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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1481

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Angelique Kidjo: Djin Djin
by George Graham

(Razor & Tie 7931082967-2 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/18/2007)

Cross-cultural world music fusion has been the source of some of the most interesting and enjoyable sounds of the last twenty years, and it shows no signs of stopping. The audience for such music remains relatively small in the US, but the number of album releases seems to be growing, and once in a while, some popular performers will take up the cause of world music and help to introduce more Americans to the sound of places other than the big media capitals. Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and to some extent Sting have been helpful in introducing their fans to world music, through guest appearances by artists from the world music field on their recordings.

This week, we have a CD by an African-born artist which features guest appearances by some well-known western performers in styles from reggae to so-called "classical crossover". It's Angelique Kidjo, whose newest release is called Djin Djin.

Angelique Kidjo was grew up in the small West African country of Benin, where she began performing at age six. Her parents were musical, and in her family, she was exposed to music from all over the globe, especially American pop, rock and soul. She is said to have been mesmerized by a Jimi Hendrix album which led her to want to explore American rock, but based on her African roots. She eventually relocated to Paris, which has been the kind of headquarters of African fusion artists, who would travel there to record and to exchange influences. In recent years, she has been living in New York, and has further plunged into the confluence of African, Caribbean, Brazilian, and Western pop. Three of her previous CDs were nominated for Grammy Awards in the world music category. She has also been serving as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations' UNICEF foundation, with its advocacy for children.

On her new CD, she decided to build the music on the Beninese rhythms on her youth, but on top of that rhythmic undercurrent, the influences fan out widely, with mostly original pieces, but also distinctive covers of songs by Sade, the Rolling Stones, and even a remarkable version of Ravel's Bolero.

The guests on the CD are a suitably diverse bunch from guitarist Carlos Santana, to one of the great world music ambassadors, Peter Gabriel, to pop artists Alicia Keys and Joss Stone, to Ziggy Marley and jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis. Perhaps the most unexpected guest is Josh Groban, the popular classical style vocalist.

To give an indication of where Ms. Kidjo is coming from on the CD, the first of the musician credits in the CD booklet is drummer Poogie Bell, and there are a couple of additional percussionists. Featured on the acoustic guitar is Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo, and there is a South African vocal chorus. The album was produced by veteran producer Tony Visconti, whose nearly 40-year career includes most of David Bowie's albums, as well as LPs by T-Rex and the Moody Blues.

The result is an album as diverse as one might expect, and also as one might expect, with some tracks better than others. Overall, it is a well-done, creative, and engaging recording that has the potential to widen even further the audience for world fusion.

Linguistically, the CD is also quite diverse, with lyrics in the languages of Benin, Togo and Nigeria, as well as English and some French. Neither CD booklet nor Ms. Kidjo's website provides translations, but there is a paragraph synopsis in the booklet giving the gist of each the original songs, whose subjects range from African brain drain to the problems faced by the children of divorced parents. Some of those songs no doubt were inspired by her work with UNICEF.

Leading off is Ae Ae, the song expressing hope that the brightest youth of Africa should not have to go to Europe or America to fulfill their ambitions. The piece is a pleasing mixture of West African influences with the South African chorus, with a bit of Caribbean thrown in for good measure. <<>>

The first of the tracks with the guests is the title piece, Djin Djin, which features Alicia Keys and Branford Marsalis. The premise of the song is taking advantage of the moment. It's one of the better of the tunes with the prominent guests, and its ingredients range from the 6-beat African rhythmic undercurrent to the jazzy sound of Marsalis' sax. <<>>

Peter Gabriel makes his appearance on Salala a song celebrating birth and the beginning of a life. Gabriel's presence is unmistakable. It's another absorbing piece, though as the liner notes indicate, Gabriel was recorded separately in his studio in England, an ocean away from the sessions for the other instruments, done in New York. It does sound as if Gabriel's performance lacks some interaction with the rest of the performers. <<>>

In Ms. Kidjo's notes for the track Senamou, subtitled C'est l'Amour, she expresses optimism that love will triumph, though not before observing the increasing economic inequality in the world. Her guests on the track are the African duo Amadou & Mariam, who give the track perhaps the most purely African sound on the CD, including the use of the kora harp-guitar instrument from Mali. <<>>

One of the cover tunes on the CD is the Stones' Gimme Shelter, and young English singer Joss Stone is the featured guest. The arrangement is a creative blend of the African and the rock influences, and it comes off as another pleasant surprise. <<>>

Sedjedo features Ziggy Marley and it's another worthwhile pairing, combining as it does the reggae rhythmic feel in the context of the six-beat African meter. It's basically a love song. <<>>

One of the interesting left-field influences on this CD is the presence of a country-styled steel guitar on a few tracks, including Emma, which otherwise features South African influences.

The one track likely to get the most attention, but which for me is the closest thing to a musical letdown, is Pearls, a cover of a song by Sade. The song expresses Ms. Kidjo's strong advocacy of women's rights in the Third World, but Josh Groban vocal does push to the musical direction into rather saccharine territory, and Carlos Santana's guitar isn't able to help very much, again because he was recorded separately in a studio on the opposite coast. There's also a string section to make sure we all know it's the big production number. <<>>

Ironically, despite Josh Groban's classical and opera credentials, it's Ms. Kidjo mostly by herself who creates the album's most stunning piece, a reworking of the Ravel's Bolero, which starts mostly a cappella by means of multiple overdubbing <<>> before some building to an appropriate crescendo with some additional instrumentation. <<>>

Angelique Kidjo's new CD Djin Djin is an outstanding example of world music fusion, combining as it does everything from classical to country to reggae, with African influences. Ms. Kidjo said that the underlying motif of the album are the rhythms of her native Benin, but she draws a wide net in the musical ingredients she adds. The prominent musical guests add another dimension, though I don't think that they add all that much to the creative material. But their presence will likely increase interest in this recording, and perhaps serve as a catalyst for wider audiences for world music.

Our sound quality grade is an A-Minus. The mix captures the wide-ranging instrumentation well, and sonically does a good job of melding together the diverse guests who performed their parts separately in different studios. Tony Visconti served as mix engineer for most of the CD as well as producer. However, the dynamic range is somewhat limited by typically excessive volume compression.

There is still a great number of people -- in fact I would venture to say a solid majority -- who have not discovered the joys of world music, and the fascinating cross-cultural conglomerations and hybrids that the scene has brought forth. Perhaps Ms. Kidjo's new release with its star power guests will help attract some more converts.

(c) Copyright 2007 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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