As singer, composer, bandleader, performer and humanitarian (she is also a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF), Kidjo is as inspiring as she is dynamic--so much so that it matters not whether one can understand any of the eight different languages in which she might sing.
"The thing I've been doing all my life is to prove that music is universal," she said in an interview with National Public Radio shortly after the release of her ninth album, 2007's Djin Djin (pronounced "jin jin"). "It's the only language that links all of us together. Music goes right to the heart of our soul."
As words on paper, these might be easy for the cynic to view as clichéd. For Kidjo, however, they ring true as universal truth, and one she backs up on stage, night after night.
Kidjo hails from the politically scarred West African nation of Benin. She moved to Paris and in 1992 began to record, merging the polyrhythms of West Africa with the variety of cultures and music that seemed to intersect and cross-pollinate in Paris. Among American influences, she cites Carlos Santana, James Brown and Jimi Hendrix, the latter inspiring a great cover of "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)."
While many world musicians work hard at cultivating one particular sound, Kidjo has traveled the world extensively, looking for what moves people (musically and spiritually) and then collaborating with musicians from various countries and cultures. The results have included recordings that have drawn inspiration from places like Brazil, Haiti and, surprisingly, Cuba; she has managed to merge African, salsa and jazz into a mix that is all her own. Her band, in fact, is a traveling multicultural expo, in and of itself.
As good as the band, the compositions and the killer dance grooves might be, however, there is the singular force and magic of her voice, which drives her performances and transcends all else. Local promoter Jonathan Holden waxed poetic when he framed it as "imagining the towering dignity of South Africa's Miriam Makeba and the soulful power of Aretha Franklin."
As artful and descriptive as these words may be, they are two-dimensional at best and inadequate when trying to describe or define this three-dimensional experience. It's as if her voice is a vehicle for the spirit. To more fully understand how she can use it when she sings, it might be best to hear how she speaks. In one recorded interview after the next, it's hard not to be moved by her spoken words, especially when she is talking about her work with UNICEF.
"The children of the world are our future, yet we keep making decisions that endanger their lives. We must preserve, protect and respect their rights," she told NPR in 2002. In response to a question regarding how she is viewed by many as the "face of Africa," she replied, "As an African woman, and just an African, people don't expect you to be articulate. I feel blessed, humbled and overwhelmed." This ability to speak so clearly and from the heart must be what allows her voice to soar, caress, charm and express whatever the emotion of the musical moment may be.
On this tour, she is promoting Djin Djin, the album that just garnered her first Grammy. It's an album that is unique in that she has gathered an all-star cast of collaborators including Santana, Peter Gabriel, Ziggy Marley, Alicia Keys, Branford Marsalis and Joss Stone, who joins Kidjo on a killer Afro-funk version of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter." Djin Djin is billed as a return to Kidjo's native roots of Benin and is perhaps the most African-influenced album within her diverse catalogue.
Unfortunately, according to UApresents spokesman Mario Di Vetta, her performance at Centennial Hall "will not allow for a full-on dance show." However, he adds, "If you want to stand up and dance, we'll be happy to shepherd you off to the side."
In a recent e-mail exchange, Kidjo adds, "I know whatever venue I am playing in, people will eventually dance and sing with me: I don't leave them the choice!!!"