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Angelique Kidjo Biography

Left Benin for Political Reasons, Recorded Traditional Musicians, Followed Slave Routes Musically, Selected discography


Vocalist, songwriter

Kidjo, Angelique, photograph. AP/Wide world Photos, Reproduced by permission.

A powerful singer and tireless performer, Angelique Kidjo has been one of the most successful performers to emerge on world music stages in the 1990s and 2000s. Her music not only draws from African traditions but also interprets the ways those traditions developed after Africans were seized and taken to the New World. Thus elements of American soul, funk, rap, and jazz, Brazilian samba, Jamaican reggae, and Cuban and Puerto Rican salsa all show up on her recordings, along with various African styles. Early in her career she told Guardian reporter Jonathan Romney that "my records sound like dance music because that's the only way for Europeans to approach something they don't know," and as she evolved into one of the international music scene's most popular concert attractions, she accumulated a large fan base that happily came on stage and danced with her.

Kidjo is a native of Benin, on Africa's Atlantic coast adjacent to Nigeria; the first of her eight languages was Fon. She was born in the coastal city of Ouidah on July 14, 1960, to government postal official Franck Kidjo (an enthusiastic photographer and banjo player on the side) and his choreographer wife Yvonne. Kidjo was lucky enough to have parents who backed her performing ambitions—female popular vocalists are rare in many African countries, and, she told the Guardian, "It's very, very rare in Africa to find parents who aren't there mainly to stop you doing what you want."

Among her eight siblings were several brothers who started a band when she was young, inspired by James Brown and other American stars who flooded Benin's airwaves. Kidjo was musically eclectic from the start, listening avidly to juju sounds from neighboring Nigeria, to pop music from other African countries, to Cuban salsa music. But, asked by the Boston Globe to list her musical influences, she first named "the traditional music which I grew up with, [which taught] me the importance of music as a communication tool."

Raised in the Catholic Church, Kidjo found that its tenets were compatible with traditional African religious beliefs. "In Catholicism," she explained to Ira Band of the Toronto Star, "we're taught not to kill, to preserve human life. In voodoo-ism, we have a different God—you live with the wind, the sea, the sun, you live with nature. It's a God of nature. Voodoo is seen as something negative, but it's not. It's based on anima and on respect for a human being's life."

Left Benin for Political Reasons

Kidjo made her stage debut at age six with her mother's dance troupe, and in the late 1970s she formed a band of her own and recorded an album that featured a cover version of a song by another of Kidjo's idols, South African singer Miriam Makeba. In 1980, however, Kidjo found her musical activities restricted by a new leftist regime that took power in Benin and tried to force her to record political anthems. Kidjo fled to Paris in 1983 with the intent of studying law there and becoming a human rights lawyer. But she realized that she was not cut out for political life. "I decided I would try to touch poor people with my music," she told the Globe.

Her partner in this enterprise was French bassist and composer Jean Hebrail, whom Kidjo married and with whom she has written much of her music; the pair has a daughter, Naima Laura, born in 1993. For several years Kidjo played in a French African jazz band called Pili Pili, led by pianist Jasper van t'Hof, but in 1989 she struck out on her own, forming a band and releasing the album Parakou. That debut had its intended effect: it attracted the attention of the biggest name in world music at the time, Chris Blackwell of Britain's Island Records. He signed Kidjo to the label's Mango subdivision, and her second album, Logozo, was released in 1991.

That album gained Kidjo a faithful core of fans who could be counted on to attend her highly participatory live shows. Her unusual image contributed to her success; in place of the expansive look of other African female vocalists, Kidjo sported a lean dancer's body clad in denim pants, and she cut her hair very close to her head. "On stage, I move too much to wear skirts," she explained to the Guardian. "I don't want to show off my ass—my music isn't about sex." The music on Logozo skillfully mixed traditional African beats with hip-hop and electronic styles.

Recorded Traditional Musicians

The year 1994 saw Kidjo create a bona fide international hit; her Aye album received strong reviews and generated "Agolo," a dance-floor favorite throughout Africa and Europe. She followed that album up with Fifa, which grew from a set of tape recordings Kidjo and her husband made of traditional instrumentalists during a tour of small towns in Benin. The resulting disc mixed such sounds as cow horns, traditional flutes, and bamboo percussion with modern African pop, American gospel, and rap. The album, an ambitious effort that used roughly 200 musicians, featured a guest guitar solo from one of Kidjo's many admirers in the U.S. music industry, Carlos Santana.

Fifa included several songs in English, but Kidjo scoffed at the idea that she was singing in English for commercial reasons. "I do what pleases me," she told the Toronto Star. "I do the music I like. I don't know if it's going to be English or French or some African dialect. Music is music; it's all about communication." She believed that the sentiments in a piece of music could be understood even if the hearer were unfamiliar with the language of the text, and later in her career she encouraged the efforts of pop stars Sting and Celine Dion to sing in Spanish rather than English. One modern form of communication Kidjo adopted was the Internet; she established a website in 1996, well in advance of many Western pop stars. Backing up her claim that she was not affected by commercial considerations was her cancellation of an African tour that year when she discovered that it was to be sponsored by tobacco companies.

Kidjo's next three albums formed parts of a trilogy exploring African-derived music styles of the Western Hemisphere. Oremi, released in 1998 on the Island label itself after Mango's demise, was the U.S. chapter in the trilogy, mixing traditional music from Benin with black American styles and featuring a Kidjo cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child." The album won Kidjo a spot on the all-female Lilith Fair tour in the U.S. A hiatus in Kidjo's recording career followed, during which she was signed to the Columbia label and began dividing her time between Paris and Brooklyn, New York.

At a Glance …

Born July 14, 1960, in Ouidah, Benin; daughter of Franck (a government official) and Yvonne (a choreographer) Kidjo; moved to France, early 1980s; married Jean Hebrail (a composer and bassist); children: Naima. Education: Attended law school, Paris, France. Religion: Roman Catholic and traditional African voodoo.

Career: Recording artist, 1970s–; Pili Pili, African jazz band member, early 1980s; Mango label artist, 1991-2001; Columbia label artist, 2001–.

Addresses: Label—Columbia Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022. Web—www.angeliquekidjo.com.

Part of the reason for the move involved Kidjo's desire to work with American musicians like Roots drummer Ahmir Thompson and rock singer and bandleader Dave Matthews, with whom Kidjo toured in the summer of 2001. The following summer saw her on the road with Santana in the wake of his smash collaborative success Supernatural. Santana recorded "Adouma," a Kidjo song from the Aye album, on his 2002 release Shaman.

Followed Slave Routes Musically

In 2002 Kidjo returned to her African diaspora trilogy with Black Ivory Soul, an album that focused on the rhythms of the Brazilian state of Bahia, musically linked to Benin by centuries of the slave trade. "I've been following the route of the slaves," she told the Boston Herald in reference to the entire trilogy project. Kidjo recorded with contemporary Brazilian musicians Carlinhos Brown and Vinicius Cantuaria and included a cover of Gilberto Gil's classic song about Brazil's hillside slums, "Refavela." The All Music Guide opined that Black Ivory Soul "might just be her most consistent and satisfying effort to date."

Kidjo toured with a constantly changing complement of top-notch international musicians as she released new music. From 1994 onward, she was rarely off the road, and she was saddened that she rarely had time to visit her parents in Benin. Her shows, noted Beth Pearson of the Glasgow, Scotland Herald, "require a broad dancing repertoire from the audience," for Kidjo often invited audience members to come up on stage and join the dancers who were part of her show.

The final installment of her trilogy, 2004's Oyaya!, featured music from Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, and other parts of the Caribbean basin. The album included a duet with the octogenarian Guyanese-born French crooner Henri Salvador, and Kidjo also updated rumbas, salsa pieces, and other Caribbean dance music with a variety of African instruments and sounds that closed the transatlantic circle. Another force affecting the album was Kidjo's work as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF); in "Mutoto Kwanza," she set to Jamaican ska music a song she had learned in Tanzania from a group of HIV-infected orphans.

"To me, you don't think of her just in terms of world beat or African music. You have to think of Tina Turner or something, her whole dynamic energy up there," said New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival director Quint Davis (as quoted in the Boston Globe) after Kidjo appeared at the festival in 2003. In a way, Kidjo had become a musical bridge-builder between Africa and the West. "I want to show you the links back to Africa," she told a Boston audience of children (as reported by the Boston Globe) as she instructed her percussionist to break down the rhythms behind one highly danceable tune. "That's important for you to know."

Selected discography

Parakou, Island, 1989.

Logozo, Mango, 1991.

Aye, Mango, 1994.

Fifa, Mango, 1996.

Oremi, Island, 1998.

Keep On Moving: The Best of Angelique Kidjo, Sony, 2001.

Black Ivory Soul, Columbia, 2002.

Oyaya!, Columbia, 2004.



Contemporary Musicians, volume 39, Gale, 2002.


Australian, September 11, 1996, p. Local-7.

Boston Globe, July 22, 1993, p. Calendar-13; June 15, 2001, p. C14.; July 1, 2002, p. B10; June 22, 2003, p. N7.

Boston Herald, July 1, 2002.

Essence, June 2002, p. 82.

Gazette (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), October 2, 1992, p. C5.

Guardian (London, England), October 8, 1991; May 9, 1996, p. T15.

Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), October 29, 2004, p. 23.

Toronto Star, August 1, 1996, p. G10; June 17, 2004, p. G4.

Toronto Sun, April 4, 2002, p. 74.

Washington Post, August 16, 2003, p. C9.


"Angelique Kidjo," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (January 18, 2005).

—James M. Manheim

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Dan Jacobson Biography - Dan Jacobson comments: to Barbara Knutson (1959–2005) Biography - Personal