RFI Musique: Angélique Kidjo, after your trilogy of albums following in the footsteps of the black diaspora who ended up in the United States, Brazil and the Caribbean, you’ve finally turned back to your homeland, Benin. Why?
Angélique Kidjo: Benin has always been with me no matter where I’ve travelled. Working on a trilogy like that (where each album was devoted to the music of a different country), I got to explore the traces of the black diaspora who left Benin - most of them shipped off as slaves - and took the music of our continent with them wherever they went. This trilogy was my way of building bridges. It was an attempt to raise the issue of slavery without making people feel guilty, but getting everyone to talk about it nevertheless… For me, obviously the best way to talk about all this is music, because music is what you might call the positive legacy of the slave days…
I came across the traces of music from Benin just about everywhere I went so I thought it would be an interesting line to follow. I came to discover how traditional sounds from my homeland ended up where they did - and, on the other side of the picture, how music in Benin was influenced by slaves returning to their homeland. So for me the project eventually came full circle. There are obviously still things to be done on the subject, but I feel I’ve done my bit. Now it’s time for me to get back to what I was doing before and that’s writing songs based on traditional percussion from my homeland - and layering anything that might come into my head over the top of that!
So in a way your new album, Djin Djin, is actually a fourth instalment, a sequel to your trilogy, taking the music of the diaspora from Benin - and in a wider sense from Africa - back home?
I’ve never looked at it in those terms. The most important thing in my life, musically speaking, is inspiration and I have no control over where that comes from. I never use an instrument when I’m writing my material, you know. That’s the way I started out, just amassing different sounds in my memory then sifting through them to see what I could use. And that comes from having grown up in Benin. My homeland has always been with me - and it will always be there – no matter what I do, be it rock’n’roll, classical music or anything else! My voice has been shaped by the traditional culture and the different languages of my country. My sources are constantly there with me. Without them I could never have gone anywhere.
One of the things I wanted to demonstrate on Djin Djin is just how universal music is. I wanted to bring together all these people from totally different worlds. And for the first time in my recording career I invited traditional musicians from Benin into the studio to play with musicians from other backgrounds. Before, I used to go off and record the rhythms and find a way of putting them in my songs because I felt this real need to do so. But this time round I approached things differently. It was the two percussionists from the Gangbé Brass Band who came into the studio and set the beat for everyone else…
So they’re the foundation of Djin Djin, the core everything else was based around…
Yes, the entire rhythmic content of the album is based on them. When I sit down and write my material, rhythm, lyrics and melodies all come together. I couldn’t tell you which comes first. All I know is, all three are there in my head as I’m composing. And that’s the way it’s always been!
One of the interesting things about Djin Djin is that you constantly move from one musical style to another. That must have been a bit of a challenge, just vocally apart from anything else?
Well, I like to guard against boredom creeping in at any point. The one thing I absolutely wanted to do with the album was, as I said earlier, to make percussion the guiding force. The idea was that the percussionists would dictate what all the other instruments - guitars, keyboards, bass, kora and balafon - would do. If everyone had to go by an instrument like the bell, then everyone went by the bell and that was that!
Your new album was recorded in New York, in Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady studio. Surely not just a coincidence?
No, obviously not. You know, there are fewer and fewer studios around these days where you can actually record a live album. Nowadays computers mean you can record at home or just about anywhere else really. But finding a studio with real atmosphere like Electric Lady, well there aren’t many studios around like that!… I wanted to work somewhere that wouldn’t feel too cold and business-like. I wanted everyone involved to feel comfortable, like they were at home in their own living-room or sitting in a local village square in Africa. I wanted an atmosphere where everyone could communicate with one another. The way it worked was we all got round in a circle and I could leap into the middle every now and then to dance. Everyone could see one another at all times. It was working at Electric Lady that made that possible.
And, last question, why did you decide to get so many different musicians involved on your new album? There are musicians from Africa, America, Jamaica…
Well, I didn’t actually decide anything at all on that score… The only person who was automatically invited into the studio was Alicia Keys. Alicia and I have known each other for three years now and as soon as I started writing songs for the new album she asked if she could listen to them. I took great pleasure in sending her everything I wrote by e-mail and she just sort of fell in love with Djin Djin. You know, Alicia is the only R&B singer who writes 6/8 rhythms for her ballads. Everyone thinks it’s 4/4 like the rest of R&B, but underneath her music there’s a real African pulse beating away. Alicia was the only person who we knew would definitely be coming into the studio. As for all the other artists I called, I made it clear they were under no obligation, I was simply sending them the songs and they could choose one if they liked. There was no problem if they couldn’t find anything that grabbed them… Everyone ended up choosing their songs. On the album I launch an invitation to everyone on the opening track, Ae Ae, and after that they’re the guests of honour. That’s what African hospitality’s all about! When people are your guests they get to express themselves first and that’s perfectly normal!
Translation : Julie Street