Angelique Kidjo, Afropop's Amazon queen, brings her towering stage presence and global goodwill back to the Wisconsin Union Theater next Thursday night. This show is pitch-perfect post-election medicine, win or lose.
World-citizen Kidjo, who lives in New York, was born to a family of cultural warriors in Benin, West Africa. "My mom studied theater, acting and singing," she says. "My father was the hot young boy in the 'hood. He sang and played banjo, so when they got married they put together a theater group. My mom was a great inspiration. She sang to me, so I started singing before I talked. She taught me to breathe and choose songs that fit me. She'd say that's too high, you'll be out of key. That's how I learned."
Kidjo also inherited a driving social consciousness. Today her human rights work is as well known as her music. She's an advocate for multiple humanitarian institutions and a UNICEF goodwill ambassador. "When you come from a poor country, one thing that's really significant is community solidarity," she says. "My family always went out of the way to help someone with problems. We'd come home from school, nobody's home. So you know they're in some village taking someone to the hospital. If we complained, they'd say, you know, we've taught you to fend for yourself. You have to fix your own food."
Kidjo left Africa to study jazz in Paris at 23, in 1983; a decade later her international launch album Ayé was a hit on hip radio stations like WORT. Since then Kidjo's become a huge star. She's rendered dozens of African diaspora beats - Brazilian axé, bluesy funk, Afro-caribeño - through her global lens. What links them all, she says, are the drums.
Kidjo's latest release, Djin Djin, which got a Grammy last year, is no exception. Though it features a wide-ranging group of guests, it's based on the rhythms of Benin. "You have drums there you find nowhere else in Africa," she says.
Unlike her stage performances, Kidjo's albums are notoriously uneven, and Djin Djin, co-produced by Starbucks, has a double cross to bear. Aimed at the latte goliath's common-denominator audience, it can't compete with less commercialized discs like Ayé or Black Ivory Soul. But it's got some rockin' Afropop, like the sparkly "Mama Golo Papa" and "Sedjedo," with Ziggy Marley. There's some fertile fusion - the title track, a duet with Alicia Keys, and Branford Marsalis on sax, is juicy juju bop.
"Gimme Shelter" has Starbucks appeal, but it pops with Benin beat, Kidjo's bright singing with Joss Stone and Lionel Loueke's spot-on guitar. Plus it packs a message Kidjo wants to transmit. "I picked it because I was feeling a crisis coming," Kidjo says. "Can you tell me one place on earth where people are safe? Why are we still calling immigrants the enemy and telling them to go home? Excuse me? If they have food and shelter at home they're not going anywhere. It's the greed of the rich people, stealing everything the poor have, that leaves them to come over here and work to get crumbs of it back."
"Gimme Shelter" is a pretty good groove, but even Santana's brilliant guitar licks can't save the slicked-up ballad "Pearls" from Josh Groban's mawkish interpretation.
Is this the Djin Djin tour, sans guests? "There's lots of Djin Djin," Kidjo says, "but also some old songs, no way, don't worry - I have to do some of the classics."
Like her "Afrika" anthem, so we can sing along? "I'm gonna give it to ya," she says. "You're gonna have to sing it loud and clear or I won't let you go."