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Angelique Kidjo at the Lafayette festival

Interview


Lafayette 

25/04/1999 - 

Angélique Kidjo, the popular African music diva from Benin, performs at the Festival International de Lafayette for the first time this year. We met Angélique before her big début and enjoyed a very pleasant chat with her over lunch.




So, Angélique, here you are performing at a Francophone music festival. Do you consider yourself to be a Francophone artist?
Yes. In fact, I'd say there's nothing much I can do about it. I was born and raised in Benin, a French-speaking African country, so whatever happens I'll always be a Francophone artist. And I wouldn't have it any other way!

In France you're always classified as a 'Francophone' artist even though you don't always sing in French …
When everyone started talking about the concept of 'Francophonie' - that was way back when Decaux was a minister in the French government - they decided that artists singing in languages other than French, but who were based in countries where French was one of the main languages, were to be included in the 'Francophone' category. Looking at things from that perspective I would consider myself to be a 'Francophone' artist in the same way as a singer based in Cameroon, Togo or Côte d'Ivoire might use the title 'Francophone'.
It's all a bit contradictory really. While everyone's struggling to define what exactly constitutes a 'Francophone' artist, they bring in French language quotas on the radio in France (which means that only artists singing in French get preferential airplay). I mean, where does the concept of 'Francophonie' begin and end - should it just be confined to artists living in France? Personally, I really don't think it's right that people should come and start bothering French-speaking artists living in Africa, asking us whether we're 'Francophone' or not. I'm just not interested in it! I mean, it's not 'Francophonie' that's going to feed Africa or sort out the country's problems! Is the concept of 'Francophonie' going to solve health problems, education problems, poverty, pollution and all the rest of it? No, it won't change a thing in our daily lives!
Personally, I think it's a waste of time and money flying all these heads of state out to international summits to discuss the abstract concept of 'Francophonie'. It really is a waste of time when the thing that could really establish a link between our countries is art - and here I'm talking about the arts in general not just music! It's on a cultural level that we could organise a real exchange between France and other French-speaking countries in the world. But right now everybody's so caught up with the problem of 'saving the French language', that they forget about these other issues. If you want to talk about Francophonie, you have to address these other issues. If not the whole thing's meaningless. When it comes down to it, the problem of Francophonie is nether here nor there for me - whatever happens I'll always speak French!

And what about English?
Well, I grew up speaking English too because Benin borders on Nigeria (an English-speaking African country) and a lot of my family comes from there. I grew up speaking French and English - there was no problem with that whatsoever!

On the RFI Musique website fans can find your biography and discography alongside those of French singer Michel Sardou and Rai star Khaled …
Well, I think that's great - we're all artists singing in French! You know, I love the idea of communicating via the Internet because it really is a way of reaching everyone everywhere in the world. And there's no media manipulation behind it. Well, there wasn't at the start, anyway, although that's starting to happen a bit now. But the fact that Internet reaches straight into everyone's homes means that even if there is a kind of manipulation going on, it's limited. Because if people don't want to look at the stuff on one website they click their mouse and zoom off to another one instead. If they see that one particular site's full of clichés and nonsense, then they just go surfing off somewhere else. The Internet really does offer people the chance of communicating in a totally different way.
But the Net's not without its dangers too. I think it does lead to people getting cut off from one another - you know, you do your shopping and stuff on line and then you don't go out any more, you just stay at home stuck in front of your screen! You have to watch out or your social life just disappears completely. That's the way I see it anyway - you have to bear in mind the negative side of change as well as the positive!

Getting back to music now … you launched your career at a very early age didn't you. You began singing on stage with your mother when you were a child. Is performing sort of second nature to you now?
You know, I never asked myself the question whether I was going to end up becoming a singer or not. I just spent my time getting on with my law studies as well as singing, and I said to myself that if one day I wanted to become a professional singer I'd just go ahead and do it, and if not then I'd end up doing something else! Well, it turned out that somewhere down the line I stopped wanting to be a human rights lawyer. I didn't want to get involved with the politics of the whole thing - you know, the way I see it the law and real justice are always at loggerheads with one another. Basically, I decided that I didn't want to get mixed up in a whole load of problems that had existed since way before I was born. In the end I found I wasn't prepared to totally sacrifice my life trying to make the world a better, juster place. So I said to myself, OK I'm going to get involved in music instead. That way I'll end up a lot happier. I'll get to reach a lot more people in the world and I'll end up doing more for them than I ever could if I became a lawyer.

And you've never got tired of performing, being up on stage in the spotlight all the time?
No, I love it! As soon as I know I'm setting off on tour again I get a real rush of energy, I really come alive! I hate working in the studio. But if you're in the music business you can't avoid doing a bit of studio work every now and then. It takes a lot of self-discipline though - I really have to work on myself! Studio work's really not part of my culture. In my country singing and playing music is all about direct communication with an audience.
I only really started working in studios when I got to Europe. And up until now, I have to say, I don't really like the cold, technical side of things. I prefer sitting down to write my songs with my little tape recorder and a piece of paper. I prefer using my ear! But I am slowly coming to terms with computers - although I still can't use them when it comes to music! My husband can - he's really good at that kind of thing!
Basically, recording studios are just too technical for me. But that doesn't mean I don't try and keep control over my work when I get into the studio. You know, when I work with a producer I always want to know why he's created one kind of sound rather than another. Even if I don't know the right technical terms for everything, I know what I feel. And if I don't like the sound of something, I don't use it!

You recently appeared at the Houston Music Festival and you also performed a concert in a club in Austin? How was it?
I really loved it. It was the first time in my career that I performed on my own in Texas. The last time I went to Texas was back in '96 when I supported Carlos Santana. I got loads of letters after that concert, asking me when I was planning to perform again in Texas. It's great, people spent three years asking me to go back there!

Do you adapt your show in any way when you play to audiences in different parts of the world?
No, I always do exactly the same show.

So whether you're in Europe, Japan, Africa whatever, the audience gets to see exactly the same thing?
Exactly. You know, if you want to get a good show up and running you have to start rehearsing it way in advance. But I guess it's also true to say that little things get added in as you go along.
Even if you set out with the intention to play a song exactly the same way as last time, you do end up getting different reactions from different audiences and that ends up affecting your performance.

How would you define your musical style?
I haven't got the slightest idea! I always work from the principle that when an artist's got something to say, s/he doesn't necessarily have to put it across in a certain musical style. All I can say is, I play the kind of music I like. I write songs which seem to say something to me personally. If I don't feel something for a song I can't perform it. I can't go out there on stage and sing it in concert for a whole year! That would be completely impossible. Can you imagine someone up there on stage performing something s/he doesn't even like? Personally, I can't.
At my concerts the style can change completely from one song to the next - and I like it that way! I hate doing the same thing over and over. I change my style from one album to the next because I really can't bear to be bored with what I'm doing. I want to have a good time when I'm singing and I want my audience to enjoy themselves too!

Do you always go with your feelings when it comes to working with different musicians, opening yourself up to different musical styles?
Yes, absolutely. I always try and keep my mind open to new ideas, new influences. I think this kind of attitude can really add something to your music. Being open to other influences and other ideas doesn't diminish your creativity or your originality, because if you're a good artist you absorb these different influences into your style and reinterpret them.

You're referring to the concept of 'métissage' (musical fusion)?
Yes, that's the way the music world's always worked - and that's the way it always will! You know, people have been mixing different music styles together from the dawn of time. Every different musical genre you can think of has fed into another genre at one time or another - all musical styles are a result of fusion. Classical music, traditional music, contemporary music, you name it, it's all been fused with something else at one stage or another!
You know, it really makes me laugh when I hear certain people in Africa today talking about 'pure' traditional music. These people don't know what they're talking about - they don't know the first thing about the history of African music. Traditional African music has passed through so many different permutations through the ages. What we hear today is the result of the work of many musicians from successive generations. And in a century's time this 'traditional' music will still have the same roots but it will have evolved in a different way, because we're constantly evolving too. The children of Africa are growing up and evolving at the same time! You know, the music you hear kids playing in the big cities in Africa right now is very different from the stuff you hear played in local villages.

Talking of evolution, your music has also changed a great deal from your early days. Do you think that's linked to the fact that you've hung out on different music scenes and frequented different artistic milieus. The fact that you started out in Paris in the 80's then came to New York?
No, I think it's more to do with the way in which music itself is constantly changing. You know, the music people listened to in the 70's is really different from the stuff everyone's into today - even if some groups have started mixing samples of 70's stuff into their work now. I think it's also to do with the different people I've come into contact with during my career. I guess the music I play today is, in some way, part of my own personal evolution.
Paris was the first step I took towards the West. I mean, I recorded my very first album in Paris … People speak French in Benin so it was easier for me to go and live in a country where I was already familiar with the language. It's funny, you know, when I first got to Paris everyone told me I spoke French in a very 'schoolbook' way!

In the various interviews you've given in the course of your career, you often talk about Myriam Makeba. Do you consider her as some kind of role model?
Yes, absolutely. When you're a woman in Africa and you decide to take up a singing career, you've either got the public behind you or you haven't. I was lucky. I got a lot of support and encouragement from my family. And that's why I've got where I am today! You know when you're a young girl growing up in Africa, it's just about acceptable to go and work in an office. But you're not meant to do much more than that in the way of a career. The priority for girls today is still to get married, you know make a good match and then become a mother. It's not easy to get a singing career off the ground!
I remember the first time I heard Myriam Makeba singing, I said to myself: "She's African, just like me and she's managed to do it! Why can't I?" And that's why I still sing Myriam Makeba songs today. Another great influence on my early career was Bela Below, the famous singer from Togo. She died 25 years ago now. It was those two women who played a role in my - at the time unconscious - decision to become a singer.

Would you say that, like Myriam Makeba, you're a 'citizen of the world'?
Yes, absolutely. It's a very exciting feeling and at the same time a very frightening feeling, because you realise that there's so much misunderstanding in the world. There are so many prejudices wherever you go. You know, it shouldn't just be up to us artists to try and change the world!

Do you believe that music should work towards these ends?
Yes, and I think most of the time it probably does. But the problem is people are always trying to pigeon-hole things. The media's got caught up with the commercial side of music and totally ignores the rest. You know, back in the 60's and 70's, you had real political and social movements linked to certain musical styles. That's become completely impossible today. Everything's become very mainstream. Radio stations only play one kind of music now and hardly anyone wants to listen to stuff which is 'out of the ordinary'. Music has become a bit like the opium for the people!
Believe me, when your music tries to break away from the mainstream your records don't get played on the radio. Luckily, you can still reach people through concerts. And there are still enough people out there who refuse to be brainwashed. There are still enough people who are curious about other forms of music, who go out and choose their own records in shops rather than just listening to what's in the charts. And it's a good job there are still a few people like that around, otherwise singers like me wouldn't exist!
And that's why I carry on singing, you know, for the fans who've been listening to my music from the beginning, who take the trouble to write to me and explain why they like one of my albums more than another. I prefer to have this kind of relationship with my fans - a relationship which has got absolutely nothing to do with the commercial side of selling records.
Don't get me wrong, I've got nothing against being commercially successful. It's just that I think it shouldn't be force-fed to people through media pressure.

But you have written your own share of hits, haven't you?
I was really happy when "Agolo" scored such a big hit. I wrote the song in just one day with a group of friends. What's more, we had a really great time writing it! I never dreamt that it would end up being a hit! That just goes to prove there's no special 'formula' - the public either like a song or they don't! But what really counts for me is whether I'm happy with the result of my work or not.

So tell me, one last question - just how many languages do you sing in now?
Seven. And I'm currently learning Brazilian Portuguese. I really like it. In fact, I'm thinking about going out to do a tour of Brazil sometime in the future. After that I'm going to learn Spanish! I'd like to end up speaking as many languages as possible. That way I figure I'll avoid misunderstandings. There's enough incomprehension in the world already - not to mention prejudice, racism and xenophobia! The way I see it, languages are like a barrier you have to get over. What I'd really like to be able to do is tell people about myself and where I come from in their own language!

Valérie  Passelègue

Translation : Julie  Street