Angélique, your new album is called Black Ivory Soul. Where did you get the inspiration for the title from?
Well, I was walking through Soho with my boyfriend one day back in '99 and we were hanging out in the local record stores, you know, the ones that sell old vinyl LPs. Anyway, we dug out this old album by Manu Dibango and it was really interesting. On the back cover there was this text explaining that in the U.S. American fans knew Dibango's music as Black Ivory Soul
whereas in Cameroon it was simply called makossa
. The phrase just stuck in my mind really. I think it's a wonderful expression - after all, no-one knows what colour people's souls are so you can imagine anything you like!
To cut a long story short, I decided to write a song based on the idea. I'd originally intended to give the song to Dee Dee Bridgewater who'd asked me to write something for her. People are always asking "Why don't you write for other people?", but the problem is I never seem to have time! Anyway, I spent a lot of time trying to get the song down on paper and in the end I realised my creative juices were blocked - inspiration just wasn't coming to sit down and write a song for someone else. So I decided to work on the song for myself instead!
Part of your new album was recorded in Bahia in Brazil. At what stage of working on the album did you decide to up sticks and go over there?
What was important for me to begin with was to get out there and discover a different country and a different people with their own culture. It's funny, people had often told me that when I got to Bahia I'd be blown away by how similar it was to Benin. So before I even sat down to write the songs for the new album I decided to go out there and see for myself. And it was amazing! As soon as I set foot in Bahia I got shivers down my spine! As soon as I stepped off the plane and took my first breath of air I knew I was breathing in exactly the same smells as back home in Benin. It was a pretty strange feeling actually - the trees, the plants and everything I saw stepping off the plane in Bahia were exactly the same as the vegetation around the airport in Cotonou. Both towns are close to the sea and they've got exactly the same red sand. Even the food in Bahia has got the same name as the dishes back home! Music plays exactly the same role in everyday life too. People sit down and play whenever they feel like it - you don't necessarily have to pay to go to a concert to hear good music over there! Music is just present all the time. There's always a party going on somewhere where you're free to go along and join in and dance. Music is everywhere in Bahia. People leave their offices on Friday at 5 o'clock and then party like crazy right through until Sunday night! There's this one particular neighbourhood which is really lively and exciting. It's called Pelourinho and it's perched up on a hill where they used to hold the local slave market. Jorge Amado's got a house up in Pelourinho and that's where the headquarters of Gilberto Gil's organisation "Filhos de Gandhi" is too. There's always a lot of cultural stuff going on in Pelourinho and that's where the music starts up on Friday night. I was so excited the weekend I arrived (in August 2000) that I stayed up all night! Did you have any contacts in Bahia before you went out there?
I didn't go round visiting musicians as soon as I got there or anything. The man who used to be the director of the French Cultural Institute in Cotonou gave me the name and address of a French guy who'd gone out to live in Bahia. I got in touch with him and told him I really wanted to get to know Bahia and his advice was "then start off with the local street kids!" So I spent my first afternoon in Bahia hanging out with a bunch of kids in a favela
It was really fascinating spending time with them and I ended up writing a song about it. There was one kid who had this haunted look in his eyes and that's really what triggered off the song Les Enfants perdus
(The Lost Children) which I wrote in collaboration with Jacques Veneruso. The backing singers on the track sing the chorus in Yoruba : "This child's got love to give; this child needs love."
The album's a bit of a mixed linguistic bag too - I sing in Fon, French, English and Yoruba.
How did you go about getting in touch with musicians when you were out in Bahia?
Well, basically, what happened was I asked a local taxi driver to take me round everywhere - and he did just that! I even ended up participating in a traditional candomble
ceremony. That was a weird experience - I felt like I was split in two, in fact. I could hear the people around me singing in a language I understood but when they spoke I couldn't understand a word they said because they were all chattering away in Portuguese. Years before I'd even planned my trip to Bahia I met Carlinhos Brown in New York and told him I was thinking of going out there. He immediately gave me his phone number and Daniela Mercury's as well. I called Daniela first when I got out there and she invited me to go and visit her studio. I ended up recording a track for her album while I was out there, in fact. Carlinhos was actually away in Rio when I was up in Bahia so I went back on another visit to see him. He invited a guitarist friend, Jobim, round at the same time. He belongs to the 'old generation' of musicians in Brazil. We didn't consciously set out to work together or anything. We just started talking about the musicians we admired and all the musical favourites we had in common. Anyway, we soon started playing and singing The Girl From Ipanema
together - Carlinhos singing in Portuguese and me in English and the tape recorder was quietly turning away in the corner. We spent a wonderful afternoon together, singing and looking out across the ocean. We were completely at ease with one another and everything flowed very simply and naturally without being forced in any way. The next day I sat down and listened to what we'd recorded together and I ended up keeping three songs for the album. Carlinhos wrote the music for them and I wrote the lyrics. Then at a later stage I reworked the songs with Vinicius Cantuaria, a Brazilian who lives two blocks away from me in New York. I heard him play at the Knitting Factory one night and we became friends. Vinicius came round to the house one day and picked up my guitar - yes, it's true, I'm slowly getting back to using the guitar again these days! Why did you choose Bahia as your destination? And when exactly did you get the idea of basing your new album in Brazil?
There's a direct link between Bahia and my native village (in Benin). There are a lot of people in Ouidah who've got mixed Beninese/Portuguese/Brazilian roots. My mother's got Portuguese blood so I was familiar with that kind of food and music from an early age. The Beninese/Portuguese/Brazilian community play this special rhythm known as bouniyan
which sounds a lot like samba actually. They get dressed up in special costumes once a year and parade through the streets playing it - it's just like carnival, in fact.
When I told everyone back home I was intending to go out to Bahia for my next musical project it was like "Bahia? Well, we're not going to say anything - just go out there and see for yourself!" And it's true that it made an enormous impact on me. After the abolition of slavery a lot of former slaves came back to build a museum in Ouidah - it's known as "La Casa do Brasil", Brazil House. So with all that history going on between the two places it was obvious I had to go out and work on my next album in Bahia!
Why did you decide to include a cover of the Serge Gainsbourg classic Ces petits riens on your new album?
Well, I've always been a big Gainsbourg fan. I derived a different kind of pleasure from listening to his work rather than the normal French language - Gainsbourg had this special talent for taking a couple of words or two or three sentences and turning them into a song!
There's another track, Afirika, where you pay a very obvious tribute to South African music…
Yes, I dedicated the song Afirika to Miriam Makeba, in fact. She's one of my greatest idols. Miriam and I both share exactly the same views when it comes to pan-Africanism. We both believe it's an absolute necessity right now! We were discussing the whole African situation together one day and Miriam turned round to me and said "There are very few artists like you, you know, who believe the future of Africa lies in our hands!" That's an idea I really believe in and it's something I was very much trying to get across in the song Afirika.