(Royal Albert Hall, 17 November 2023. EFG LJF. Review by Rachel Coombes)
Angélique Kidjo’s status as one of today’s greatest living artists was decisively validated earlier this year, when she was awarded the prestigious Polar Music Prize for international recognition of excellence in music (alongside the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and the founder of Island Records Chris Blackwell, who signed Kidjo to his label in 1991). The timing was auspicious: 2023 marks the Beninese singer-songwriter’s 40th year in the music industry, an occasion which she marked at the Royal Albert Hall on 17 November. It was the headline concert of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival.
The five-time Grammy winner, nicknamed the ‘Queen of African music’, is as celebrated for her adventurous and wide-ranging collaborations as for the power of her voice. This concert paid homage to these partnerships, with brief guest appearances from the British singer Laura Mvula, the up-and-coming Ghanaian dancehall star Soundbwoy, the Franco-Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf and the Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour. But the first half was reserved primarily for Kidjo’s personal, strident musical cris de coeur, accompanied by the Chineke! Orchestra.
Many of these original songs touch on themes close to the singer’s heart: the lullaby-like ‘Naima’ (sung in Fon, a native Beninese language) is a tribute to her mother and to the strength of women across the globe. ‘Ominira’ (translated as ‘Freedom’ in Yoruba) addresses the individual and collective struggle against oppression. For the joyful ‘Kelele’ (which was revisited as an encore), Kidjo invited the audience to join in the chorus – an appropriate gesture given the song’s meaning as a call to celebrate the joy of music-making. Other songs, such as the popular ‘Malaika’ (meaning ‘Angel’ in Swahili), have a longer history as well-known love songs; Kidjo’s fondness for this particular piece stems from its association with one of her heroines, the South-African singer Miriam Makeba.
The astonishing resonance of Kidjo’s voice permeated every inch of the Albert Hall’s auditorium. Her voice is defined by an intensity and fierceness that is the ideal musical channel for the types of themes addressed in her lyrics. Even without comprehending the words, one picks up on a kind of poignant defiance: her music uplifts and stirs. Most of these brilliantly orchestrated songs have their foundation in a range of West-African musical idioms, such as the complex interlocking rhythms of Yoruban juju. But a few foreground popular Western styles: ‘Petite Fleur’, a Sidney Bechet cover, was reinvented as a decadently romantic orchestral ballad.
Not yet a subscriber of our Wednesday Breakfast Headlines?
Join the mailing list for a weekly roundup of Jazz News.
The second half (which saw Chineke! replaced by Kidjo’s band) gave further opportunity for the singer to show her love for melding diverse genres. Youssou N’Dour (described by Kidjo as the “prince of the voice”) joined her for an arrangement of Dylan’s ‘Chimes of Freedom’ (a song chosen, no doubt, for its relevance to one of the main themes of the evening – solidarity with the downtrodden). She was also joined on-stage by Ibrahim Maalouf for ‘Once in a Lifetime’, taken from her well-received 2018 album Remain in Light, a reimagining of Talking Heads’ album of the same name. Kidjo’s further ‘Africanization’ of a song that already owed something to the Afrobeat of Fela Kuti was playfully altered in this particular version, by Maalouf’s extended improvisatory jazz passages on trumpet. It was enormous fun – as was the final song, ‘Afirika’ (also known as ‘Mama Africa’) for which she invited all her soloists and Chineke! back on stage.
A number of songs from the evening can be found on Kidjo’s 2015 album Sings, a collaboration with the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra (which won the Grammy for Best Global Music Album in 2016). The musicians of Chineke! (conducted by Chris Cameron) easily matched the finesse and vigour of the Luxembourg players, but their presence on stage held particular symbolic importance for the singer. As Europe’s first majority black and ethnically diverse orchestra, Chineke! was founded in part to prove that music (of all kinds) exists for all people – a mantra also at the centre of Kidjo’s own musical motivations.
Kidjo’s advocacy of cultural and societal freedom is not confined to the concert stage; as a tireless ambassador for children’s education (she works closely with UNICEF and OXFAM), she is almost as busy off-stage as on. But there is cohesion between these two missions, and we saw this on stage at the Albert Hall. For the second half of the concert Kidjo changed into a majestic striped purple dress. The fabric was made, the singer told us, by a vulnerable adolescent African girl, who had been given the professional skills (through Kidjo’s own Batonga Foundation) to enjoy a stable and financially independent future. This symbolic gesture underscored the spirit of bold optimism that defined this moving and memorable occasion.