Kidjo's cultural energy


POSTED: Friday, February 20, 2009

A true force of the world music scene will blow through the islands starting this weekend, as West African-born, multiple Grammy-award nominee Angelique Kidjo makes her debut here in six concerts throughout Hawaii.





        » 7:30 p.m. Thursday: University of Hawaii-Hilo Performing Arts Center, tickets $25 to $45, call (808) 974-7310 or visit www.uhh.hawaii.edu

» 8 p.m. Friday: Kahilu Theatre in Waimea, $40 and $45, (808) 885-6868 or visit www.kahilutheatre.org


» 7:30 p.m. Saturday: Castle Theater, Maui Arts & Cultural Center, $12 to $47, (808) 242-7469 or visit www.mauiarts.org


» 7 p.m. Sunday: Leeward Community College Theatre, $23 and $25, 455-0385 or visit www.lcctheatre.hawaii.edu


» 9 p.m. Tuesday: Cannon Activities Center, Brigham Young University-Hawaii, $10, 675-3577 or visit www.byuh.edu


» 7 p.m. Wednesday: Kauai Community College Performing Arts Center, $10 and $35, (808) 245-7464 or visit www.kauai-concert.org




Kidjo is a strong-minded woman who eagerly seeks to captivate audiences worldwide with her internationalist songs. The multilingual artist uses “;her work and her growing fame to change the way the world views Africa,”; wrote Harry Belafonte in a photo feature of Kidjo that was part of a special 2007 Africa-themed issue of Vanity Fair, guest edited by Bono.

Born in the port village of Cotonou, Benin, Kidjo started her musical career in Paris, where political unrest in her home country forced her to relocate. She now lives in New York, specifically Brooklyn, with her Parisian husband and their teenage daughter.

Kidjo's outreach work goes beyond her music—she's been a UNICEF International Goodwill Ambassador since 2002 and even has her own nonprofit organization, the Batonga Foundation, which strives to help further the education of young African women. She's also lent her support to Keep a Child Alive, to benefit African orphans living with HIV and AIDS. The nonprofit's co-founder, Alicia Keys, guests on Kidjo's latest album “;Djin Djin.”;

Kidjo's first three American released albums—“;Oremi,”; “;Black Ivory Soul”; and “;Oyaya!”;—were all Grammy nominees, each exploring the musical African roots in the United States, Brazil, and Cuba and the Caribbean, respectively. She ups the guest musician quotient on “;Djin Djin,”; her self-described “;pan-African album,”; which includes appearances by Keys, Branford Marsalis, Peter Gabriel, Josh Groban, Carlos Santana, Joss Stone, Ziggy Marley and the terrific Malian couple Amadou and Mariam.

Considering the high-profile guests, was “;Djin Djin”; the targeted album that would bring her to a much wider audience?

“;Umm, nope,”; she said with a soft laugh over the phone from her New York home last week. “;Every album I record I think of as just as important as the previous one. I make sure I put together the right songs to reach out as broadly as possible. I've learned from my music culture and my ancestors that we are all one in our music and humanity.”;

One change over the years that Kidjo welcomes is opportunities to bring African musicians into the recording studio. At times, however, the native artists can feel intimidated by surroundings that are sterile when compared to the more natural climes of their cultures.

When Kidjo invited percussionists Crespin Kpitiki and Benoit Avihoue (both members of the Benin Gangb Brass Band) to play, she made sure they were at ease by decorating the studio with their country's arts and crafts work.

“;It also helped that they had already recorded an album on their own,”; Kidjo said. “;But I remember seeing other African musicians who had a hard time going through the process of being in a recording studio. They practically froze up the first time. They were used to ... playing music for people in the outdoors ... and traditional African music is not only about rhythm, but about the people getting dressed up, and the spirit of the live performance.”;

Kidjo herself is known to be an exuberant singer on stage, but it's a well-focused energy.

“;That's how I've lived my life and career—things will happen when the time is right. There's no use to rush ahead. I've always taken careful steps with my music, dating back to my first album. I have to be absolutely certain in my mind because I know it will be better to make sure I'm a hundred percent in with anything I do.”;

Kidjo occasionally goes back to her home country of Benin, a stable democracy since the unrest of a military coup in 1972, “;to get renewed.”; Her family there includes a brother who is the deputy minister of culture.

“;I learned young from my mom to 'follow your guts, your spirit' and don't mind taking risks,”; she said. “;Over the years, I've been accused of not being African enough in my music, and I avoid such negativity because I grew up listening to so much music that comes from outside of Africa.

“;In life, what is important is not based on what language you speak, or what is your skin color. Like my dad used to say, 'Do not find blame in a person's skin color.' We should give all people a second listen and give all cultures proper consideration.”;