At the Crossroads
Angelique Kidjo may have been born in a small village in Benin, West Africa, but her music crosses over and reaches into the black diaspora and beyond. Inspired by the sounds of the West as much as the musical traditions that root her in African soil, Kidjo’s own global charity work is reflected in her hybrid and often collaborative sounds. Rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, funk, jazz, Afrobeat and a pop sensibility cooperate to suggest that cultural diversity is something to be celebrated. At the same time, Djin Djin in particular asserts the power of African influence when it comes to music. “For all the differences in the music of our times,” the artist proclaims on kidjo.com, “the river of Africa flows through it all.” This is, perhaps, the most important message Kidjo offers in the wake of her Grammy Award-nominated trilogy of albums, including Oremi, Black Ivory Soul, and Oyaya: that the voices emerging in today’s Africa are not simply manifestations of oppression, but rather, powerful agents of change.
Kidjo herself began her cultivation of musical meeting points at the age of six in the port village of Cotonou. From there she went on to storm Paris and New York with her unique blend of Eastern and Western influences. It is the heart or the resounding beat of Africa that nevertheless provides the foundation for Kidjo’s music: underneath the layers of familiar pop melodies, the peculiar percussion of Benin persists. Kidjo claims that she wanted to “come home” on Djin Djin, while also articulating the inevitable conjunction of musical styles in a world gone global. Literally translated as “seize the day”, Djin Djin does exactly that. Kidjo’s latest can only be described as the performance of a “global moment”—a turning or meeting point that calls attention to gargantuan forces that affect any and all locations.
Kidjo takes her moment seriously: she has been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since July of 2002 and she posits a direct relationship between her creative efforts and her determination to end the suffering of children in countries such as Finland, Tanzania, South Africa, Brazil, and her native Benin. (Indeed, she has embarked on UNICEF missions in these places.) Additionally, she remarked during an interview published on www.unicef.org, that her work with UNICEF enables a feeling of having contributed socially to the society in which she lives: “It allows me to feel useful outside the world of Music. I meet so many people who work so hard to improve the lives of children: it is so refreshing compared to the many self centred people in the music business.” Steering an ethical course in an industry known for narcissism cannot be easy, yet Kidjo manages to labour purposefully and successfully even when capitalism works at cross purposes with her aims.
The crossroads or the junction at which two or more routes or roots meet provides the ideal space for Kidjo’s music. In Africa, not to mention the Caribbean, the notion of the crossroads is important, for it is a point or a moment during which disparate cultures, realms, or worlds may come together and create newness. It is, as the fourth track on Djin Djin implies, a place of birth. In the absence of multiply-translated lyrics—a feature that probably would have made the CD insert rather unwieldy: the songs are in English, French and Yoruba, and not all at once—Kidjo provides short summaries or poetic fragments of the songs in the liner notes. “Salala” reads as follows:
Be thankful and feel blessed when you
Witness the miracle of birth.
If you’ve seen it happen, you know
Nothing else matters in the world.
The album as a whole is nothing more and nothing less than a miracle of musical birth—a happening that both tells of and comments on events that have impacted Benin, the African continent, and the rest of the world. As with the personality behind the song, Kidjo herself is the witness to these events, and it is through her that listeners are invited to share the things that have made her what she is today.
The album appropriately opens with a story of loss, in this case the story of African youth, who, seduced by the prospect of economic prosperity in the West, flee to America, Europe, Asia, and Oceania. Unfortunately, their travels do not always end in economic prosperity, and, in this, her eighth studio album, Kidjo asks if there are not other alternatives. In its occupation of a space in between Africa and the West, the song itself makes the possibility of change probable—even tangible. The peculiarly African beat at the heart of “Ae Ae”, “Salala”, and other songs leaps from the stereo to the center of the listener. It’s a beat that works inside the body of those receptive to Kidjo’s sentiments, joining one heartbeat, one culture, one individual to another. If this sounds too poetic, too clichéd, one might consider Kidjo’s own poetic sensibility—her knack for conjoining the popular and the philosophical, the personal and the political in imaginative ways. It is her belief that the power of music lies in its emotional affect, and that the pathos of music helps to forge community. In an interview on August 3, 2007 published on Echoes of the Land, Kidjo explained that “Music is a universal language [...] That’s one of the first things I learned from traditional singers and musicians from my country—the power of music to bring people together.” On Djin Djin, Kidjo makes good on ancestral knowledge to transform stories of loss into tales of togetherness.
To that end, the second leg of Kidjo’s musical journey on the album introduces a series of international collaborations with the likes of Alicia Keys, Branford Marsalis, Joss Stone, Peter Gabriel, Amadou & Mariam, Carlos Santana, Josh Groban, and Ziggy Marley. What is most remarkable about these tracks—which include the title song “Djin Djin”, the Rolling Stones cover “Gimme Shelter”, “Salala”, “Senamou”, “Pearls”, and “Sedjedo”—is the fact that the contributions of each artist actually alters Kidjo’s own musical style. The result is a collection of hybrid songs that attest to Kidjo’s respect for reciprocity. (Make no mistake: this is more African than Paul Simon’s Graceland.) Alicia Keys and Branford Marsalis enable a more jazzy articulation of immediate action, while Joss Stone contributes to an indigenized but still recognizable rendition of a Rolling Stones classic—definitely one of the album’s brightest gems. Peter Gabriel, who is known for his “worldly” soundtrack to Martin Scorcese’s controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ, meets Kidjo at the crossroads without sacrificing his own style.
Mali duo Amadou & Mariam establish yet another layer to Djin Djin, helping it to embody the community Kidjo envisions as being integral to music. Carlos Santana and Josh Groban add their voices to “Pearls”, which, with its symphonic swelling, might act as the album’s climax: the tone is melodramatic and distinctly classical. Finally, Ziggy Marley, who, according to Kidjo, understands well the relationship between African musical traditions and the sounds of the Caribbean, shifts Djin Djin into an altogether different realm—one where the crossroads takes on a peculiarly Caribbean flavour. Between Benin and Jamaica lies the Middle Passage, and it is toward this that Kidjo frequently sings; that is, she sings toward the histories that continue to impact communities in Africa and the larger diaspora. With Keys and company, she emphasizes the importance of individual and collective responsibility in the face of poverty, global conflict, and neocolonialism.
The third leg of Kidjo’s journey on Djin Djin builds on the first two, articulating the ways in which personal histories come into dialogue with public memory, the enduring significance of names, and, with the heartbeart of Benin constantly pounding the listener’s ear, the gift of music itself. “We will give you joy and strength through music”, she croons on “Awa N’La”, “Our journey will never stop”. For this Beninese artist, the junction at which two or more roads meet is one that includes the past, the present, and, most importantly, the future. It is a space that belongs to no one. Outside of the borders that confine, the crossroads is a truly revolutionary meeting point. Here’s hoping that the Starbucks label does not limit Kidjo’s audiences in the West to the coffee-house crowd.
// Notes from the Road
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