The Telltale Heart

The soulful gumbo of African diva Angelique Kidjo

"My parents teach me one thing," explains Angelique Kidjo, her voice purring over trans-Atlantic lines in a graceful French accent. "When you are a musician, you have to listen to your deep truths. When you are singing the word, and you don't feel it deep inside, don't let it out, because you're lying. As far as my own truth" -- she searches for the words to translate her feelings -- "I think I will be doing people a lot of pleasure."
Bighearted and mighty in voice, the petite West African-born/Paris-dwelling singer stands on the threshold of major international stardom. A lithe and graceful performer, one whose close-cropped hair, muscular build, and warm familiarity reflect her strength and self-assurance, Kidjo exudes complete confidence in her own talent and ability, like any true diva.

Born in Ouidah, Benin, to a choreographer and a banjo player, Kidjo grew up in a homeland richly cross-pollinated with musical influences: Brazilian salsa, Zairian drumming, and Cameroonian makossa joined with Arabic and Indian forms, as well as Western styles -- blues, funk, and rock 'n' roll. Early influences included Miriam Makeba, James Brown, and Aretha Franklin, as well as Carlos Santana, with whom Kidjo toured in 1995. A move to Paris in 1983 nourished her with another musical bouillabaisse where sounds of African pop stars like Salif Keita and Manu Dibango mixed with those of French, Caribbean, and American artists.

Named for a word from Kidjo's native Fon language, her fourth record, Fifa (meaning "cool, calm, and peaceful") reflects this life of musical diversity. "I love to live in a place where I can hear different types of music," she says. "Every type of music, every kind of beat is different. When you beat a drum made from thick skin of animal and a drum made from sensitive skin, one goes directly to your vital functions, but the other goes on top and hits your head. It's two different feelings."

Fifa blends elements of reggae, hip hop, Afro-funk, and dance beats with soulful pop ballads, African percussion, brassy horns, and berimbau, a buzzing, sitarlike Brazilian stringed instrument. The CD also follows Kidjo's sabbatical into northern Benin in December 1994, a journey made with her husband and producer, Jean Hebrail. Kidjo's intent was to record the authentic voices of her native land.

"I met very, very poor people, but so peaceful, so lovable, so joyful," she remembers of her travels. "You arrive somewhere where people hardly have money to give; they welcome you, so happy to be part of your world, part of your life. They just give the most they can, and they gave me peace."

As a result of the fieldwork, several cuts on Fifa -- including "Sound of the Drums," the lead track -- incorporate indigenous melodies and instruments. "Welcome" begins with phrases originally sung by the women of Manigri, a tiny village in central Benin. "They first asked me, 'Which village are you from?' " Kidjo says of the townspeople. "I told them I was from Ouidah, and they knew the place. They looked at themselves with a smile of love and sang this song for me. It was here I found African gospel."

Similar was her discovery of the berimbau: "I realized some instruments will disappear if we don't record them, because they are played by people more old than my parents," she says. Seeking permission to record the instrument, she recalls: "Those people could have said, 'Come on, you're a little girl,' but [instead] said, 'What do you want? What do you need? We can help.' They give me the respect of a human being. That's how my country is."

On Fifa, Kidjo sings in Fon, French, and, for the first time, English. "Fon is based on tonality," she explains. "It uses more images, feelings you can put into a word you can't get in French or English. But I've found English lyrics more quick to the edge than French. They're both Western, but grammatically completely different. Of course, some things I can only express in my native language."

The new recording closes with "Naima," a lullaby named for Kidjo's 3-year-old daughter, a track that explains much about Kidjo's spiritual philosophy. "I want her to grow up and be a peaceful adult, because the peace for tomorrow is based on children today," she says of Naima's generation. "We have to give them education, make them absolute enemies of war."

"I believe in the god which is love, a magnificent love that makes you go inside yourself," she clarifies. "Love yourself, find the truth inside, and give it to other people. That's my spirituality: The blood is the blood; human beings is human beings. When you cut somebody -- blue, black, yellow, red, green -- blood is blood, man. The heart color is the heart color."

Angelique Kidjo plays Fri, April 5, at the Great American Music Hall in S.F.; call 885-0750.

 
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