Angelique Kidjo heard it all
[Meyer] knew my country really well. His wife at the time was from Haiti. The choreographer, Kettly Noël, was also from Haiti. We had a long discussion about our gods and goddesses, the slave trade, the gods who went to the other side. Ayida-Weddo is the same in Haiti, and because most of the slaves in Haiti came from my country, the two cultures came together to tell the story. So we used all of that to tell a great story of resilience.
Let’s come to language. People talk about you fusing “African” music with European, Brazilian and Cuban sounds, but they don’t always realize how much you merge different languages and cultures in Benin. I know that the two languages in which you sing most often are Fon and Yoruba. How do you choose the languages of your songs?
It’s a question of inspiration. Sometimes you try a language and it doesn’t work. If a song has to be rhythmic, really tense, it has to be Fon, because that’s the language of the Amazons. Yoruba – or Mina, from Ghana and Togo – contains a melody. But I can’t sit here and tell you it’s done on purpose.
In your autobiography, you talk about the joie de vivre of your first big concert after your return to Benin, “the only place in the world where the public could sing and understand every word” of your music. I wonder if it has ever been a challenge for you to speak to a global audience in the languages of your country.
No, because music is a universal language. The twelve notes are there for everyone, and these notes do not discriminate.
You worked in the field while preparing albums like “Fifa” and “Eve” (2014). How do you build relationships with those you learn from? Asking people to share music from their communities can be quite an intimate request.
It’s a lot of work. But I have no other goal than to sing together. When I made the trip for “Fifa”, it was a wake-up call for me. I had a wonderful driver who came from northern Benin. We went in depth, to Korontière, Djougou, Kandi. I didn’t speak any of those languages and most of those places had no electricity. We had to buy a second car battery because we were plugging everything into the car battery to get our recording.
It was the first time I saw how much I was loved in my country. Every time you arrive in a village, a little boy or girl sees you – “Angélique Kidjo is here! – and everyone walks out. I would always explain what I wanted to do and tell them, “I have to pay you. They said no, and I said, “If I don’t pay you, I don’t. The hardest part was getting them to agree to be paid, and giving me their names so they would be recognized on the album.
But I come from this culture, and nothing else makes sense without it. If I don’t understand something, my only compass is to go to traditional musicians and say, “Can you play this music with me?
You continued to travel for the trilogy on the diaspora: “Oremi” (1998), “Black Ivory Soul” (2002) and “Oyaya! (2004). How did the idea for this project come about?
When I was nine, my brother wore a wig, put on Jimi Hendrix and played guitar. And I was like, “He’s African, isn’t he?” What language does he sing in? My brother said, “No, he’s African American. I’m nine years old, thinking I know better than anyone, so I said, “How is that possible? You cannot be African and American at the same time. And then he said, “Well, he’s a descendant of slaves.” I said, “What is a slave?” What is a descendant? When my grandmother told me the story of slavery, I couldn’t believe it.
Fast forward, and I’m fifteen, learning about apartheid in South Africa. And then it’s just, like, “You told me I can go anywhere in the world. Now I discover that my skin color is a handicap. I can be killed because I am black. I thought, “There should be a way to do something. The idea of meeting the diaspora through music was born at that time.
But I knew it was going to take time. As I grew and learned more, I decided it was time to move to America. I went to my publisher and told them I wanted to work with all artists, not just black people, to tell the story of slavery, because it’s our story. That’s how we started with “Oremi”. Then I went to Salvador de Bahia, to the Caribbean, to Cuba. And I just said to people, “Not talking about slavery doesn’t make it go away. It still has an impact on everything we do. And the way to talk about it is to build bridges between culture and people, because our history is so intertwined.
Many of your albums have been interpretations of musical traditions or, more recently, of particular artists. Do you have a philosophy on how to cover music? How to appropriate a song like “Voodoo Child” by Hendrix, while respecting its spirit?
I always try to come up with an original idea that will make the song completely different, but once that’s done, I try to stick to the original melody. For “Voodoo Child”, the idea was to replace the guitar riffs with a traditional Beninese chant – and, like magic, it worked.
How did you approach “Remain in Light” (2018)?