Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Angélique Kidjo at Festival International Nuits d'Afrique

Angélique Kidjo  |  Festival International Nuits d’Afrique

                       PHOTOS  |  EVAN CRANDELL

July 19, 2013 - Angélique Kidjo is a woman of the people. The Beninese singer and activist has traveled the world performing music and supporting various advocacy groups. She is a connector. Whether it be merging Western musical styles like jazz and R&B with her traditional African music background, or bringing educational aid to African girls, Kidjo brings people together all over the globe. Her travels recently landed her in Montreal where she joined the lineup of the Festival International Nuits d’Afrique.

Before the MC finished announcing her name, Kidjo’s voice rang through the speakers while she was still backstage. As the first vocal phrase of Zelie cut through the summer night air, Africa’s premier diva emerged to the stage and it felt like the whole city erupted. By starting the show solo, she reminded the audience of the primary reason why she is world famous: her voice. Her pure, yet powerful delivery immediately captivated the crowd and never let up. Every note she sang was essential to the performance, a true sign of a master musician. The night included entertainment in many forms, but the bedrock of it all was her electrifying vocal skill.

At most shows it takes the band a few songs to warm up the audience. From the start of Kidjo’s show, however, people were enthusiastically dancing and singing along to the music, most of which was taken from her recent album Õÿö. By the time she broke into Kelele, it felt like an all-out party. There is no other performer like Angélique Kidjo. She sang with an incredible sense of conviction, passion, and yet also effortlessness. When she was not singing, she was laughing with her band mates or athletically dancing around the stage. A beaming smile was plastered on her face throughout the performance.

Kidjo and her band played through the set with the confidence that comes with having done it so many times, but with utter excitement, as if it was their first. The musical arrangements were complex, but executed to perfection. There were several syncopated hits that were often cued by guitarist Dominic James. For a few moments during Afia, the show evolved into a head-banging hip hop affair. Another highlight was a rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s Move on Up, which Kidjo recast in an afrobeat style. This song encapsulated her fusion of African and Western musical influences and showed that both are part of the same musical lineage.

As if the musical performances were not impressive enough, the show continued to escalate. During one song, Kidjo abruptly left the stage. The concert was far from over but she was nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, there was an uproar in the audience as it became clear that she had joined the throngs of people on the ground. As the band vamped on a groove, she shook hands, sang, and danced alongside many of her admirers (I got a high five from her). Along with physically embracing her fans, she later opened up emotionally by dedicating one song to her ailing father and another to the victims of the Lac-Mégantic tragedy. Her integrity and accessibility endeared her to the entire congregation and created an undeniable sense of solidarity.

It was at this point that Kidjo took audience participation to a new level. A group of audience members were invited to join her onstage and dance with her. Then she called for Senegal-born djembe virtuoso Karim Diouf, who also performed at the this year’s festival, to join the growing mass on the stage. An extended jam ensued with drum conversations between Diouf and Kidjo’s percussionist and dance solos from Kidjo and her selected audience members. Even for those of us left off the stage, it felt like we were all a part of the performance. It was happy chaos and everyone was in on it.

When asked about leaving Africa for North America, Kidjo says that she was surprised by the lack of human warmth outside her homeland. In Benin, she says, everyone greets each other and has a vested interest in the well-being of the community. Nowadays, Kidjo strives to spread that kind of affection and camaraderie wherever she travels. She certainly brought people together that night at the Loto-Québec stage. Musically, she connected fans of funk, soul, and Beninese traditional music. She shared her own stage and performing experience with adoring masses. We were all united in celebrating music with a cause.

Angélique Kidjo is a truly galvanizing figure with the power to unify people who would not do so otherwise. Even if the audience’s solidarity that night was based solely on an admiration for her music, she will channel that positive energy into worthwhile endeavors to improve our world. 

Angélique Kidjo  |  Festival International Nuits d’Afrique

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