African music’s premier diva celebrates the power of women

Afropop star Angélique Kidjo has been a force in African music for more than two decades. With her new album, Eve, she narrows her focus to capture the sounds and spirit of African women. Produced by Patrick Dillett (David Byrne, Fatboy Slim), Eve is a sunny, pulsing celebration of the resilience of the feminine spirit, sung in various West African languages by women’s choirs from villages in Kenya and her native Benin. Kidjo doesn’t exclude the boys, though, and her stellar backing band numbers guitarist Lionel Loueke, drummer Steve Jordan, bassist Christian McBride, and Senegalese percussionist Magatte Sow.

Last January, Kidjo also published her autobiography, the aptly titled Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music. The 53-year-old singer and songwriter took to music as a child, when her parents exposed her to both Western pop and traditional African songs. She continued her music studies in Paris in the 1980s before settling in New York City in 1997.

Eve is named for both Kidjo’s mother, Yvonne Eve Kidjo, who sings the song “Bana,” and also for the first woman: the biblical Eve. The album is about all women but captures a human story, one greatly influenced by the Grammy Award winner’s travels through African refugee camps as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador.

Guests on the record include Dr. John, who plays boogie-woogie piano on “Kulumbu,” Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, the Kronos Quartet, Nigerian singer Asa, and the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra. Kidjo spoke with us about her latest projects—and her dream collaborator.

A new album and an autobiography: Are they connected?

Yes, because both are telling the story of women. They’re linked, because I wouldn’t be the person I am today without my father, who never stopped supporting what I wanted to do. Women’s places in the world are still something we have not been able to deal with in a proper way for women to have space to be themselves. The rules that apply to men don’t apply to women. I am talking about the issues that women have such influence on, but are not given credit for. In the refugee camp, they fetch wood and cook for the children and the men of the camp. In conflict zones, women are the ones who keep a sense of normality.

How do these complex issues affect your songwriting process?

Every time I make an album, I am telling a story. When I write a song I am telling a story, and it’s something I experienced or something someone has told me about. These songs came from my trips to Africa, but also from what happens around the world. Violence against women: What is this issue that we can’t talk about and make it something women don’t have to bear? Forced marriage, where young girls are married to someone who is older than their father, isn’t acceptable. Two songs on the album deal with that. On one the girl says, “What about my dream, what should I do, who’s listening to me?” We need to listen and speak about this.

You sing in different languages.

The thing is, the song often comes from a language. Sometimes inspiration starts from a smidge of a traditional song I remember. The song is linked to that memory. Like the song “Kulumbu,” which is a song about peace I learned as a child. The only part I knew was “Kulumbu, yeah oh yeah.” So I wanted to write a song that comes from that. I wanted to write a song about the peace women want.

Dr. John connects the dots between American popular music and its African roots on “Kulumbu.”

Absolutely, yes. And that’s the person he is. He is a man of peace. He loves women. I’ve known Dr. John for years. When I told him about the album, he said, “I’m right there, because you women are the ones who calm us and are always teaching us wisdom. Sometimes we are foolish enough not to listen, and then it is too late. Then we say ‘Damn!’ and beat ourselves up.”

How did you work with Patrick Dillett?

This was our first collaboration, and it was a great one. He would tell me this is better than that, and he prefers this done this way. He would play takes back to back, and I could hear the difference. When we got to Benin to record the women, that was mind-opening for him. He had to research what he could bring to a place where there is no electricity. He was very excited by the project.

How did Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij get involved? 

The first time I met Vampire Weekend was four or five years ago at an event for Peter Gabriel’s foundation, Witness, in New York. They were part of the musicians who were playing. They told me they were huge fans of my work, and I said, “I’m sorry, I will sound very ignorant right now, but I don’t know who you are.” Then they went onstage and started playing and I thought, “I know this song!” I knew the music, but I didn’t know them. They grew up listening to African music. They are experts—they gave me goose bumps. I did my live album [2012’s Spirit Rising] with Ezra [Koenig, singer]. I covered their song “I Think UR a Contra.” I did that song with him and put some African lyrics on it, and it worked perfectly. This time I wanted something more instrumental for the track “Bomba,” and that’s how Rostam came in.

You recorded with your mother.

I wanted to take that opportunity while I can. My mother used to sing that song for me when I was little. It was a song from her childhood in the Congo. My father had the most wonderful voice ever. My father played the banjo—he and my mother sang all the time. I grew up with traditional music, and Western pop music from the 1960s and ’70s—Beatles, Rolling Stones, Motown, whatever was out there. I thought classical music was a sin. I remember when my father brought it home I said, “What is that? It’s boring.” But I fully embraced classical when I came to France—and I trained in classical techniques, and I came to listen to it more and more. My father was born too early. The way he set up the house for us was free speech, music and sports. Sports were big for us. I ran and swam. My mother said you have to work out to strengthen your lungs. It really helps a lot. It helps me build up the strength I need to be onstage.

Had you worked with this band?

I did my live album with Christian McBride. A couple of years ago I did the soundtrack for the film Battu and worked with Steve Jordan. Then we did the concert at the [2010 FIFA] World Cup in South Africa, because Steve was the musical director of the band.

Who would you love to work with?

Aretha Franklin. For me, she was the first black woman I saw on the cover of an album. Before that, I saw only white ladies, or white men and black men. I saw her and I’m like, “What? This is possible?” My mother said, “Of course it is possible.” I said, “Because she’s American it’s possible.” My mother said, “No, every woman can do it.” Then Miriam Makeba came after and I thought, “That’s it. That’s what I’m going to do.”

–Linda Laban

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