Angelique Kidjo on her Hong Kong concert tribute to three singers she looks up to
Singer talks about the debt she owes Miriam Makeba, whose mantle of Queen of African music she’s inherited, flamboyant salsa star Celia Cruz, and Nina Simone
It is now just over two years since Angelique Kidjo’s Hong Kong concert debut. At the end of that show, which had the entire audience on its feet, the “Queen of African music” expressed an intention to return.
As good as her word, on November 3 she will be back at the Cultural Centre Concert Hall in Tsim Sha Tsui, and almost certainly getting the same response. When Kidjo performs, audiences getting up to dance is not so much an option as a requirement.
Her previous appearance in Hong Kong followed the release of two albums back to back – Sings, which she made with the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, and Eve, both of which won Grammy Awards.
There have been no new releases since, but Kidjo’s life continues to be a whirlwind of activity. She has, for instance, developed two new stage shows – one a salsa extravaganza built around the repertoire of the late “Queen of Salsa” Celia Cruz, and another based on the groundbreaking 1980 album by Talking Heads, Remain In Light.
She also put together a concert for the 2016 Montreux Jazz Festival featuring a line-up of “African Women All-Stars” including Asa, Lura, Dobet Gnaore, and the Trio Teriba from her native Benin.
Kidjo also remains highly active as an advocate for African women’s and children’s rights, as a Unicef Goodwill Ambassador, and as the head of her Batonga Foundation that funds the education of African girls.
She is a believer in giving back, and her upcoming concert, which is part of the World Cultures Festival organised by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, will take the form of a tribute to three of her formative influences as a performer – Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone and Cruz.
“I have so much stuff in my head and my heart that I want to do, but only this much time in the world,” says Kidjo. “I decided that I wanted to pay tribute to some of the women who I look up to and who influenced me. I can’t pay tribute to all of them. I have to choose, so I’m starting with those three.”
Kidjo – who became known internationally with the release of her first album for Island Records, Logozo, in 1991 – inherited the “Queen of African music” status from “Mama Africa” Makeba, who she knew, and first heard on a record brought home by her father.
Seeing it, as well as hearing it, was life-changing.
“An African woman on the cover of an album? That in itself was a revelation to me,” the singer recalls. “I put the album on and it was an epiphany. ‘Me too. I want to be like that. I want to do this’. I realised you could be a woman in Africa and have an international career, without being somebody’s wife or under somebody’s thumb. A lot of things went through my brain in a fraction of a second.”
She first saw Cruz in Benin, performing with Johnny Pacheco and the Fania All-Stars, and that also was a moment of revelation.
“We love salsa in Africa. People don’t realise how big it is. When she walked on stage my jaw dropped. First of all the way she dressed. ‘Oh my God,’ I thought ‘It takes confidence to dress like that. How is she going to be able to sing in those high heels?’ but she did, and I thought ‘I want to be this flamboyant person too, doing my thing. I want to be like that’,” says Kidjo.
Later in Paris, where she moved in 1983 to become a music student, she met Cruz, and the two singers connected instantly.
“I couldn’t speak Spanish to save my life but I started singing her song, Quimbara, and she said, ‘Do you want to sing it with me onstage?’ and my eyes bulged out of my head. After that we met a couple of times at the Grammys, and every time we met she called me her ‘Black Sister’,” she says.
An encounter with Simone was more tense. The diva’s manager at the time was interested in also managing Kidjo, and Simone wanted to know whether she was trying to poach him.
“I was saying ‘No. I don’t want to. Oh Lord, don’t be mad at me’. It was funny. Now I look at old videos of Nina Simone and I think ‘What a prodigy’,” she says.
“It is sad that she was not able to have a career in classical music, because her touch on the piano is unique. It has that quality. She’s known everywhere in the world, so I don’t think she needs me for her legacy, but for myself I just need to say ‘Thank you’.”
A link between the three divas and Kidjo herself, she points out, is that all have lived a life in “exile”, although she is a regular visitor to Benin where her 90-year-old mother – another inspiration who she says is “a tornado” – still lives. The Batonga Foundation is also very active there.
Cruz and Makeba were prevented from returning to Cuba and South Africa respectively by governments which they had been critical of while overseas. Simone, who protested against US government policies by withholding tax, took refuge from arrest in Barbados and eventually chose to settle in France.
The set list for Kidjo’s Hong Kong show has been assembled with highlights from full-length concert tributes she has previously performed for each of those crucial influences.
The most recent was the Celia Cruz-dominated Tribute To Salsa show, which she premiered in July 2016 at the Celebrate Brooklyn Festival in New York, and then took to the Monterey Jazz Festival and the Hollywood Bowl. Further performances are scheduled in Europe.
She is also recording a new album. Her reinterpretation of the Remain In Light songs at Carnegie Hall, featuring a cast of guest stars including Nona Hendryx and Talking Heads’ leader David Byrne, was a critical hit.
A studio recorded CD of the arrangements, which make the African elements of the music more explicit, is forthcoming. She is not prepared to comment on its progress, though.
“You’re going to hear about that when it’s ready,” she says.
Meanwhile there are more creative debts to influences to discharge, and she says this may well be reflected in future concerts. Before the age of 10 she was already hooked on James Brown and Jimi Hendrix, so perhaps they may get their turn.
“Next time it may be a combination of men and women. I don’t know. I take it as it comes, when I’m inspired,” she says.
Angelique Kidjo, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Nov 3, 8pm.
HK$180 to HK$480. Inquiries 2370 1044