Beninoise singer Angelique Kidjo has had a spectacular year. In April she released her newest album, OYO, where she revisited the music that inspired her as a young girl in West Africa and featured collaborations with Roy Hargrove, John Legend, Dianne Reeves, and Bono. In May, she performed for UNICEF in Dublin, her first concert ever in Ireland. In June, she appeared at the Official World Cup Kick-Off Concert in South Africa in front of a cheering, packed stadium and millions more watching on television all over the world. On November 11th, she'll present The Sound of the Drum at Carnegie Hall in New York City, an inspirational tribute to the African roots of music.
Kidjo was dubbed "Africa's premier diva" by Time Magazine and won a Best Contemporary World Music Grammy Award for her 2007 release Djin Djin. She has served as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 2002 and set up her own foundation, Batonga, to promote secondary school and higher education for girls in Africa. The foundation grants scholarships, works on improving teaching standards, builds schools and provides school supplies, and generally advocates for community awareness of the value of education for girls. In a recent New York Times editorial, Angelique (whose own mother was educated, a rarity) wrote, "My dream is to see every little girl in Benin have the chance I had right after independence: access to a great and sustained education." It's a cause she'll never stop working for. She explained that as an African girl, once you reach puberty, marriage is usually next. "We need highly educated women in Africa, we need women to take the lead in their own lives, we need them to stop being accessories...It's just vital for the future of Africa and the future of the world."
Anglique told me that when she first heard about slavery in her childhood, she vowed to become either a human rights lawyer or a musician. "Through music, I would try to build a bridge to communicate... How come human beings tend to hate one another so much? The beauty of music transcends because it is a universal language." She first started singing and performing at the age of six (inspired by James Brown and Aretha Franklin) and was the last daughter born into a group of eleven children - with three sisters and seven brothers. The young Angelique toured with her mother's theatre troupe throughout West Africa and by the age of nine she was a seasoned performer. "When I was a kid, I said, one day I'm going to be James Brown... I'm going to be Jimi Hendrix, watch me!" It was a big family, and a loving one. She always felt completely secure, "knowing that you were loved, that nothing could happen to you, that you were protected." Her parents encouraged and believed in her and her siblings, although it was challenging at times being in such a large family. "Imagine a crowded subway - fighting for every bit of space!" she laughed.
Kidjo was a tomboy, climbing trees, taking the heads off her Barbie dolls, and playing soccer with her brothers. "My mom was desperate to catch me and fix my hair... (she'd say) I was looking for a third girl and I have a boy!" Her adoration of soccer made performing at the World Cup Concert this summer all the more special. "Oooh girlfriend, it was good, it feel so good! The feeling that I had at that time was a collectiveness feeling, to celebrate something we thought we'd never see. To see Africa differently instead of seeing it through the mirror of misery," Angelique mused, still marveling over the entire experience.
Kidjo's Carnegie Hall Concert on November 11th, The Sound of the Drum, takes as its focus the first musical instrument ever invented. Drums were first used for communication, as well as in religious ceremonies as a sacred device to call forth the divine. "Drums for me have always been at the center of every piece of music I write and I do," said Angelique. "The beats are part of an ancient science of my country called geomancy. I cannot resist the sound of a drum. Everything starts with the beat! You don't have the beat, you might as well be dead!" she laughed heartily. "The whole concept of the show is to prove that we're all one." The evening will celebrate the beauty and diversity of African drums and chants with various musical traditions throughout the Americas - from from Jimi Hendrix to Celia Cruz, James Brown to Gilberto Gil, Stax to Memphis to the Haitian Kompa. She'll be joined onstage by Omara Portuondo (from the Buena Vista Social Club), Youssou N'Dour, and Dianne Reeves, along with a few other special guests yet unannounced. It will be a night to remember and one which will no doubt equally inspire the heart and soul - and feet. As the great Nigerian percussionist, Babatunde Olatunji, once observed, "Rhythm is the soul of life. The whole universe revolves in rhythm. Every thing and every human action revolves in rhythm."
Buy tickets for The Sound of the Drum with Angelique Kidjo here
Learn more about the Batonga Foundation here
Visit Angelique Kidjo's website here