RFI: Why did you decide to have a word in Yoruba as the title of your new album?
Angélique Kidjo: Yoruba is the language that links Brazil, Cuba and a whole lot of other places I've been. Besides that, when it comes to expressing things Yoruba's a bit like English compared to French - in the sense that words are shorter than they are in Fon. If I'd put the title I chose for the album into Fon I'd have had to use two words, both of which are actually pretty long.
Isn't it a bit paradoxical to put out an album called "Joy" (the meaning of the word "Oyaya" in Yoruba) when the world is in such a state of crisis, plagued by wars, violence and fanaticism?
The world may be in a critical state right now, but I don't think that's a reason for everyone to slide into sadness and despair. The only way we can get through these troubled times and win out in the end is by digging deep inside ourselves and finding a sense of joy in doing things, even the smallest, most insignificant ones. Giving way to feelings of fear and hatred of others is playing right into the hands of the terrorists and letting them win. If we give in that easily they'll have won their war without using an army.
Oyaya! is the last album in your trilogy which has followed the different paths taken by the African diaspora. What gave you the idea of approaching things as a journey in three stages?
What I've been trying to do is trace the link between Africa and the slaves who came from there. And I think the fundamental link, the link that runs deeper even than religion, is music. Slaves preserved their music and used it in a very special way. Thanks to their music they were able to get up in the morning and say to themselves 'I'm still human and I have my dignity.' Music is capable of giving you courage and making you conscious of your own sense of worth. Slaves managed to transcend the absolute horror of what they were going through and, thanks to music, they left an incredible message of hope behind them. If blacks managed to survive slavery thanks to music there's nothing in this world that can't be overcome!
Wouldn't you say that Africa has left its mark on other lands besides those you cover in your trilogy?
Yes, that's true, it has. I realised while I was working on this project that there are other countries with significant black populations like Colombia and Peru. So, who knows, maybe I'll have to end up adding a few more stages onto my journey? I could include places like Nantes and Brittany, because slaves actually passed through Nantes and it's quite possible they left their mark on Celtic music in some way. I feel I'm going to have to research that link! (laughs)
So, at the end of the day, there are all kinds of points where different musical styles come together?
Yes, absolutely! I was in Corsica a few years ago actually and I came across these chants that sounded just like the chants we have in northern Benin. It's an extremely small world, you know, and human beings are always on the move. When you've got people travelling about all the time it's obvious that - like their obsessions and their diseases - their music moves with them.
Would you say the title of your new album reflects its content? Is this an album that imparts a feeling of uplift and joy?
It's an album that contains many messages of joy. I believe you have to follow the desires of your soul – if your soul wants to be happy, then you shouldn't feel guilty about feeling happy! But there's a deeper side to Oyaya! too. This is an album which invites reflection. It makes you want to question yourself. One of the things I speak out against on the album is the fact of lying to yourself. Lying to yourself can be a way of fleeing problems and not facing up to day-to-day reality.
Another subject I bring up on the album is love and the fact that some people use love as a game or a weapon. And I bring up the issue of religion, too. The song Bissimilai, which features a choir of Muslim women from northern Benin, was inspired by an event that happened in San Diego. A few years back in San Diego this religious sect locked itself away from the world and committed collective suicide. No religion gives you the right to take anyone's life!
After covering a Serge Gainsbourg song (Ces petits riens) on your last album Black Ivory Soul, you've chosen to sing in French again this time round, recording the duet Le monde comme un bébé with Henri Salvador…
We did it with Pierre Grillet who's written for a lot of people including Bashung (Madame Rêve). I enjoy singing in French when the words someone's put into my mouth actually mean something to me. I think Pierre Grillet's work is absolutely fabulous because he managed to use the sounds of my own language as a starting-point for the lyrics he wrote in French.
I sent Henri Salvador a demo tape of several songs including Le monde comme un bébé which was actually written when I was doing Black Ivory Soul and we'd reworked several times since. I'd come up with the idea of a melody which sounded a bit like a waltz, but I felt something was missing, that it didn't quite work. Anyway, when we searching around, trying to come up with rhythms for Oyaya! we experimented with mazurka and realised it completely fitted the bill. That's the version we ended up sending to Salvador and he loved it so much he came into the studio with me.
When you were working on your last album you spent a lot of time in Brazil where you said you were really moved because so many things there reminded you of Benin. This time round I know you spent a lot of time in Cuba. Did that have the same effect on you?
The thing that struck me most in Cuba was how music plays such a major role in daily life. It has the same importance for people in their daily lives, and that's right across the board, irrespective of age, exactly like it is in Africa.
A few years ago you decided to take up residence in the United States. Would you ever envisage returning to France?
I'm divided between the two really. But I have to say it would be a bit hard for me to leave the States - where I moved in '97 – for good. I've built up an audience for myself in the States now and, contrary to what people think, they're actually a very open-minded bunch. But, believe me, it wasn't a situation that was won in advance! People told me I was heading for complete disaster in the States, claiming that Americans only listened to American music. Well, I can't say I get played on commercial radio stations all that much, but my audience has definitely changed over the years. It's gone from being an all-white audience to a very mixed thing. And that's something I really don't want to lose because, even musically speaking, America is a place where a lot of things can happen – and a lot of things do!
Angélique Kidjo Oyaya! (Saint George/Sony Music) 2004
Translation : Julie Street