Angélique Kidjo is not renowned for her puritanical approach. Onstage, she might sing songs by George Gershwin or Jimi Hendrix, alongside traditional melodies from her native Benin. Hailed as the “Queen of African music”, the sonorous songstress has long raged at white critics who claim her work is “inauthentic”. Once named by The Guardian as one of the world’s 100 most influential women, Kidjo’s last tour paid tellingly diverse dues to her own heroes: a three-part celebration of African legend Miriam Makeba, American soul great Nina Simone and Cuba’s salsa queen Celia Cruz.
But even viewed through this multi-hued prism, Kidjo’s latest project remains a hearty head-scratcher: a complete rerecording of rock band Talking Heads’s 1980 masterpiece, Remain in Light, released today (June 8). Bathing that album’s fidgety, urban claustrophobia in a burst of summery euphoria, with help from the horn section of celebrated Afrobeat revivalists Antibalas.
The concept comes wracked with the issues of appropriation and influence which Kidjo, at the age of 57, professes to care little for. Steeped in African polyrhythms, Remain in Light was the product of frontman David Byrne and producer Brian Eno overdosing on West African grooves – especially Fela Kuti – and repurposing those dense, hypnotic textures through Talking Heads’s artily detached New York poise. For Kidjo, the result was a revelation: Remain in Light was one of the first records the young singer heard when she arrived in Paris in 1983, fleeing her native Benin, then in the throes of a communist regime. Joltingly, the music was at once familiar and foreign – and Remain in Light’s flow of energy from the Western world to Africa mirrored her own flight in reverse.
“It felt both close and far – for me, Remain in Light showed that we are all homo sapiens, and that music is in our DNA – and we all come from Africa,” says Kidjo, speaking from France, where the fates of tour scheduling have landed her once more. “I wanted to bring Remain in Light back to Africa – because it all started in the part of Africa I come from.”
Kidjo’s 14th LP arrives a year after an earlier a concert version of the project premiered at New York’s Carnegie Hall last May, where Byrne made a surprise appearance duetting on the centrepiece Once in a Lifetime – music the American icon has squarely refused to perform alongside his own bandmates since Talking Heads split in 1991.
Observers praised Kidjo, Byrne less so, and speculated if the performance was truly spontaneous, or just made to appear so. In Kidjo’s telling, it began when she received an email from Byrne’s assistant two-hours before curtains up, when the elder statesman of cerebral rock couldn’t find a ticket for the sold-out show. In between breathless laughter, she recalls running around the hallowed venue’s corridors, in the middle of her set, trying to hunt down the last-minute VIP box the hall had stumped up – and pitch a quick duet.
“It was very courageous of him to just jump in like that, he hadn’t even heard my version of the song,” says Kidjo. “David Byrne is an artist, fully – he’s open. He has a way of saying things which are profoundly true.”