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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1590

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Angelique Kidjo: Oyo
by George Graham

(Razor & Tie 83062 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/31/2010)

To many American ears, especially those buried in a media sea of unrelenting classic rock, World Music can be a bit unfamiliar. But sometimes if there's a connection with the familiar it may open new avenues for musical exploration. This week, we have a fascinating and engaging new recording by one of the top people in the World Music field that features a number of covers tunes from the classic rock era that just might serve as a portal into the delights of World Music for those who might not have thought they would like it. It's the new release by Angelique Kidjo called Oyo.

Angelique Kidjo is a native of Benin in West Africa, a small country which has produced a number of notable artists in the field. Her family was musical and she began performing at age 6 in a theatrical production staged by her mother. Later, she was enchanted by a Jimi Hendrix LP and became a fan of American music from Aretha Franklin and James Brown to Santana. She also absorbed Brazilian and Caribbean sounds. Because of turmoil in her home country in her youth, she moved with her family to Paris, which was a kind of Mecca for expatriate world music artists from Africa and elsewhere. She became part of the scene there and absorbed the cross-cultural influences. She has since relocated to New York. Since the 1990s, she has released a series of worthwhile recordings, which in recent years have attracted a number of notable guests. Her last CD Djin Djin in 2007, which won a Grammy, had guest appearances by Peter Gabriel, Alicia Keys, Ziggy Marley, Joss Stone and even opera-crossover vocalist Josh Groban. On Djin Djin Ms. Kidjo also did a number of interesting covers, including the Stones' Gimme Shelter, and a fascinating mostly a cappella version of Ravel's Bolero. This time around, there is also an intriguing collection of covers, including tunes from Santana, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, a jazz standard by Sidney Bechet, and a couple of pieces that were made famous by Miriam Makeba.

Like Ms. Kidjo's previous recordings, Oyo is multi-lingual, with lyrics in English, French, and African dialects from South Africa and Benin. There is not much original music, though there is one notable song that she wrote for a UNICEF disease eradication campaign with which she has been involved.

And like its predecessor, this CD has a number of notable guest appearances, including Bono of U2, pop singer John Legend, and from the jazz world, singer Dianne Reeves and trumpeter Roy Hargrove. The backing musicians include another Beninese native, jazz guitarist Lionel Loueke, plus bassist Christian McBride and drummer Kendrick Scott, among others. The producer this time is someone with whom Ms. Kidjo had worked and collaborated in the past, Jean Hebrail. The sound is nicely varied, and tastefully done. While there is an eclectic mix of influences that come together in virtually every track, it never comes across as a culture clash. The arrangements are interesting and often clever to the point that it sometimes takes a while for one to realize the song that's being done, which makes for some pleasant surprises. Often the original English lyrics are translated into other languages.

The CD gets under way with a piece called Zelie, written by Bella Bellow from Togo, the country neighboring Benin. It's a pretty piece done in a simple vocal and electric guitar setting, highlighting Ms. Kidjo's impressive, powerful vocals. <<>>

That leads into the first of the covers, Santana's Samba Pa Ti. According to Ms. Kidjo's notes, this a song that was always played at romantic moments in the dances that were held in Cotonou in Benin when Ms. Kidjo was growing up. It's given a laid-back treatment with lyrics created by Ms. Kidjo. <<>> Jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove makes his appearance on the track. <<>>

The track with the star power is a cover of Curtis Mayfield's 1970s song Move On Up, which features guest appearances by U2's Bono and pop singer John Legend. There's some African influence, but it's definitely a kind of retro pop revival. <<>>

Ms. Kidjo looks to veteran South African singer Miriam Makeba as a major influence, not only musically but as an African woman who was able to make it into the mainstream Western pop scene. There are two tracks that are dedicated by Ms. Makeba. One is a lullaby called Lakutshona Llanga, which has a surprisingly jazzy sound. <<>>

Another of the familiar covers on the CD is Otis Redding's I've Got Dreams to Remember. Ms. Kidjo wrote that growing up in Benin, she didn't understand the English lyrics of the song, so she created her own. The result is a nice blend of the African sounds with classic soul. <<>>

The same approach was taken on the track from Aretha Franklin, Baby I Love You, which is given a bi-lingual treatment with a guest appearance by jazz singer Dianne Reeves. It's another nice mix of the familiar with an interesting twist. <<>>

From a different direction comes another distinctive cover tune, Petite Fleur, a song by jazz pioneer Sidney Bechet that Ms. Kidjo's father would often sing to her. With French lyrics it's nicely done in a kind of chanteuse style. <<>>

Perhaps the most interesting cover on the CD is James Brown's Cold Sweat, which is a combination of the Godfather of Soul with influential Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, who also had recorded this song in his so-called Afro-beat sound. <<>>

Ms. Kidjo has long been active in social causes and with UNICEF. She created a song for a UNICEF campaign to eliminate newborn tetanus. It's called You Can Count on Me, also a multi-lingual song, and it's included as one of the bonus tracks on the CD. It's another pleasing mix of familiar pop elements with African sounds. <<>>

Angelique Kidjo's new CD Oyo is a nice follow-up to her Grammy-winning 2007 release Djin Djin. Like its predecessor, it's a mix of interesting covers along with some original material. This CD in particular was intended as a tribute to some of the artists who influenced her, growing up in Benin, and as she developed her musical career. Also like her past album, Oyo has a number of guest appearances by popular artists who generally add to the interest of the recording. Overall, it's very nicely done, with some tasteful production and fine backing musicians. And of course, there's Ms. Kidjo's wonderfully powerful voice.

Our grade for audio quality is almost an "A." The recording captures Ms. Kidjo's voice well, through all its range, and the instrumentation has a pleasing sound with minimal effects. There is decent dynamic range on some of the songs, but there is a little inconsistency in sound among tracks.

For those who might be looking for a way into an appreciation of world music, Angelique Kidjo's Oyo might be an excellent choice, with its good helping of songs familiar to rock and soul fans, along with the great performances and arrangements that skillfully blend the African with the American.

(c) Copyright 2010 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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