“I thought that France was a country of culture and people were open. Then, the comments people made were so ignorant. I was like, ‘Really? You think that in Africa we go on the back of an elephant to do our grocery shopping?’ ”
Singer Angelique Kidjo laughs, describing her experience after she moved to Paris from her West African home country of Benin in the early 1980s. The seventh of 10 siblings in a musical family, Kidjo grew up listening to James Brown, the Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix as well as African music.
Then, when she was a teenager, the former Republic of Dahomey became the People’s Republic of Benin, and foreign music was verboten under the Marxist-Leninist regime. Out of that environment, Kidjo arrived in France eager to absorb new sounds.
“I started dancing. I’m like, ‘I can be home with Mom and Dad dancing to this,’ ” Kidjo says over the phone, describing the first time she heard Talking Heads at a party in France and instantly recognized the Fela Kuti-inspired rhythms on “Remain in Light” for what they were. “Some of the people were telling me, ‘Stop dancing, it’s not African music, it’s too sophisticated for you,’ ” she says. “I mean, you’re entitled to your opinion and I’m entitled to mine. If I feel like I want to dance on that, hey, who are you to tell me otherwise?”
Last year, Kidjo released a widely acclaimed reimagining of “Remain in Light,” which puts the album’s African roots at the center with punchy rhythms, arrangements replete with horns and guitars, and lyrics layered in many different languages.
She’s going to be dancing on it during her headlining set at global music jamboree CRASHfest Saturday at House of Blues.
Q. What was it like for you when the rock music you loved got banned under the dictatorship?
A. Oh lord. I couldn’t take it. Growing up, my father gave me so much insight in very different things, as a musician. Because a lot of artists in Africa during that time until today, for them to have the career they have, they have to be associated with a politician. My father said, “If you want to continue your art and be free, and be the voice of the voiceless, you can’t be associated with a political party. You can like somebody that is doing a good job, and not be part of it.”
So for me, it was impossible to continue doing what I was doing there. Because there was no way I was going to write music like other musicians were forced to do. That was the rule. You were supposed to write propaganda music, and if you don’t do that, they’d find any reason to put you in jail.
They made all those rules to divide people. You never know if someone is listening to your conversation in your home. It’s crazy! You don’t have the comfort of trust anymore.
Q. It seems like it created a real climate of fear.
A. Well, that’s what we’re living in right now. And for me to leave my country and still have to go through that, is something that is really painful.
Q. Do you mean here in the USA?
A. Yeah! In Europe, everywhere! You have the philosophy of Hitler coming back in many different ways. That’s the thing I don’t understand. There’s no logic to this hate. If you’re miserable, deal with your misery. If the world is changing and you can’t catch up, it’s your business. You can’t blame anybody for that.
‘People don’t know about that album in Africa. . . . It started in Africa. Why don’t we bring it back to where it comes from?’
Q. Is there something about rock music that draws you to making covers?
A. In my country, and in Africa, people don’t like rock ’n’ roll. [As a child] I listened to music, and every time my father would bring in something new, especially when he brought in classical music, I’m like “Dad! What kind of music is that? We can’t move and dance on it. This is not music.” And my Dad would never force you to do anything. He would take his banjo and start playing Beethoven. I say, “OK, Dad. That’s too painful. I got the message. I’ll go listen to it.”
So I do the same with rock ’n’ roll, and all music. I want the African people to realize that the music of our ancestors has impacted the music of the world. Not the other way around. And everybody, it doesn’t matter what you think you are, we’re all African. Unless you consider yourself not a homo sapiens.
That’s why I did the “Remain in Light” album also. People don’t know about that album in Africa. I think it’s important to complete the circle. It started in Africa. Why don’t we bring it back to where it comes from?
Q. How important is dancing in your music?
A. Without dancing, I don’t know what I’m doing onstage. I mean, sometimes I stand still. Because I come from a culture where dance is woven in the music. Where I come from, the southern part of Benin, we have complex rhythms. You have to learn it, you have to know it.
Q. What was the most important thing for you to emphasize in your arrangements of the “Remain in Light” songs?
A. I wanted to bring it back to African rhythms. Many people tell me, “You can’t sing that, the lyrics have no meaning.” They do for me. Call and response was at the core of that album, and call and response is from Africa.
Q. Which languages do you sing in on the album?
A. Mainly it’s Yoruba, Fon, and Mina. I like the fact that language speaks for people. At the same time we just have to be free with language. Sometimes I’m inspired to do a song and I don’t speak the language. I’ll hear the sound in my head and I just sing it. The song’s in my head and I have to give birth to it, and I don’t care if I have to make up the words.
CRASHfestzoe.firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.