She is not afraid to scream. Never been. In her music, singer Angélique Kidjo can sing as sweetly as she can growl, but the exclamation marks also come through the speakers during an interview from behind the webcam. “Build! Without that weird concept of borders or colors. Please build!” she yells from Washington with eyes that spit fire.
She has just started an argument about the new generation of climate activists, who according to her are a lot more constructive than their parents. “Adults need to stop thinking their children are stupid.”
Perhaps it’s because she has been a UNICEF ambassador for years and she sometimes addresses or sings to the United Nations or the Pope, but Angélique Kidjo (1960) has the ability to speak in generalities and tile wisdom without sounding cliché. “Violence is always a manifestation of your failure. We don’t wait for Martians, let’s build!”
Angélique Kpasseloko Hinto Hounsinou Kandjo Manta Zogbin Kidjo is her full name and her music is heard all over the world. During Holland Festival she is ‘associate artist’ as the organization calls it, something like curator and main guest. Her performances will undoubtedly be accompanied by statements. There is very little that the Beninese singer does not have an opinion about.
She opens Holland Festival with her album Mother Nature, for which she recently won her fifth Grammy. An album about climate change and other concerns of the young African artists she invited as a guest. Her music theater piece Yemandja is about the slavery past, set in the historically important city of Ouidah, where she grew up. And for ife Philip Glass set three of her poems on Yoruba mythology to classical music.
Comfortable life is only half life
Three different shows in three weeks; she likes to take risks, she says. “Comfortable life is only half life.” At the time of the interview, she is playing two other projects in America. In Remaining in Light she gives her interpretation of the 1980 Talking Heads album, in celiac she pays tribute to the Cuban-American salsa singer Celia Cruz.
The projects vary in language, theme and genre. How do you prepare for a different repertoire every week?
Somehow my brain is trained to remember it all step by step. I think I learned it in Ouidah. My nickname was ‘When, Why, How?’ The knowledge in Benin was not written down. You had to ask to know.
“Every time I was there, I learned new songs from my aunts and uncles. One day I asked my uncle: how do you make a song? He sighed: why do you always ask so many questions? But he said it consists of three things: melody, rhythm and words. With a good song that everyone remembers, you as a writer no longer know which came first. It has become a trinity. I cannot explain how that works. I don’t read music, I don’t write it, I don’t know what chords I use. I just grab my microphone and record it.”
She speaks five languages fluently: Fon, French, English, Yoruba and Guin. Sometimes she sings in a language she made up herself, like in the song ‘Batonga’, which is also the name of her foundation with which she wants to give leadership to girls and young women. She coined the word when she was eleven years old and a group of girls were bullying her. Her father asked her to describe what she felt. “Batonga,” she said. It means something like: leave me alone, I can do what I want. Batonga became her life motto.
Kidjo was born into a liberal family in Benin’s largest city. “Wikipedia says I’m from Ouidah, but it’s Cotonou. I just can’t get it changed. We did have family homes in Ouidah and I went there often.” Her parents ensured that all children received a good education. At the age of six, she performed in her mother’s theater company. At home she heard both traditional and modern music: James Brown, Fela Kuti, Jimi Hendrix, Hugh Masekela.
Her debut album pretty with her brother became a success. She toured all over West Africa. But due to the political unrest in Marxist Benin, she was unable to make music independently and moved to Paris in 1983. “In the clubs where I played, I kept hearing that there was a Dutchman who was looking for an African artist who understood jazz. That turned out to be Jasper van ‘t Hof, one of the best pianists.”
He asked her to come to Rotterdam to get acquainted. “I was young, but not crazy. I told him there was a train from Paris and half an hour later another was returning from the same platform. He had thirty minutes to convince me. I met a whirlwind. He taught me to embrace the craziness of jazz.”
Her European career started with Jasper van ‘t Hof’s group Pili Pili, a mix of African and European jazz and rock. Kidjo became lead singer. “I also got to know many Surinamese musicians. That’s why I’m happy that I’m going to play at Holland Festival with Jeangu Macrooy. African music is in their blood, because the brainwash of slavery has not worked. The river cannot flow if it forgets its source. That Yoruba saying is in the performance Yemandja†
That story is set in Ouidah at the time of slavery. I was there once to do research at a festival and the whole town was music. This is probably not always the case, but…
Well it is! Music is the center of everything, every day we dance. Much of this is reflected in American music such as jazz and rap. When something important happens in Benin, a man starts talking and singing, like a traditional rapper. Others sing along, improvise, and then there is a break. The dancers begin and the rhythm changes. We believe that the drum is life. Our music tells stories, wrapped in one big jam. Our ancestors told their stories in songs and we can change them, make them relevant for today.”
Ouidah was one of the largest slave ports in Africa from which an estimated one million people were traded. When did you first hear about slavery?
“Not at school. The books we used were the settlers’ books. The first time was when I was about nine years old. My brother played guitar. I was always listening to him. He had on an afro wig that day. He said he wanted to look like Jimi Hendrix. I thought the music sounded African, but he said, No, Hendrix is African American. I had never heard of it. My grandmother explained that Hendrix was descended from traded slaves. I let it rest, it just didn’t fit my worldview.
“But when I was fifteen I heard Winnie Mandela talking about Apartheid in South Africa. That was an important and frightening moment. I can be killed because I’m black? I was mad at my parents for never telling me about it. They didn’t want us to feel disadvantaged because we were black. We always learned that you can solve something yourself without looking elsewhere for the blame.”
Your latest album Mother Nature includes climate change. A theme that you already touched on in 1993 in the song ‘Agolo’.
“I grew up with it. My grandmother on my mother’s side was a herbalist. She woke me up at six in the morning and then I had to come along to learn which plant was for what. Pfff, I just wanted to sleep man. But my interest was piqued. When I threw a piece of paper on the floor, like all the other kids, she got furious. I had to show respect to the earth.
“When I was pregnant with my daughter in 1993, I realized that the garbage can was full every two days. In a household of two adults. What went wrong there? Then I wrote agolo† A scream. It means ‘Listen!’ Listen to mother earth, we will kill her.”
No one has listened. Otherwise you wouldn’t have had to write Mother Nature.
“Yes! Look at Greta. The young generation refuses to ignore it. We have to pay attention to them, that generation is constructive.” [Dit is het moment dat ze voor de webcam begint op te roepen tot actie.] “Build!”
„I have for the album Mother Nature young artists wanted. For example, Yemi Alade, who is also coming to Holland Festival, one of the biggest stars in Nigeria. She made a song about police brutality. Rapper Sampa The Great chose to sing about human rights. The album aims to connect youth in Africa, Europe and America.”
The river cannot flow if it forgets its source. That Yoruba saying is in the performance
African artists have been listened to much more in recent years and African American musicians sometimes even use the spiritual voodoo symbolism you grew up with, like Beyoncé for example. That was unthinkable twenty years ago.
“They are beginning to realize that that religion has been demonized in times of slavery, including by the church. My story of Yemandja – goddess of sea and fertility – begins with a baptismal ritual. Christianity and the orishas (spirits) of the Yoruba can coexist, because even when I call Yemandja or Oshun I do so through the almighty god. But the people who came up with their business proposition of slavery have used the Christian faith to justify their barbaric acts. It’s a trauma for all of us. Don’t tell fables about it and don’t point your finger.
“Our voodoo gods are not infallible, not always good or evil, and some are husband and wife in one. All that is said and done in the name of the Christian god… wars, homophobia, transgender phobia… it’s so stupid, you deny your own humanity. We love our gods because the complexity of the people is in them. I want that story with Yemandja narrate.”
The third project at the festival is Ifé, together with Philip Glass. Was it difficult to unite Yoruba lyrics with classical music?
“I’ve known Philip for a long time. He asked me to write three poems in Yoruba. I chose the myth of the world created in forty days. On day 41 there are two snakes, male and female, who make a ring around the world so that it does not fall. That became the rainbow snake Oshunmare that you also encounter in many other cultures.
“I spoke it in Yoruba, a tonal language, but also translated it into French, because that’s what Philip speaks. A year later he sends me a piano track. When I heard it, I asked him: how the hell do you do this? He looked at me with twinkling eyes and said, ‘Hmmm, you don’t know everything about me, Angélique. I studied phonetics.’ He had transcribed my language sound by sound and it was perfect. Words, melody and rhythm, the trinity.”
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of June 2, 2022