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Queen of African music, Angelique Kidjo, ‘can’t wait’ for Hong Kong concert debut

Music is in me, singer says as she reflects on back-to-back albums and a second Grammy Award

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 October, 2015, 8:34am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 October, 2015, 11:47am

The flyer for Angelique Kidjo’s  performance at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall this Thursday  describes her as the “Queen of African music”.

That reign began in 2008, following the death of her friend and inspirer Miriam Makeba  – “Mama Africa”  – to whom she paid tribute with a special performance last year  at Carnegie Hall.

Like Makeba, she is almost as well  known for her work as a supporter of civil rights causes as she is as a singer and songwriter, and also like Makeba she sees her  artist-activist role as two parts of an indivisible whole.

Kidjo, 55,  has visited Hong Kong previously as an Oxfam ambassador, but this will be her first performance  in the city. “Can’t wait!” she says over the phone from New York. Her upcoming concert is part of this year’s World Cultures Festival organised by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.

Her latest album, Sings,  which she  recorded with the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg  and released in March 2015, has been critically acclaimed, and expands on her work with composer Philip Glass,  who composed Ife: Three Yoruba Songs  for her. She has performed that work with orchestras in Europe and the United States.

Her Hong Kong performance, however, will be based on her previous album, Eve  (2014),  for which she picked up her second  Grammy Award – the first was for 2007’s Djinn Djinn  – in February this year. The album is a tribute to the women of Africa.

“They’re the best,” she says, “They work endless hours. They’re the first to wake up, the last to go to sleep and they go unnoticed, and they do it all with great beauty and dignity and with no complaints at all, and I wanted to celebrate that. They are just amazing.”

Accentuating the positives about Africa is something of a Kidjo mission. She believes the continent is portrayed in an unbalanced way in the media. “People are more interested in showing the women of Africa that have been used as a weapon of war by being raped. The whole world takes great pleasure in showing the African people in a bad light,” the singer says. “I see the beauty, and it is something very inspiring and positive and I wish the world could see that.”  

Kidjo grew up in Benin,  formerly Dahomey,  in West Africa,  a country in which women were not encouraged to express themselves. Her father, however, encouraged both his wife and his daughter’s creative aspirations.

Eve Kidjo, for whom the album is named, ran a theatre group in which her daughter learned some of her stagecraft. At home, in addition to African music, the family listened to American popular music with African roots. As well as Miriam Makeba and Bella Bellow  she admired Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana.

She has recorded Santana’s Samba Pa Ti,  to which she supplied Yoruba  lyrics, and Carlos Santana is one of a long list of famous musicians with whom she has collaborated. Others include Alicia Keys, Branford Marsalis,  Ziggy Marley,  Peter Gabriel, Bono, John Legend, Herbie Hancock, and the Kronos Quartet.  

“I went to music school but basically what I learned was from  the traditional musicians in my country,” she recalls. “There’s not one music you can bring to them that they can’t play. It’s just not possible.”

Within West Africa she was already a successful recording artist while still in her teens, but to spread her wings internationally the young Kidjo had to leave Benin. She became a music student in Paris, where she met her partner in music and in life, record producer and musician Jean Hebrail.  

“We are both obsessed with music. We have a passion for music which is a very strong bond,”  says Kidjo.

 She earned herself a reputation as a live performer, and got her major break as an international recording artist in 1991  when Island Records  founder Chris Blackwell  signed her. She  continues to find much of her inspiration in the music of Benin, where her mother still lives, and which she visits frequently.

“Every time I go I get a lot of energy from my mother,” she says. As for the music, “It’s complex. I’m still learning”.

Her success as a recording artist has opened many doors for her activism and advocacy. As well as performing at Barack Obama’s inauguration ball she has been able to discuss international girls’ education at the White House with Michelle Obama

She has been a  Unicef goodwill ambassador since 2002, and in 2006 established the Batonga Foundation  which funds education for African girls. Nelson Mandela was a fan of hers, and also an inspiration to her as a person.

“He was an amazing human being. How many members of the human family could spend so much time in jail and come out with no hate? Knowing that you have to forgive [in order] to move on. If you cannot forgive someone who hurt you then you are still in prison. The best thing you can leave is a legacy of how good you have been to yourself and other people. For me that’s the bottom line,” she says.

He was an amazing human being. How many members of the human family could spend so much time in jail and come out with no hate? 
Angelique Kidjo on Nelson Mandela

The death in 2008 of her father, to whom she dedicated her Oyo  album, released in 2010,  was a milestone in her life. His passing gave her a reason to reflect on the past, and in 2014 she co-authored a memoir called Spirit Rising,  which tells the story of a life already fully lived, although she is only in middle age.

“I never thought about writing an autobiography. I don’t even see it as that,” she says. “It was supposed to be a cookbook and the editor said ‘We need the arc of your story’. It’s hard to write a book. It’s easier to write a song.”

Her other commitments are extensive, but Kidjo says she has no difficulty in maintaining her focus on music, and now she is looking to the future.

“I’ve done two albums back to back. I don’t know what the next one is going to be. I can’t tell you. But one thing I know for sure is that music is in me, and I’m going to follow my inspiration.”

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall  on Thursday October 29 at 8pm.  Tickets are HK$450 350, 250 and 150 from Urbtix www.urbtix.hk. Enquiries 23701044.