Jazz Fest Focus: Angelique Kidjo

27 05 2015

Offbeat Jazz Fest issue 2015

c9392832_origBuilding physical bridges requires labor, some creative engineering and a determination to connect two worlds that may not seem connectable. When it comes to cultural bridges—like the ones Angelique Kidjo has dedicated her career to building—the same basic requirements apply.

That fact was evident when the singer trekked through Kenya and her native Benin with a six-track recorder, working with eight women’s choirs to incorporate their sounds into the music she’d written for her Grammy-winning 2014 album, Eve. Though she dedicated the project to “the beauty and resilience” of “the women of Africa,” many of the vocalists she recorded didn’t have experience working with the kinds of jazz and pop-based song structures she used. Yet together, they found ways to bridge the divide.

Kidjo faced a new challenge with her latest project, Sings: How to make songs from her catalogue—a hybrid of international influences buoyed by strong and often innovative rhythms—work in the classical context of the 110-piece Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra.

“Even musical worlds that seem so far apart are able to find a common ground,” she said in a recent email, explaining her willingness to proceed with the potentially difficult collaboration.

Unlike previous projects that hinged on honoring particular groups or exploring cultural concepts, she said Sings was pure “musical adventure.”

Kidjo had long dreamed of singing with an orchestra, and when she had the chance to perform with Luxembourg’s philharmonic in 2011, she leapt at it—and was rewarded with a swell of love from the audience.

“I was called back to the stage five times,” she recalled.

When it came to recording with the orchestra, Kidjo had to rethink her compositions from the inside out.

“Everything changes. On most of the songs, there are no percussion, so for once, the groove is not leading the music,” she said. “I don’t feel like the orchestra is ‘backing me up.’ I am just one voice among many beautiful melodic lines that the strings and the winds are creating. Sonically, it is a totally different experience. You are surrounded by the sound. It carries you. You feel like a bird flying on a musical wave.”

The waves were choppy at times. The track “Ominira,” for example, is based on a Brazilian rhythm in which percussion plays a key role. Arranged for the orchestra without percussion, the tempo suddenly didn’t work—so the group got creative, devoting more time and determination until they discovered Kidjo could create what she called “syncopations and rhythmical tensions” with her voice.

In the end, “Ominira” became one of Kidjo’s favorite tracks on the album. In a larger sense, it serves as a reminder that even disparate ideas can often be connected.

“This is what excites me in doing music and breaking new ground.” she said

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