What’s Up Interview: Angelique Kidjo Bringing “Remain in Light” Tour to The Vets Feb. 22

Grammy Winner to Play Providence

Angelique Kidjo (Photo: Danny Clinch)

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Angelique Kidjo is a force of nature. She’s a four-time Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter and a world traveling humanitarian known for her role as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. She’s collaborated with a range of artists including Dave Matthews, Alicia Keys and Carlos Santana. Later this month, the native of Benin, Africa will be appearing in Providence along with her band, where she’ll interpret the music of the Talking Heads.

I spoke to Kidjo the day after she won her Grammy Award for “Best World Music Album,” the same day the helicopter crash took the life of Kobe Bryant and 8 others.

“It was a big day and a sad day at the same time,” she remarked. “I was full of energy till the news of Kobe’s death came. It just cut me in half.”

Kidjo continued, “I decided to do a song to cheer up people, because above everything we have to celebrate life. In my culture when somebody passes away, every ceremony is always accompanied by music. To celebrate his vibrancy when he played, all that was in my mind was to make people sing and celebrate our shared humanity.”

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Kidjo has overcome a lot in her life, emigrating from war-torn Benin to France in 1983. She began a new life there, doing odd jobs and working her craft.

“When I left my county in 1983, I was muted, I was in pain and not able to speak up because of the Communist regime. The lack of music, because all music had been banned, you wake up in the morning, all you hear on the radio is ‘ready for the revolution, the fight continues.’ I couldn’t call my mother Mom, but (had to call her) comrade. It was a feeling of being in jail in your own home.”

It was in France that she first heard Talking Heads, although at the time, she didn’t know who they were.

“In Paris I was a music junkie, every time I heard a new song, I was asking who is this? The first time I heard Talking Heads was with some friends and the cassette was playing, three months after I left, I was homesick, and the song comes on and I started moving. The melody has some African repetitive form in the chorus, and I was humming it automatically. My friends looked at me and said, ‘why is she dancing, this is not African music, this is rock and roll.’ I said, ‘this is African music, it is too complicated to explain, you are ignorant.’”

Remarkably, Kidjo didn’t know the name of the song or the artist for many years. Years later, when she was playing a show in America, David Byrne of the Talking Heads was in the audience.

“My PR agent came rushing to my door, and said, ‘Angelique, someone very important is coming to see you. I (still) didn’t make the connection with ‘Once in a Lifetime’ then, because I didn’t know. Later, I was talking about that song being in my head all the time, talking to my manager, talking to my husband… I couldn’t (recall) the lyrics. Then someone played me the song, and I jumped out of my skin.”

Kidjo credits her parents with providing her musical and cultural background.

“I grew up in a household where my parents, especially my Dad would say, ‘the world in which we live is big, and yet not small.’ My parents were not rich, he would say ‘I don’t have money to send you guys on vacation, I’ll bring the world to you through culture. He exposed us to a lot of different types of music. That’s how I got to know those types of music. All music that is out there that touched me, I can touch it too.”

As mentioned, Kidjo is active in numerous humanitarian initiatives.

“My father believed that education is the only thing that can give us a better future. We need to start with our children. If we do not empower our young kids, what example, what moral value, are we passing down to them? How do we show them that they are agents of change? That if they give, they can get. I know that giving back is what I’m supposed to do, without any questions asked, without any agenda.”

Don’t miss Angelique Kidjo Saturday February 22nd at The Vets in Providence. Complete details here.