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Music Memories: Happy Birthday, Angélique Kidjo!

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
African singer, Angélique Kidjo

Angélique Kidjo was born on July 14, 1960 in what is now Benin. Kidjo is one of Africa’s most popular singers, and a major figure of world music.

By the time she was six, Kidjo was performing with her mother’s theatre company, learning traditional Beninese music and dance. She lists as other musical influences African jazz and pop, and American R&B. Kidjo began singing with a band as a teenager, and they began having songs played on national radio while she was still in high school.

Kidjo recorded her first album, Pretty, in Benin in 1981. It was successful enough that she was a popular touring artist throughout western Africa. She moved to Paris in 1983, where she studied jazz and began working as a backup singer. By the mid-1980s, she was the lead singer for the jazz/rock band Pili Pili, with whom she recorded three albums. She became one of Paris’s most popular singers, and was signed by the American label Island Records in 1990.

Her first album for Island, Logozo, was released in 1991; it reached #1 on the Billboard World Music chart. Already visible on this album is what would become one of Kidjo’s distinctive traits, an interest in collaborating with talented musicians from all styles and genres. Logozo features performances from two of the world’s best saxophonists, the American Branford Marsalis and the Cameroonian Manu DiBango. Kidjo’s next album, Ayé, gave her her first Grammy nomination, for the song “Agolo.”

3 albums by Kidjo

In 1998, Kidjo released the first in a trilogy of albums exploring the connections between African music and the music of the Americas. Oremi focused on African-American music, and featured appearances by Cassandra Wilson and Kelly Price. Gilberto Gil appeared on the Brazilian-themed Black Ivory Soul, and the 86-year-old French Guyanese singer Henri Salvador took part in Oyaya!, built around Afro-Caribbean music.

Over the next several years, Kidjo received three Grammy Awards for Best World Music Album. Djin Djin featured her widest assortment of guest artists yet, including Josh Groban, Carlos Santana, Ziggy Marley, Alicia Keys, and the Malian singers Amadou & Mariam. For Eve, a tribute to the women of Africa, Kidjo returned to Africa to record Beninese percussionists and songs performed by traditional female choirs. And for Angélique Kidjo Sings with the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, Kidjo performed new versions of some of her most popular songs with orchestral accompaniment.

Kidjo has also ventured into the world of classical music through a pair of collaborations with composer Philip Glass. In 2014, Glass premiered IF É: Three Yoruba Songs, based on traditional creation songs, sung by Kidjo. Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Philharmonic presented the world premiere of Glass’s Symphony #12, “Lodger, built around songs from David Bowie’s album, featuring Kidjo as the principal vocalist.

Kidjo’s most recent album was released earlier this year. Celia is a tribute to Cuban salsa singer Celia Cruz, putting an Afropop spin on some of Cruz’s best known songs.

More of Kidjo’s music is available for streaming or download at Hoopla and Freegal. Her 2014 memoir is called Spirit Rising (e-book | print); she performs and discusses her life and career in a 2014 podcast from the ALOUD Central Library Speaker Series.