9 May 2009

Nigeria: Gifted Angelique Kidjo, On African Voices


Lagos — Passionate songwriter, singer and UNICEF goodwill ambassador, and currently Africa's biggest music export is on African Voices this weekend to talk about her music and life. Very few music lovers would not know Angelique Kidjo who has won a number of music awards including the 2008 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary World Music for her album Djin Djin

Angélique Kidjo was born in Benin and grew up singing as she began her career at the tender age of six by performing in her mother's theatre troupe. In 1983, due to Benin's unstable political climate, she moved to Paris where she studied jazz. Her music is heavily influenced by West African rhythms and incorporates a range of other musical traditions, such as funk, rumba, salsa, jazz, souk and makossa. She is multilingual, speaking and singing in English, French, Yoruba and Fon/Yoruba, the native language of Benin.

The Benin-born singer has become the most popular African female artist on the world-music scene.

She is one of the most electrifying artists in the Pop world. With effortless cross-pollination of the West African traditions of her childhood in Benin with elements of American R&B, funk and jazz, as well as influences from Europe and Latin America, no artist makes music for the world quite like Angelique Kidjo. She spices her funky, vocal-driven dance music with rhythmic and percussive details of her homeland. The distinctly African drumbeats on most of her albums, as well as the richness of her voice and the rhythm of her native language, Fon, have given Kidjo a boost in her rise to the status of international musical sensation.

Angélique Kidjo was born on 14 July 1960 in Ouidah, a small harbour town on the coast of Benin (which at that time was still called Dahomey). Born into the Petah tribe, Angélique was soon baptised Angélique Kpasseloko Hinto Hounsinou Kango Manta Zogbin (a name which, roughly translated, means 'the blood of a lantern will not light a spark').

Young Angélique, who grew up with eight brothers and sisters, was brought up in a highly creative environment. Her mother, Yvonne Kidjo, was a renowned choreographer and theatre director who ran her own business. As for her father, Franck, when he was not working in the local post office he would devote every minute of his spare time to his hobbies : amateur photography and playing the banjo. Angélique was in contact with a wide variety of cultures and musical traditions from an early age, and her parents actively encouraged their daughter to learn several languages. (Angélique's mother tongue is Fon, but she speaks several other languages, many of which she has featured on her popular albums).

Following in the Kidjo family footsteps, Angélique began singing and dancing with her mother's theatre troupe at the tender age of 6. The young prodigy used to accompany the troupe on all their extensive tours, performing all over West Africa, and by the time Angélique reached her 9th birthday she had already established an excellent reputation. Angélique would briefly abandon her theatre career, returning to the classroom at the age of 9, but two years later the young girl would take time off from her school studies to join her brothers' group, performing lead vocals with the Kidjo Brothers Band. Working with her brothers not only gave Angélique a new form of live experience, it also opened up her ears to a new kind of music. For her brothers introduced her to rhythm'n'blues and taught her to sing the latest Afro-American soul sounds - Angélique would soon develop a veritable passion for soul music, learning every single one of James Brown's greatest hits by heart !

Angélique's first big break came in 1979 when a local radio station invited her to perform one of her songs on a daytime show. Angélique, who was a committed anti-apartheid campaigner, chose to perform one of the songs she had recently written about Winnie Mandela and the political struggle in South Africa.

As a result of appearing on local radio, Angélique went on to meet the renowned Cameroonian singer and producer Ekambi Brillant who invited the young 20-year-old singer into the studio to record her debut album. Angélique ended up flying to Paris, for the first time in her life, to record with Brillant and the album "Pretty" (co-produced by Angélique's brother, Oscar Kidjo) hit record stores in 1980. The album proved a phenomenal success in Africa, spawning two successful hit singles, "Pretty" and "Ninivé". Consequently, Ms. Kidjo was catapulted to overnight fame in West Africa, thousands of fans all the way from Togo to the Ivory Coast flocking to see 'Angélique Pretty' perform live.

Following this phenomenal success, Angélique's producer Ekambi Brillant encouraged the young Beninoise funk diva to try launching her career in France. Armed with a box of records and her unique, strident voice 23-year-old Angélique arrived in Paris in 1983, moving in with her brother who was already based in the French capital. But life in Paris was not quite the bed of roses Angélique had been expecting. The young singer struggled to make a living at first and ended up enrolling at university as a law student. She dropped out at the end of the first term, however, determined to make a go of her singing career. Paris was a veritable hotbed of world music talent in the early 80's, several major African artists having chosen to live in the city and record their albums there. It was not long before Angélique Kidjo, inspired by Paris's thriving Afro-Caribbean music scene, would go on to establish herself as a major artist in her own right.

In 1988 Angélique teamed up with a number of young French musicians from the jazz world and formed her own group, Angie Kidjo. (The Beninoise diva would later go on to marry her backing group's bass-player Jean Hébraïl).

The following year Angélique Kidjo went on to launch her solo career in style, recording an interesting modern fusion album entitled "Parakou". This album - the first on which the singer was entirely free to develop her own musical style - featured an eclectic, and extremely catchy, mix of soul, zouk, makossa and reggae, held together with a strong underlying jazz rhythm. The album was aptly named after Parakou, a town in central Benin which has become renowned as a veritable melting-pot of traditional cultures and musical styles. One of the most outstanding tracks on the album "Parakou" was the beautiful ballad "Blewu" (which featured Angélique's old pianist friend Jasper van't Hof on keyboards).

1989 turned out to be a triumphant year in Angélique Kidjo's career. The album "Parakou" proved to be a major success, and then in May of that same year Angélique was invited to fulfill one of her greatest dreams, supporting her childhood idol Miriam Makeba in Paris. The concerts at the Olympia were an enormous success, the South African star and the Beninoise diva getting on like a house on fire. In fact, both singers found that they shared the same dynamic temperament and the same political ideals - and Miriam Makeba would delight Angélique Kidjo, by expressing great admiration for her 'sister's' voice.

On 31 October 1992 Angélique Kidjo, who was four months pregnant at this point, returned to the Olympia in Paris. This time round the Beninoise singer was no longer the warm-up act for Miriam Makeba or Nina Simone, but a major international star in her own right - and she was in the position of choosing which artist was going to support her. (Angélique chose the up-and-coming young Zairean singer Lokua Kanza). After this major Paris concert Angélique retired from the forefront of the French music scene to look after her new baby daughter, Naïma-Laura, who was born in the spring of 1993. However, the singer did not give up her music career altogether. While she was looking after her baby she still found time to work on her songwriting, preparing material for a new album which was released at the beginning of 94.

In the spring of 95 Angélique Kidjo returned to her homeland with her husband Jean Hébraïl. But this was to be no major holiday - on the contrary, the couple would spend several months travelling the length and breadth of Benin, recording the traditional music of various ethnic groups. This painstaking research would result in material for Angélique's next album, "Fifa".

Angélique flew out to the United States to record a brand new album entitled "Oremi". Angélique and her husband, Jean Hébrail, wrote most of the twelve tracks on "Oremi" - an album which was largely inspired by jazz and rhythm'n'blues - but the album also included an innovative cover version of Jimi Hendrix's legendary hit "Voodoo Child". A number of prestigious guest stars, including singer Cassandra Wilson and sax-player Branford Marsalis, joined Angélique in the studio to record "Oremi".

Angélique, who had begun spending an increasing amount of time in the States, decided to move to New York in the summer of 98, claiming that there were more musical facilities and creative opportunities in the U.S.

Angélique Kidjo, was appointed a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador on 25 July 2002. Kidjo is a passionate advocate for girls' education and has made that a focus of her UNICEF partnership.

She is the founder of the Batonga Foundation which supports both secondary school and higher education for girls in Africa. "For me, education is so crucial because everything goes with it, like healthy politics and development," she said. "Young people are the hope of my continent. When I watch the children of Africa, all dreams seem possible."

As Goodwill Ambassador, Ms. Kidjo travels widely to advocate for UNICEF-supported programmes. She is an energetic campaigner for children and young people, often speaking out on issues that affect them and making time to visit UNICEF programmes while on her concert tours.

In the course of her successful career Angélique Kidjo has spread her rhythmic Afro-funk fusion to the four corners of the globe and become almost as famous as her childhood idols, Miriam Makeba and Aretha Franklin. With her fun-loving personality, her on-stage charisma and her totally unique voice, Ms. Kidjo is certainly one of the most popular artists on the current world scene.

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