Angelique Kidjo: Oyaya!

Angelique Kidjo

On her album Oremi Angelique Kidjo examined the African roots of American blues and jazz music. On the follow-up, Black Ivory Soul, she traced the same influences to the music of Brazil. On Oyaya! she samples the music of the Caribbean diaspora, retracing the slave trade routes that brought Africans to the New World. That, along with a few centuries of imperialism by various European countries have ensured that the Caribbean is a veritable historic record of the way that African musical concepts and rhythms were fused with local musical forms as well as European music.

The opening track, “Seyin Djro” has a rumba beat and a Latin horn section that underlie a searching melody. Kidjo’s voice is out front and rings crystal clear, demonstrating that she is respected not only for her ability to combine elements from many different sources in her music, but also simply because she possesses a remarkable singing voice. But that’s just the beginning of the musical feast that Kidjo and husband-collaborator Jean Hebrail have laid out for listeners. “Congoleo”, the second track, features a xylophone-like instrument from Guinea called the balafon. The rhythms of this track make it almost impossible not to dance, yet they are based on old rhythms brought to the Caribbean by African slaves. Just as in America, the slaves were forbidden to play their music on plantations in the Caribbean, but they continued to keep the music alive in their religious rites, which included the practice of voodoo and Santeria.

“Bala Bala” is a good old-fashioned cha-cha with lyrics sung in Fon, an African language. The theme of the song is accepting those things in life that the individual cannot change. For anyone doubting Kidjo’s vocal prowess there is her searing rendition of “N’Yin Wan Nou We”, a tender love song on which the sheer force of her voice feels as though it could literally move the earth.

“Conga Habanera” is a powerhouse track that features the famed bata drums that often figure prominently in Cuban and Brazilian music, particularly ceremonial music. Kidjo’s take on them is more Afro-centric, however, seeking the Yoruban roots of the drum and its rhythms rather than the Latin-adapted counterparts. On “Le Monde Comme un Bébé”, Kidjo duets with legendary singer Henri Salvador, who was born in French Guiana. The song is like a sigh, and the two singers weave their voices together as well as in and out of the accompanying music like intimate co-conspirators.

“Mutoto Kwanzo”, which translates as “children first”, was written by Kidjo during her tenure as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. The song offers an energetic take on Jamaican ska music. Combining elements of calypso, swing, and American boogie-woogie, ska has long been favorite dance material on the island, and has made numerous incursions into both England and the U.S. Kidjo also offers a tribute to Cuban salsa queen Celia Bruz on “Djovamin Yi”.

Special commentary must be given to Steve Berlin’s production work on this CD. While he’s worked with other bands such as String Cheese Incident and Los Super Seven, he is probably best known for his work with Los Lobos. Clearly he has an affinity for the music on this album, and his production here is warm and intimate, with no studio frippery or anything that distracts from the music or draws attention to the production. At the same time, the recording sounds simply fantastic.

I first heard Angelique Kidjo sing on the closing reprise of “Run the Voodoo Down” on Cassandra Wilson’s Traveling Miles CD, and I was impressed enough by what I heard there to seek out Kidjo’s recordings. In some ways the Benin singer is a bit like an African version of Wilson, trying to fuse the music of her indigenous culture and country with that of the United States and other Western countries as well as finding ways of expressing and interpreting this music in a way that allows it to speak to contemporary audiences. On Oyaya! Kidjo manages to give a history lesson on the influence of African music in the Caribbean while ensuring that the listener has every opportunity to have a good time while digesting that lesson.