Angelique Kidjo creates pop music for a small planet. Since her 1990 debut the charismatic singer has built a unique body of work incorporating a jumble of genres peppered with appearances by an equally diverse array of celebrity co-stars.
On 2007's Grammy-winning "Djin Djin," British R&B wunderkind Joss Stone duets on a darkly cheerful carnival cover of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter"; guitarist Carlos Santana and hyper-romantic tenor Josh Groban soar with Kidjo over the top on Sade's "Pearls."
Bringing in high-profile ringers seems like crossover sweetening. But Kidjo -- reached via e-mail while resting her voice before a performance in Calgary insists that the appearances are no marketing gimmick.
"I knew all the artists before singing with them," she writes. "They are guests invited to my world so I feel it was a true collaboration."
But it's Kidjo's omnivorous musical tastes that set the context, an eclectic mélange of driving polyrhythm, jazz solos, massed Motown horns and sinuous guitar lines.
The music on the second, Kidjo-only half of "Djin" is at least as appealing, rootsier and more intimate, spiced with electronics, funky organ and even pedal steel guitar (on the call-and-response/country-music hybrid "Emma"). The climactic "Lonlon (Ravel's Bolero)" recapitulates the French composer's onion-layered composition, building from an a cappella opening to a full-blown crescendo of electronic effects, strings and African textures.
Crossing cultural lines comes naturally to Kidjo, a longtime émigré who has never forgotten her roots in her West African homeland. "Benin has always been my base," she writes. "When my music started to spread with the albums 'Aye' and 'Fifa' the Beninese people really embraced me."
By that time she was a Parisian expatriate and a popular club performer, but her music videos were a hit back home. "The African TV channels were just starting out," she writes, "and they were playing those [videos] in loops. I did not realize it at the time but they were watching my videos all over the continent."
She sings in a rainbow of languages French, English, Spanish, Yoruba, Fon and Swahili often using several in a single song. Asked to define what makes a performance successful, she replies, "When I feel that the audience got an idea of what the African culture and music are all about: It is about sharing and creating a bond between people even if they don't understand the lyrics of my songs."
The audience creates the magic. "I always say the stage is like paradise for me," Kidjo writes. "I try to give as much energy as possible, a kind of energy it is hard to record!" She said she hated working in a studio for many years, because of all of the artifice, "overdubbing the instruments one after another and the studio looked like a surgery room where you dissect everything." She is happier with her last two albums, where the entire band recorded together in a single room. And, of course, she is even happier onstage.
Why should people come out to see her? "I promise them it will be a special night," Kidjo responds. "They have to get ready to move and sing: they won't have a choice anyway!!!" S
Angelique Kidjo performs at UR's Modlin Center Friday, March 28 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $32. Call 289-8980 or visit modlin.richmond.edu.