Angélique Kidjo lives to serve. The 53-year-old native of Benin, a small country in West Africa, is a tireless social activist and advocate who is particularly passionate about women’s rights. She has traveled the globe extensively, working on behalf of organizations such as UNICEF, Oxfam International and her own group, the Batonga Foundation, which she cofounded to help girls in Africa gain access to higher education.
Oh, and Kidjo’s a pretty good singer too. Time magazine hailed the globally acclaimed performer as “Africa’s premier diva” for her cunning blend of Afro-pop, jazz and traditional Beninoise music.
Kidjo’s 2007 album, Djin Djin, won a Grammy for Best Contemporary World Music record. It featured an array of notable guest stars from across the soundscapes of pop, jazz and classical music, including Josh Groban, Alicia Keys, Peter Gabriel, Ziggy Marley and Branford Marsalis. Kidjo’s most recent effort, 2012’s Spirit Rising, was a similarly star-studded and varied affair. The live recording, composed of songs spanning her career, included appearances from Groban, Marsalis, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig and jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves, among others. Next year, Kidjo will release a memoir, also called Spirit Rising, as well as a new album.
On Wednesday, October 2, the singer/activist will speak with Middlebury College professor Damascus Kafumbe about the relationship between her music and social work as part of the college’s John Hamilton Fulton lecture series. The following night, Thursday, October 3, Kidjo will perform at the college’s Nelson Recreation Center. Both events are open to the public.
In advance of those appearances, Seven Days spoke with Kidjo by phone from New York City while she was on her way to, of all things, a Zumba class. We asked her about her upbringing in Benin, her teenage years living in Paris due to political unrest in her home country, and why it’s important for her to seek out and work with such a diverse spectrum of musicians.
SEVEN DAYS: Wait a second. Angélique Kidjo does Zumba?
ANGÉLIQUE KIDJO: [Laughs] You gotta try it! You just can’t be self-conscious about it. It’s a good workout, and it’s fun, too.
SD: It must help you stay in shape for touring, which can be physically demanding.
AK: It does. And I’ve always loved to work out, since I was a child. When you grow up with boys and you’re a tomboy, you have to. You don’t have the same resistance as the boys, like when they do karate. So you have to do something to keep up.
SD: I find it hard to believe “Africa’s premier diva” was a tomboy.
AK: [Laughs] When I was a child, I thought I was going to grow up to be a man. I told my mother, “When I grow up, I’m gonna be James Brown.” She said, “No, I don’t think so.” I didn’t get it. Then you grow up and it’s, like “Oh. OK. I got it now.”
SD: I’d say you turned out pretty well, even if you’re not James Brown.
AK: Thank you. Growing up with boys was good. You hang out with boys, you have no problems. You’re not fighting over a boy or all the other girl stuff. [Laughs]
SD: It sounds like you had a hectic upbringing.
AK: [Laughs] You think? Growing up and becoming a mother of one, I can’t imagine how my parents raised 10. When you grow up with 10 children — I was the last girl, then there were three more boys — and a father who is the only one with a paycheck, my parents had to find a way to channel our energy and to have balance. My father believed in being curious about culture. He wanted us to be linked to the world. He told us, “Before you get out of this house, you have to understand that the world is bigger than the front door. You have to be curious, you have to listen to the music of the world.” He brought music home to all of us.
SD: What kind of music?
AK: All kinds. Even classical music, which is not something many people listen to in Africa. One day, he realized we were not paying any attention to the classical music. We were like, “What kind of stupid music is this?” So, because he played banjo, he started playing classical music on that. And we thought it was so painful, we had to go back and start listening to the original recordings. So that’s how I started listening to classical music.
SD: Which composers did you like the most?
AK: Mozart. He’s the one who gave me the heartbreak. When I listened to Don Giovanni, I could feel the presence of death in the room. I was like, Oh, no. I can’t listen to this music! It was freaking me out. It spooked the hell out of me. But at the same time, when you’re a kid, things that frighten you are where you wanna go, right? So I got hooked on Mozart and became more curious about him.
I listened to more when I moved to France. I was taught Italian classical vocal techniques, which was interesting for me because I started singing with no technique, no music school, no voice training. And here I am, with the voice of my mother in my head saying that when you want to do something, learn about it, learn your capacity and know your limit. Learn how you can use your potential to the fullest. As children, we were taught to take responsibility for whatever you do. We had freedom to do whatever we wanted. But there were rules.
SD: Such as?
AK: Dinnertime was sacred. Mealtime was the boundary of our freedom. We all had to come together. My father said, “I want to see you all together, and then you tell me what’s going on with you.” It was a time to catch up about many different things. And it was what I missed the most when I left. Living in exile was so hard.
SD: Because it meant being apart from your family?
AK: Yes. It was the most painful thing for the first two years after arriving in France. I thought, How in the world will I survive this? But on the other hand, I thought, Mom is not here anymore. I’m a grown-up now and I can make my own decisions. I can live fully and do what I want, and if I make mistakes it’s on me. But sometimes you just want to hear your parents’ voices and be comforted. And that comfort wasn’t there. But it makes me stronger.
SD: Switching gears, Spirit Rising was the first live record you’ve done, which is kind of surprising given how long you’ve been performing. What took so long?
AK: [Laughs] I only make albums when I’m inspired to make them. If I’m not inspired, I’m not going to make an album. So I’m always odd, time-wise, doing things. And I’ve had other chances to do them, but they weren’t perfect. The stage for me is sacred. I want people to feel empowered to come onstage with me. So it took me a while to find a place where I could do it, and to find people who share the same philosophy in what we do. As musicians, we are at the service of people. We are at the service of music. So finding those people is what held me back from doing a live album for so long. I wanted people to feel as if they were onstage with me, as if they were part of it in their living room.
SD: You had quite a spectrum of guests on the record. Did you have a favorite collaborator?
AK: Oh, I love them all!
SD: Oh, come on…
AK: [Laughs] I’m not saying that to avoid answering the question. I chose them all because of their differences. But also because, in the philosophy of music, we are all the same. It shows the world that you can come from different backgrounds but share the same philosophies and, through music, touch people on different levels, without the concept of color or language.
Angélique Kidjo joins Middlebury College professor Damascus Kafumbe for a lecture on Wednesday, October 2, at 4:30 p.m. at the McCullough Social Space at Middlebury College. Free. Kidjo performs on Thursday, October 3, 8 p.m. at Middlebury College’s Nelson Recreation Center. $5/10/20.