mixing traditional music from Benin with black American styles and featuring a Kidjo cover of Jimi Hendrix's Voodoo Child. A hiatus in Kidjo's recording career followed, during which she was signed to the Columbia label and began dividing her time between Paris and Brooklyn, New York.
In 2002 Kidjo returned to her African diaspora trilogy with “Black Ivory Soul,” an album that focused on the rhythms of the Brazilian state of Bahia, musically linked to Benin by centuries of the slave trade. Kidjo toured with a constantly changing complement of top-notch international musicians as she released new music.
The final installment of her trilogy, 2004's “Oyaya!,” featured music from Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, and other parts of the Caribbean basin. Kidjo updated rumbas, salsa pieces, and other Caribbean dance music with a variety of African instruments and sounds that closed the transatlantic circle.
With her 2007 release of “Djin Djin,” Angelique Kidjo returns to the soul of Benin, and for the first time, shares it with a cast of all-star guests, in a marriage of cultures that has significance far beyond music alone. Inspired by the traditions and culture of Kidjo’s native Benin in West Africa, the title of the album refers to the sound of the bell that greets the beginning of a new day for Africa. For all the differences in the music of our time, the river of Africa flows through it all.
For Angelique; “Music brings us together, but after the music is over, you go back to your home, to your neighborhood, knowing that you can make a difference. You have to be proud of who you are. Whether you were born in America or Africa, you can celebrate life.”