The term clanked off Anglique Kidjo's ear when she first heard it. African American." How could someone be American and African at the same time, she wondered? You think I'm stupid because I'm a little girl?" Kidjo asked the person who'd used the expression. She was 9 years old.
Speaking by phone recently, the Benin-born Afro-pop diva, who will make her Walt Disney Concert Hall debut with her four-piece band on Sunday night, laughed at the memory. In the years that followed, Kidjo would learn from her grandmother about slavery's legacy and the strange cultural fruit that it yielded. Through her father's influence, she would cultivate an appreciation for Nat King" Cole, Aretha Franklin and other iconic African American artists.
Later, when she started performing and recording, Kidjo would re-interpret some of these artists' songs, and interpolate the rhythms and textures of American jazz, R&B and funk into her own music.
That decades-long process has reached a kind of personal apotheosis for the Grammy Award-winning singer with this month's release of her latest record, Oyo" (Razor & Tie). Named for an indigenous West African word that translates as beauty of the people," the disc pays tribute to Kidjo's U.S. African American inspirations, and to another formative influence, Bollywood movies, which she grew up watching.
I always go to Indian movies and they always have happy endings," she said. The dancing, the costumes, the song, it's hot."
Like Kidjo's previous record, Djin Djin," her new release is built around collaboration. She joins Bono and John Legend on a polyrhythmic jam of Curtis Mayfield's Move on Up, and teams up with Diane Reeves on the Aretha Franklin hit Baby I Love You."
Kidjo, who fluently speaks and sings in Yoruba, Fon, French and English, merges a Yoruban chorus with the gospel-tinged euphoria of Otis Redding's I've Got Dreams to Remember." On a cover of Santana's Samba Pa' Ti," she receives a chilled-out solo assist from jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove.
When it's not evoking '70s soul or Mumbai's movie industry, Oyo" returns to Kidjo's native soil. The exquisitely soothing Lakutshn Llanga" is a traditional lullaby brought to prominence by Miriam Makeba, one of Kidjo's artistic touchstones.
Like many of her educated, middle-class countrymen, Kidjo was driven into exile in the early 1980s, when an autocratic Marxist government ruled Benin. She made Paris her home, and her rise as an Afropop-fusion star owes much to her solid European and North American fan base.
But her connection to the ubiquity of music in West African culture remains.
Music isn't a business there, it's a daily life," she said approvingly. You put your instrument out and you play." The downside of that, she added, is that, there's no status for artists there."