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Be specific: Angelique Kidjo on the influences behind her new album "Oyo"

Angelique KidjoAngelique Kidjo can cook up - and sing up - a storm. (Photo by Nabil Elderkin)

By David Malitz

When I called Angelique Kidjo earlier this week to talk about her new album, "Oyo," we first got sidetracked with a bit of food talk. She was in her Brooklyn kitchen preparing potato leek soup, regretting the lack of cooking she gets to do on tour and lamenting the predictability of men when it comes to food. An unadventerous eater, I told her I certainly fell into that category. "My husband's the same," She said. "I'm like, Can't you be a little adventurous? Come on! Life is full of surprises. Take it! Be courageous. There are so many flavors in the world."

That last statement serves as a good lead in to Kidjo's new album, "Oyo," which pays tribute to the diverse sounds and influences that helped shape her career, from a child in Benin to the Grammy-award winner she is now. Kidjo performs Saturday night at Lisner Auditorium. And if you ever find yourself lucky enough to be invited to her home for dinner she has some simple advice: "Don't eat lunch."

How did the idea for the record come about?
It came about after my father passed away, basically. People used to tell me when you lose one of your parents that's when you realize you become an adult. And I used to say to myself, what kind of stupidness is that? You are an adult or you are not an adult. What does it have to do with your parents dying? But then I just felt like that.

So in order for me to really get over my grief I just decided that I was going to do this album because my father was the one that really, in my early age, exposed me to the world through music. And I remember 10 days before he passed away I was able to go and see him and when he looked up he said, "What are you doing here?! Aren't you touring?" And I said, "Yes, Dad, I'm touring, but you're not feeling good I have to come and see you." And he was having a lot of trouble talking at that time. And I said, "Why shouldn't I come and see you? And he looked at me and said, "Do not cancel any of your musical engagements to come and see me. Whatever, however sick I am. Because that's what you are supposed to do. We have supported you since you were a child, don't throw that away.

So that's my dad. The album is because of him. The music he brought to me. He always said to me, "It's not because you are born in Africa, you are a second-class human being. You deserve the best. I'm not giving you guys an education to come up with excuses to not do what you got to do to be successful in life. Do what you love to do with all of your heart. I've given you what I can afford to give you. If that is not enough, when you grow up go find it. Be curious. Go to other people's cultures. Go meet people. If you stay in your bubble you won't learn anything.

The album is to say thanks to him. And not just him but all of the artists, male and female, alive or dead, that have been really at the root of the person I am today. Because music has always been my oxygen. I'd rather go home and listen to a new album that has been released than to go out looking for trouble with my girlfriends. A lot of my girlfriends - they look at me like I'm weird. Why do you want to go listen to music all the time when we're having fun? We have this guy looking at you. Which guy? I don't care! I'm going home. Because the music was more important to me than exploring anything else but music.

(Explaining the significance of Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin and more, after the jump.)

This album is full of covers but "Move On Up" by Curtis Mayfield might be the most well known song to casual listeners.

"Move On Up" -- not only is it an anthem for the youth of the planet and specifically for the youth of Africa, but it's an anthem we all have to start singing because the times for us, we don't know what the outcome of this economic crisis will be. We don't know where this world is leading us. A lot of threat, a lot of danger out there. But we cannot let it sink us. We've got to move on up.

And that song -- when I started listening to it in Africa, I barely spoke English but I got the urgency that was in the song. I turned to my brother and said, "What is this all about?" And he started telling me about poor people in America, the city riots. And I looked at him and said, "American poor people? You're joking, right? It's the richest country in the planet!" And he said they had poor people too.

And it's for people to be more ambitious. It doesn't matter where you come from, you can achieve greatness. So I thought, that's kind of interesting. That's what Dad used to say to us. So that's why the song is there. Because the mood around the world - I travel a lot - there's a lot of fear looming everywhere. I'm afraid that fear might unleash violence. So we have to have that positive message.

How about [an original song like] "Kelele"?

It's the same kind of topic. Somebody will say, "Why do you invent all those words?" And I say, I don't know, the word comes in with the lyrics and if it doesn't mean anything I don't care. "Kelele" is like when you're knocking [hear her knocking on something] on somebody's door. So what I'm saying is that if I have to go from door to door to wake you all up when there's so much to do to create a better and more wealthy and equal world, I will do so. Because we all can do it. Because we all can play a huge role. Don't limit yourself to your own ambition. Dream big. Not only for yourself and your own family but for the country where you come from and by extension the whole planet.

Besides the lyrical message, what about the music itself? It has a very specific regional sound.

It was rich, it's still rich. But people don't know that. That's what's really appealing in my life. Even though I was exposed to music from America, Latin America, the British, the French -- the whole world -- the African modern music was home, too. And it was, for me, the link between everything in traditional music. At least I could put it in the perspective that we can do the same, even if we put our own rhythm into it.

James Brown was the one that everyone wanted to mimic at that time. Everybody wanted to be James Brown. They wore wigs, there were impersonators of James Brown - tons of them, wherever you go. Afrobeat, soukous, all those rhythms. So I needed to do that because that's my childhood. That High Life, then Afrobeat, then soukous, makossa - all the rhythms possible in Africa. We go from one to the other. We go from the funk to the salsa to the African music and every kind of music possible when we go to dance.

How about "Baby I Love You" - Aretha Franklin was a big influence, too, right?

You know when I was discovering music most of the albums that came home at that time were only men on the cover. It was only men all the time! So I was like, "Hmm. That's kind of interesting. Does that mean because I'm a girl I can't sing?"

So one day a friend of my brother, he left Benin, he was one of the first percussion players that my brother I had. He went to study in New York and he came back with piles of Stax music, Aretha Franklin, a lot of stuff. I start going through the albums that he brought and I'm like, "Whaaaat? There's a woman in here! Jesus, thank God!" And I start listening to it. And I go further down and here's a white lady -- it was Janis Joplin. I like this! He brought a bunch of albums and that was the first time ever I had heard female artists from around the world.

Because all the albums brought back home then, it was only men. From Carlos Santana all the way down. Only men. Stevie Wonder -- everybody was a man. And I was like, "Damn, I don't like that!" So Aretha was the first one that arrived as a female artist. Then I started to ask more questions to go find more women. So then I started to have an identity among all those men that I was listening to. Aretha had been the first one -- African-American lady -- that I saw on an LP. So I was just like, "Woo hoo hoo hoo! I like this girl!" That's one of the artists that I really look up to because she really can sing. And she's just soulful. Period.

How about the song "Dil Main Chuppa Ke Pyar Ka" - there's a good story behind that one.

That song -- that's a story. Man! When it comes to movies in Benin, and most of the countries in Africa, we're not rich enough to afford American movies or French movies. We don't have the money. And Africa had been doing trade with India for so long, they bring their own culture, they bring their own movies. And we're all happy to pay a little bit of money to go to it. And I always dragged my father to go. I took him more than 10 times to see the same movie. And that movie had stayed at least five years in the movie theater. (Laughs.) I'm telling you, I've seen that movie more than I don't know. I hate Mondays, so I always have to go to the movies to get ready. Also most of the movies have happy endings, so this is what I need to start my week, to gear me up.

So one day my father says, "Here's the money, you go, I'm not going anymore." And we would invent a song. Another song. There's the song on the album. But we, ourselves, as the public, we invent a song. It becomes a kind of society. We'll be speaking loud in the movies. "No, don't open the door, the bad guy's behind the door!" But the guy can't hear you, he's in the movie!

I was looking for that song for so many years. I couldn't get rid of it. I was just so haunted by it. And I was telling my husband, "I got to get this out of this system, I have to find this song." I looked on the Internet - I didn't remember the title of the movie, I didn't remember the song at all. I just remembered two lines. So I sang those two lines on an MP3 for my husband and I sent it to my brother. He worked for an airline company and he travels a lot, to India. So he took it to India and said, "OK guys, you know better than I do. I've seen this movie when I was a child but my sister wants the lyrics and we don't know where to find it. Can somebody help us please?"

And they said, "Play the two lines you have." And they said, "That sounds familiar. We know it." And then all these people are blabbing, chatting in the room, arguing, then one of them goes on the Internet and he says, "Can I say something?" And everyone says, "What's up?" And he says, "I found the song." They all go, "Damn!" So that's how I got the lyrics, and the meaning. My brother sent it to me and I was in heaven. My brother said, "I wish you were with me, it was hilarious. The Indians take so much pride in their culture that they were like, what we don't know this?! We've got to find this!"

Because all my Indian friends in the world, especially in London, they could not remember. So I was about to give up. And my brother called for another reason and I said, "Are you going to India pretty soon?" And he said, "Yeah, I'm leaving in two weeks from now." So I said, "Oh do you remember this song?" And he starts singing the song that we invented for the movie. And I said, "Not that one! The other one!" And he said, "I know what you mean, I just can't remember."

On the album I thank the guy because he did a great job giving me all the lyrics and the explanation so I could know what I was singing about. I don't want to be singing about something obscene! And he sent me everything. It was amazing, man.

By David Malitz  |  March 26, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  Be specific  | Tags: Angelique Kidjo  
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