Angelique Kidjo - With an orchestra? I Kidjo not.
Angélique Kidjo thinks for a moment about her forthcoming Celtic Connections concert and says, “Me, standing there in front of an orchestra? I never would have believed such a thing could happen. But what a great answer it is to those people back home who called me a prostitute for singing.”
She says this with a big hearty laugh – she laughs a lot – but at the time, when she was just starting out on a career that has taken her to sell-out concerts in Carnegie Hall, New York and Sydney Opera House and seen her winning a Grammy award, Kidjo was devastated that people could throw such insults at her in the streets of Ouidah, on the coast of Benin in West Africa.
It wasn’t just her who was targeted this way. The general belief in Benin was that all women who sang were prostitutes and all men who sang were drug dealers or addicts. Kidjo’s father, as he often seems to have done, had the words to put her on the right track.
“My father was my compass,” she says of the former post office worker whose spare time photography and banjo playing played its part in Kidjo herself going in to a creative career. “He told me, Don’t listen to hateful people because if you pay attention to what they say, you’ll never move forward. And he was right. He was always right, even when I thought he was damned wrong about something to begin with!”
There goes that laugh again. It turns out that her father, who died in 2008, would have been able to say I told you so regarding Kidjo’s orchestral concerts, which she’s been giving over the past three years, because when he introduced her to classical music, her response wasn’t too positive.
“I remember coming home from school one day and my father was playing this music I’d never heard before,” she says. “I walked in and said what is this stupid music? It’s got no rhythm. There’s no song involved. And he just shrugged. He never forced things on us but he somehow always found a way of making something new challenge our brains. The next day he played his banjo along to the same music and I could hear why he thought this funny noise had something interesting in it.”
She laughs at her own understatement. “Actually,” she says, “I became hooked. When he brought Don Giovani into the house, it became my favourite, even if it scared me to death at first. Mahler gave me a headache. There was so much tension in that music. But then I learned about the issues people were living through at the time and I realised that music can’t always be nice because life has pain as well as joy in it, and that was a good lesson to learn.”
Life at home was full of such lessons. Her mother was a choreographer and theatre director who encouraged Kidjo and her eight siblings to learn as many languages as possible. Sometimes there was no choice. The Kidjos kept an open house and the young Angélique would arrive home from school wondering what language she was going to hear in their yard.
“It could have been Russian or Chinese, you name it,” she says. “I’m not joking and I had to be able to understand everything, whether it was an arithmetical problem or a new word, otherwise I couldn’t sleep. My nickname at home was When-How-Why because I was always so curious. In Benin every village has its own language. There must be over fifty different ones and I used to get frustrated as quite a young child if we went somewhere and I didn’t know what people were saying.”
When Kidjo was six years old, she joined her mother’s theatre troupe as a singer and dancer and by the time she was nine she had travelled all over West Africa and had already established herself as a talented young performer. A precocious child who took an interest in social affairs, she decided early on that she was going to be a lawyer and fight for justice. So she gave up performing and concentrated on school, where she studied English, Latin and Greek and then became side-tracked from her ambitions in law by the music of James Brown.
“My brothers had a band and they were interested in the music that came from America, rather than the music we had at home, and when they played me James Brown, I thought, I want to sing like this guy because these words he’s singing have rhythm.”
She sang with the Kidjo Brothers Band into her mid-teens when she started to write her own songs and inspired by South African singing star Miriam Makeba, she formed her own band, Les Sphinx, to perform songs that addressed political matters. One of those, written about the political struggle in South Africa, gave Kidjo her first big break as a musician when she was invited to perform on radio and chose that song to make a statement.
“By that time I’d begun to realise that music could be as persuasive as the law when it comes to fighting for justice,” she says. Her song certainly got her noticed and the Cameroonian singer and producer Ekambi Brillant took her under his influential wing, eventually encouraging her to move to Paris to record. The French capital also offered an escape from the Communist regime that ruled in Benin and threatened to stifle Kidjo’s expression. But although she would achieve major world-wide success after moving to Paris, it didn’t come easy and she actually returned, briefly, to her Plan A and began studying for a law degree before finding her feet in Paris’s thriving African music scene.
Her Parisian sojourn also included classes in classical singing, mime and theatre at Les Ateliers-Chansons, studies in jazz singing , breathing techniques and voice training at Le Cim music school, work with Dutch jazz pianist Jasper van't Hof and his group Pili Pili and recording with saxophonist Tom Barlage, of the Dutch prog rock band Solution, whose composition Tommy had contributed to fellow Netherlanders Focus’ 1970s success. Eventually Kidjo formed her own band and ended up marrying the bass player, Jean Hébraïl, with whom she now lives in New York.
“When I wanted to record my trilogy exploring the African roots of the music of the Americas [Oremi, Black Ivory Soul and Oyaya], I realised that it made more sense to use New York as a base so that I could travel to Brazil and the Caribbean to meet the musicians I needed to work with,” she says. “The only place I couldn’t get to from New York was Cuba, so I went back to Paris to get to Havana from there. I don’t like the weather in New York but it’s true what they say about it being a city of opportunities. I never dreamed that I would be able to sell out Carnegie Hall doing a tribute concert to Miriam Makeba but it happened. All sorts of doors open up here.”
It was actually when Kidjo was singing at Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 2011 that the opportunity that brings her to Celtic Connections came to her. Gast Waltzing, a composer and conductor with the Philharmonic Orchestra of Luxembourg introduced himself, told her how much he liked her singing and her music and suggested that he could orchestrate her songs and have her perform with the orchestra. Kidjo’s response was “Whaaaaat?”
“I thought he was joking,” she says. “I’d always wanted to sing with an orchestra, since my father played me those records all those years ago, but I didn’t dare dream that it could happen, and I couldn’t imagine my music being performed like this. My first thought was, I don’t want this to sound ridiculous, but this guy was serious.”
Kidjo wrote three poems in her native language, Fon, and Waltzing transcribed them phonetically before orchestrating them.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “I worked on my part for three months, two hours every day, before the first performance, and I was singing notes I’d never sung before. It’s very different to what I’m used to. There are more instruments to listen to but that’s the key – listening – and once I tried it with the orchestra, I loved it. It’s like having all these layers of blankets round you and you just have to let yourself feel part of that warmth.”
Angélique Kidjo sings with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Saturday, January 17.
From The Herald, January 3, 2015.