‘Queen of African music’ Angelique Kidjo sings On Mass at the Roundhouse
PUBLISHED: 17:30 03 October 2017
The four times Grammy winner will be joined by 180 young musicians and circus performers from around the globe at the Roundhouse
When Angelique Kidjo steps onto the Roundhouse stage in November, she will be in her “sanctuary”.
Speaking from her home in New York, the Beninese diva explains why taking part in a project that strips away borders through creative collaboration is right up her street.
“As soon as someone explained the project, I said ‘oh yeah I’m in!’” she says laughing her trademark throaty chuckle.
“Working with young people I don’t know and communicating with them through music...we talk about communication all the time but we don’t communicate at all! All my life, music has been the thing that allows me to break boundaries and be at ease with other people when I don’t speak their language.”
In fact the 57-year-old speaks, and sings, in four languages, and the kind of collaboration that involves sending her song to young musicians from India, Palestine, Brazil and the Faroe Islands to freely interpret and fuse with their own sounds, is what has made her “the musician I am today”.
“I like mixed up stuff. I am really excited to see what happens and humbled I am able to do this.
“I like to put myself in danger. Whenever I say I can’t do this I push myself to say great I can do it, it’s amazing.”
She doesn’t even need to hear what they have done with her song: “Surprise may be the best thing, to have my jaw on the floor saying ‘I never thought about my song being like this’”
Her infectious albums and hits like Batonga and Malaika are a melting pot of jazz, Latin, pop and traditional African music threaded with influences from childhood heroes like Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, and Hendrix.
“Traditional music is about how can you tell a story that your ancestors started and make it relevant, turn it upside down and be free to express yourself,” she says.
The song she has written for On Mass blends traditional African music with jazz and has typically empowering lyrics by a woman who started performing at six and has achieved success through sheer force of will.
“I can stand proud my entire life. It doesn’t matter how powerful you are, you need to play the role in the world that you want. Be yourself, be strong stand up for what you believe in. Feel how you want to feel and be whoever you want to be,” she advises.
As a UNICEF ambassador, Kidjo has given back to the continent she sprang from, and has also co-founded a foundation to ensure more African girls get a secondary education. Four years ago, armed with an 8-track recorder she travelled through Kenya and Benin, gathering the sounds of women singing. The resulting Grammy-winning album Eve, celebrates “the strength and pride of African women”.
“I was tired of seeing every time on the news African women portrayed in a conflict zone, raped, displaced having FGM - as though in the whole continent everbody’s cut!” she says.
“I wanted to hear from African women, to hear their voices, so I went around looking for great music. They asked me: ‘why are we portrayed all the time with misery? ‘did Western people never lose a child, never lose anyone?’ I didn’t want to look at their suffering but to hear their voices speak so gracefully. I said ‘let them see that you are a human being too, you love your kids, sing with me’, from the moment they understood what I was trying to do it was joyful.”
While awards are lovely, Kidjo says chasing sales means “you lose something.”
“If you are thinking about selling millions you are never going to be satisfied. That can kill you. The song has to speak to me before I can put it on an album. If I don’t like it, it doesn’t make it. You must do what you love.”
Music, she points out plays with people’s emotions so making it “comes with a huge responsibility”
“People play it in privacy, to feel better, to be entertained. If you do that and also win an award, well hallelujah.”
Despite making 13 albums she finds going into the studio a “necessary evil”.
“If I don’t go how am I going to go on stage? For me to let people understand my work I need to record it. But for me the stage is my sanctuary a safe place. Everyone’s welcome on that stage. I receive love and strength from the people as much as I give. I want people to have fun, to feel happy and make the crowd feel we are all wonderful.”
On Mass culminates in a live performance on November 12 when each collective will perform their version of the track with Anjelique. roundhouse.co.uk