Grammy Award winning Beninese singer-songwriter, actress, and activist Angelique Kidjo, who is headlining the WOMAD festival this year, discusses how her cultural heritage and upbringing have influenced her music and how she hopes to use her influence to not only share with the world, the beauty of Africa, but also use it to impact change in the lives of others.
Who have been your biggest musical influences over the years?
The traditional musicians from my country Benin have influenced me a lot. our music in Benin is so original and so special. I grew up surrounded by this beautiful musical landscape and it has shaped the way I sing even when I am singing a Talking Heads’ song. Also I was influenced by my role model Miriam Makeba. She made me dream about being an international singer travelling the World. her singing was amazing. I learnt all of her songs. Then you have James Brown, the king of rhythm, Celia Cruz, Bella Bellow, the Togolese singer who died too young. I was fed with music when I grew up in Benin.
What do you hope to convey through your music?
I want to show the beauty and the depth of African culture. it is far from all the clichés you see on TV. Our music has influenced the whole world and you hardly can see our culture in the mainstream media. This has be the battle of my entire career. But I feel we are making progress!
How would you say your music has evolved over the years?
I think my singing has evolved as I learnt to sing so many song and collaborated with so many artists. We recently realised that I have made more than 50 duets! I have sung with classical orchestras, the rock band with Jazz musicians etc… Each experience taught me something and influenced my own music. I’ve recently worked again with Philip Glass on his Symphony #12 and the beauty and complexity of his music has enrich my musical vocabulary for sure!
Have you ever performed in New Zealand before, if not, how do you hope your music will be received by the audience on this side of the world?
I have never performed in New Zealand so this is very exciting for me. I don’t know what to expect. I have been to Australia many times and developed a great relationship with its audience. Now I’m ready to come to NZ. I wonder if the culture is similar… I have a couple of friends here. I hope they’ll be able to make it to the concert. I will have travelled that far, I hope they can join me.
I read that you are fluent in five languages, how has that influenced your music and sound?
When you see the success of anglophone music all over the world – even in countries where people don’t understand the lyrics – you understand that language is not always the most important element in musical emotion. The voice and the sound of the words carry as much feeling as the meaning of the words. So speaking many language enhance your palette of sounds. I’m like a painter who would have many many more colours to use to create his painting. The sounds of African languages like Yoruba, Fon and Mina are so poetic. I have put Mina’s lyrics to Ravel’s Bolero and people are crazy about it! I feel it is more powerful than putting english lyrics to it.
You are well versed in many styles of music, from zouk, to Latin styles, to Afropop, among others.
It is easy for me as all of these styles come from Africa through the tragic history of slavery. I’m just reconnecting those styles to their African roots. The connection is painless and immediate. I have heard that even JS Bach Sarabandes were inspired by a dance of the slaves in early Eating America. Maybe this is why I love him so much! I sung one of his melodies for the song Aisha that was used in the new NeoYokio cartoon.
You have achieved so many accolades over your career, so what is your next big goal? What are you working towards in terms of your career?
I m just signing on new projects that excite me. The collaboration with Philip Glass was one of them. I have a new album of Celia Cruz songs coming out soon, Then a piece with Ibrahim Maalouf the legend of the Queen Of Sheba. I’m also working on a play with my daughter. Do you want me to go on?
If you were not a musician, what would you be doing and why?
I wanted to be a human right lawyer but I soon discovered that the law is not always on the side of true justice and I felt using my microphone as a ”weapon of mass loving” would be more useful. I’m not good at politics!
Forbes Afrique put you on the cover of “100 Most Influential Women” issue in 2015. Is that daunting for you? How do you hope to be a good steward of your influence?
I tried my best to combine my musical career with my work as an activist, as a UNICEF goodwill Ambassador, as a co-founder of the Batonga Foundation for Girls education in Africa. Sometimes I receive so many requests I am overwhelmed but I’m trying to stay focus on the things which would make a real difference in the lives of people. It is not easy!
Words: Davida Eyam-Ozung
Photography: Danny Clinch