Coffee With

Angélique Kidjo, an encounter beyond space and time

By Patrick Smith

Posted on May 26, 2023 13:26

 © Angélique Kidjo (Image TAR)
Angélique Kidjo (Image TAR)

Fresh from winning the prestigious Polar Music Prize, the Benin-born singer tells The Africa Report what motivates her to cross cultural divides in her art and advocacy.

An encounter with Angélique Kidjo transcends space and time. We start off in Paris in April 2023, looking at each other on computer screens across the city. Soon we are in New York with some of its musical maestros, before veering back to West Africa in the 1970s, then back further still to the dawn of time with Olodumare, the Yoruba god.

‘Mama Africa’

Angélique’s life, music and art are about as heterodox as it gets. More than three decades as a star song­writer, musician and singer has garnered her the honorific ‘Mama Africa’ across the continent, as well as an attic full of prizes, five Grammys, the Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, and top musical awards in more than 20 countries.

This year she has won the Polar Music Prize, jointly with Chris Blackwell, the impresario who founded Island Records, and Arvo Pärt, the Estonian composer whose minimalist style is inspired by Gregorian chant.

“First of all, when I heard about this, I’m like ‘This is a hoax,’” she tells me. Previous Polar laureates have included Yo-Yo Ma, György Ligeti, Bob Dylan, Mstislav Rostropovich and that other ‘Mama Africa’, Miriam Makeba. It seems entirely right that Angélique Kidjo should find herself in such an eclectic company.

“If you think about all the artists who have won the Polar Prize […] it’s the body of their work and how they use their art to tell our human story,” she says, going on to explain how she knows Blackwell and Pärt.

Angélique met Blackwell in Europe, after fleeing from the Mathieu Kérékou dictatorship in Benin in the early 1980s, aiming to work as a human-rights lawyer. Just as Blackwell was entranced by Bob Marley’s syncretic blending of musical styles and traditions from the Caribbean and the Americas, he saw something in the way that Angélique had developed an exciting new genre from the West African music with which she grew up.

As for Arvo Pärt, she explains: “I’ve listened to his music while working with Philip Glass. It’s great to see people trying to open classical music up to modern feelings – that is a kind of genius.”

Twist in musical trajectory

The Philip Glass story is yet another twist in Angélique’s musical trajectory. It started when Timothy Walker, artistic director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, heard her sing in New York.

“He asked me if I had ever thought about singing with a classical orchestra. I thought to myself: ‘What has he been smoking? I cannot do classical music.’”

After they went through several classical repertoires, Walker said to Angélique: “I think you need someone like Philip Glass to write you a symphony.”

If you think about all the artists who have won the Polar Prize […] it’s the body of their work and how they use their art to tell our human story.

“And right there, I said: ‘I know Glass, he’s a friend of mine. Let me call him.’ And [Walker] looked at me like: ‘Really?’” The following day, she and Walker were discussing musical ideas in Philip Glass’s kitchen in New York.

“Glass said: ‘Angélique, choose the topic, give me three poems and I will write the music.’” After flying back to Europe, she was inspired by an exhibition of stone, copper and terracotta sculptures from the Kingdom of Ifé at the British Museum.

“I said to myself, what is important to convey is not only the spirituality but our history. We’ve been dehumanised but we have our mythology.” That sparked several poems on Olodumare and the Yoruba creation myth.

“Then I gave the poems to Glass in French and English and recited them in Yoruba so he could hear the accent […]. Then he sent me the music after a year […] he had studied phonetics […] and he did a perfect job.”

The resulting work, Ifé: three Yorùbá songs, was premiered by Luxembourg’s Philharmonic Orchestra and then in the US by the San Francisco Symphony. It prompted Glass to tell her: “Angelique, together we have built a bridge that no one has walked on before.”

The two have gone on to work on several more symphonic projects, bringing in the music of David Bowie and Brian Eno.

Childhood steeped in music and history

Angélique’s childhood in Ouidah, Benin, was steeped in the music and the cultural history of the region. Her father is from the Fon people of Ouidah – a cosmopolitan town, partly because of its grim history in the transatlantic slave trade. And her mother is Yoruba, a choreographer and theatre director.

It was their encouragement to dig deeper into African history – “they told me to do what I really wanted” – that inspired her cross-cultural tie-ups in Latin America, America and Asia, which have marked her musical development and extraordinary range of work.

Angelique, together we have built a bridge that no one has walked on before.

Angélique traces her musicality to her family in a literal, physical sense. One of her aunts, a traditional singer in the community, would sing to her when she was in her mother’s womb: “Before my mum goes to bed, [my aunt] would be singing songs to her belly.”

That musical immersion worked out well. “I started singing before I started speaking […] and when I turned six my mother had this theatre group and I was singing with it.”

All that has helped shape how Angélique used language and music: “My parents used to say to me, words are like eggs, once they fall and break, you can’t piece them back. And especially when you are mad, you have to think deeply. Do you want to make an enemy for life?”

Beyond music

Alongside her life in music and the arts, Angélique has become a Unicef ambassador, which almost takes her back to the original plan to fight for human rights as a campaigning lawyer.

Working on Unicef projects with youth in the Sahel, she has been promoting the charity’s U-report, a messaging tool to encourage young people to speak out on topics they care about such as the effects of climate change, child marriage and disinformation campaigns: “We have to be mindful to protect them and to give them the tools not to be manipulated into any extreme groups,” she says.

Organising concerts in Germany to bring musicians together from many different faiths, she is also campaigning for more dialogue between religions. Her own childhood in Benin, introducing her to Islam, varieties of Christianity, and traditional belief systems, was a sound primer.

“Going everywhere and seeing that diversity, that’s what feeds my inspiration, […] what gives me the strength to be the artist that I am. To get together it demands respect from all sides.”

Before we end, I ask what advice she would give to aspiring young musicians in today’s turbulent times. As ever she is direct and generous: “Be yourself, because every voice is different. Find out what is unique about you. There’s space for everybody.”

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