Meshing musical worlds
Angélique Kidjo began to see the give-and-take between musical cultures long before the Internet made the world such a connected place. Growing up in the West African country of Benin in the ’60s, Kidjo got turned onto music largely through the influence of an American who played electric guitar, Jimi Hendrix. But to Kidjo, Hendrix wasn’t half of the world away.
“I saw a Jimi Hendrix album, and I said, ‘That guy is African. He has an afro,'” recalled Kidjo, who performs Saturday, June 23, at Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ June Festival, opening for Steve Winwood. “But why is he singing in this language I don’t understand?”The 46-year-old Kidjo relocated from Benin to Paris in her early 20s, and moved to New York, her current home, 10 years ago. But maintaining her musical roots has been easy. Blues, the core of American music, traces its lineage from Western Africa to New Orleans, brought to this country by African slaves. Kidjo, in a sense, has just followed those roots, the music and the emotions they conveyed, a few centuries later.”The blues form of art was brought by the slaves to America,” said Kidjo by phone. “Rock ‘n’ roll is linked to the blues. The blues code is found in rock ‘n’ roll. For me, as a descendant from Africa, why did I relate so much to Jimi Hendrix? Because of the sadness that was reflected in his music.”
Since 2002, Kidjo has created a CD trilogy comprising 2002’s “Black Ivory Soul,” 2004’s “Oyaya!” and “Djin Djin,” released last month. The trilogy is all about connections to African music. The first CD explored links between Benin and Brazil; the second between African and Caribbean styles. “Djin Djin” – whose title refers to the African bell sound that represents each new day – brings it all back home. It is Kidjo’s celebration of her native music, but delivered through her worldly perspective. The album features guests from Jamaica (Ziggy Marley), the U.K. (Peter Gabriel, Joss Stone), the U.S. (Branford Marsalis, Carlos Santana, Alicia Keys), and Africa (Amadou & Miriam, known as “the blind couple from Mali”). In addition to songs co-written by Kidjo, there is a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” and an Africanized take on Ravel’s “Bolero.”For Kidjo, just as important as the big-name musicians are two lesser-knowns: Crespin Kpitiki and Benoit Avihoue. Both are Benin percussionists, members of the Gangba Brass Band. Other musicians featured on the album come from the States, the Caribbean and Brazil, but the drummers had to come from West Africa. Drumming is the foundation of African music, and thus the key building block for American, Cuban and South American styles.When slaves were brought to the Americas, said Kidjo, “their masters took the drum away from him. They thought if they had the drums, they would want freedom. In Africa, we used the drum to communicate. The drum is our telephone. There’s a code we use in the drums.” New Orleans and Cuba play such a vital role in American music, added Kidjo, because they were places where, thanks to the shelter provided by indigenous people, drums remained in the hands of the slaves.When Kidjo first came to the States, in the early ’90s, she was astonished to see how limited the appetite was for non-American music. “They listened only to their own music,” she said. “I was very skeptical. I was listening to American music as a child. I never thought, I can’t listen to American music because I’m African.”
Illuminating the lines between Africa, North America, the Caribbean and South America is Kidjo’s way of bringing down those walls. “That’s something I like to do, because music proves to you that there are no real differences between us,” she said.Angélique Kidjo and Steve Winwood play Saturday, June 23, in the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Festival. The festival concludes Sunday, June 24, with the Black Crowes and Marcus Miller.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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