Béninoise singer-songwriter and activist, Angelique Kidjo worked most of the audience into an exuberant dancing frenzy at her performance last night at Lisner Auditorium. Her 17-song set combined the joy of her African heritage with quite serious discussion and songs of the plight of women in Africa, a call to stop arranged marriages of young girls, and the importance of secondary education for women. This is the subject of recently released new album, Eve, dedicated to the women of Africa, to their resilience and their beauty.
Kidjo’s first appearance was preceded by a drumline which encouraged audience participation with syncopated clapping that continued through her first song, “Ebile.” Kidjo’s voice and dancing, supported by a percussion-laden band, immediately energized the crowd. Following in rapid succession was “Bana,” a duet sung with a recording of her mother. Bassist Ben Zerwin, led the syncopated clapping and provided the majority of back-up singing.
Before beginning “Batango,” Kidjo ordered everyone to leave the comfort of their seats to dance. About half of the audience followed her direction, singing and dancing with Kidjo and her band. The action followed through “Senamou,” a song reflecting and encouraging dance in the style of Benin.
“Hello” was a glorious celebration of marriage by consent rather than arrangement. The story she told of all the women using the same fabric, but in different styles, and the dissing and gossip those styles evoked, was one of my favorites of the evening, as were some of her ballads.
“Bamba” one of her better known songs, supported her proclamation that “The party starts now!” Except for the recalcitrant middle section in the back half of the auditorium and a smattering of others, the audience leapt to their feet, started moving towards the stage, dancing in the aisles and singing along from the first beat. The party continued with “Pata Pata,” where the din of the crowd seemed easily generated by an audience 10 times the size.
Kidjo preceded “Afirika,” with encouragement to “be your own star tonight; celebrate we share, not what divides us. Though she intended to teach the song, many in the audience already knew it and the first note started off with a bang. Kidjo danced through the audience, sharing high-fives and hugs with anyone who could get close enough. As if the crowd was not stirred up enough, she invited audience members onto the stage to participate in drumming and dancing to “Tumsa.” Senegalese percussionist Magatte Sow, waded into the crowd on stage and added spice with his mastery of the armpit drum, a small drum held high under the arm and played with the hands as well as a small implement with a curved end. Dancers on stage and in the audience had styles ranging from traditional African and break dancing to jumping and waving hands in the air.
Kidjo’s encore, “Orisha,” provided a cool-down after the frenzied dancing.
The evening was not all joy and celebration. Several of the numbers told stories of sadness and grief and emphasized the need for change. “Cauri,” was a lament of a teenager in an arranged marriage. The title track of her latest album, Eve, emphasizes the importance of no-one, even the most down-trodden, feeling alone in this age of high tech telecommunication. “Kulumbu,” meaning door of peace, called for the inclusion of women in intra- and inter-governmental negotiations. Her ballads were often accompanied by Dominic James on acoustic and electric guitar.
Percussionist Paulo Stagnaro and drummer Daniel Freedman were essential in forming a solid base with appropriate volume and style for each song. Particularly impressive was their ability to move from loud percussive sounds during the more joyous songs to fading far into the background while still supporting Kidjo during many of the ballads. The tightness of the band meant that Kidjo, rather than the band, was always front and center except for the explosive “Tumsa.”
Except for a few lines of “Eva,” all of the lyrics were in Yoruba (her mother’s first language) or Fon, the first language of her father. Kidjo provided just the right amount of explanatory material before many songs that the rhythm and vocals made sense from a thematic standpoint.
Although many Americans have never heard of Angélique Kpasseloko Hinto Hounsinou Kandjo Manta Zogbin Kidjo, she is no stranger to those interested in world music. In addition to winning a Grammy for Best World Music Album in 2007 and numerous other international awards, she has been called “Africa’s premier diva” by Time Magazine, the undisputed “Queen of African Music” by The Daily Times of London, and included in the list of the African continent’s 50 most iconic women and one of The Guardian’s ‘Top 100 Most Inspiring Women in the World.’
Kidjo, along with two others, founded The Batonga Foundation, which gives girls a secondary school and higher education so that they can take the lead in changing Africa. Kidjo believes that secondary education among women will have a multiplicative effect as those women insist on equal education for their sons and daughters.
Every time Angelique Kidjo performs in DC, a certain gentleman gives her a different heart-shaped piece of fine craftsmanship. She showed her most recent gift and explained that she always carries them with her and brings one onto the stage as an inspiration for her performance.
The gentleman’s gift of a heart is but a physical manifestation of the DC hearts she brings with her and the heart and soul she freely gave to all during her Lisner performance.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes.
Anjelique Kidjo performed for one-night-only on February 17, 2014 at Lisner Auditorium on the campus of The George Washington University – 730 21st Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For future Lisner events, check their calendar of events.