Gray Taylor casts a critical eye on Angélique Kidjo’s Festival of Voice performance of Remain In Light (originally by Talking Heads).
I watched the other night the excellent documentary Here To Be Heard: The Story of the Slits, which put forward the proposition that The Slits had in fact been the first western band to introduce world music to a western audience via their sophomore album, 1981’s The Return Of The Giant Slits. I would love this to be true because I love The Slits, but the reality is that the first time a western audience mass consumed world music by accident was the song “I Zimbra” by Talking Heads, from their 1979 album Fear Of Music. In fact, within a year of that track, Talking Heads, along with producer Brian Eno, had become masters of fusing angular new wave to African rhythms, proven on the 1980 masterpiece Remain In Light.
Angélique Kidjo is known as “Africa’s premier diva” and has had a long and illustrious career, creating accessible and danceable music that is as much influenced by western music as it is African. Kidjo is also an important advocate for human rights, particularly the rights of women; this in itself is enough to admire this iconic artist. She is influential in politics, music, and film, and incredibly vibrant live.
You know there’s a ‘but’ coming, right? In fact, there’s two of them.
Firstly, Remain In Light is one of my all time favourite albums. I know it inside out, track for track, word for word. So, when performing an album, or as it was billed by the Festival of Voice a performance of that album, rearranging the track listing and slipping in original Kidjo material is going to disturb the flow of the album I have come to see reimagined, or to come full circle, returning to the source of its influence.
Secondly, Kidjo is quite rightly outspoken about human atrocities, but I’m going to argue that a speech and a song about female genital mutilation three songs in is a bit of a vibe killer for a Saturday evening concert from a prolific dance pioneer. In fact, after this track she asks us to all get up and dance, which after such an important, thought-provoking statement about such a terrible, horrific tradition… to be honest I don’t really feel like dancing.
Angélique Kidjo’s records are vibrant affairs, but her band tonight don’t seem up for it. Maybe it’s the starkness of the Millennium Centre or that the audience seem slow to stand up and dance. Maybe the set would’ve benefited the band had they stuck to Remain In Light and reserved Kidjo’s original material for the encore, which would’ve equally pleased her fans. I say this because they come alive for an excellent version of RIL’s key track “The Great Curve”, here a definite celebration of womanhood and the first time the audience slowly rises from their chairs. She is excellent on “Crosseyed and Painless” and “Once In A Lifetime”. Again the band seem to be enjoying these tracks most.
The crowd positively light up for a cover Miriam Makeba’s “Pata Pata”, but again I’m thrown completely out of the vibe of hearing the album reimagined. I also felt that we could have had a bit more recognition of Eno’s sonic soundscapes presumably in turn influenced by Byrne discovering the pioneering electronic afrobeat of William Onyeabor (Byrne’s label Luaka Bop would release the fantastic compilation Who Is William Onyeabor?). And I think the edge that this and Remain In Light have is largely missing from the sounds tonight. Largely the arrangements would fit nicely on a BBC Radio Six show.
But, Angélique Kidjo is, in herself, fantastic. In really good voice and dancing her heart out, she is a force of nature, fascinating to watch and listen to. I guess my expectations weren’t disappointed, they were just different to what was basically on offer. Oh and though Tony Allen, Fela Kuti’s amazing drummer, plays on Kidjo’s album, he isn’t here tonight, and it’s a tough ask to replace him.
Gray Taylor contributes regularly to Wales Arts Review.