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30 mars 2008

A world of talent at Jefferson Center

Angelique Kidjo wants to make you move. She also wants to make you think.

Kidjo, whose latest CD, "Djin Djin," won the Grammy for contemporary world music album last month, performs Thursday night at Jefferson Center's Shaftman Hall.

The album is stocked with undeniable grooves, courtesy of drummers from her homeland of Benin, West Africa, plus vocal and instrumental stamps from guest artists including Alicia Keys, Branford Marsalis, Peter Gabriel, Joss Stone and Josh Groban.

It might sound like a party, but Kidjo, a special representative for UNICEF, writes lyrics that remind us this beautiful music springs from a place that needs care and attention from the rest of the world.

Kidjo was 20 when she left Benin in 1980 because of political unrest. But she goes back for inspiration whenever it's time to record a new album.

Q: First off, congratulations on your Grammy, and on your previous nominations. What does an award like this mean to you?

I have been nominated a few times before, and it was always a frustration not to win, so now this frustration is gone! I was not supposed to be at the ceremony, but in the end I was, and it was quite a moment for me!

Q: "Djin Djin" is loaded with interesting musical choices and quite a cast of supporting players. How difficult was it to bring together such a range of musicians for this project?

I had a clear vision on what I wanted to do for this album: I wanted to use the percussion players from my country, because there are rhythms over there that you don't hear anywhere else. I also wanted to invite guests to sing with me, but I wanted to bring them to my world and not try to imitate their styles. I think this is what they liked about the project: It is something different that has never been heard before.

Q: Among this group of guest performers, how many had you worked with before?

I had met and worked with all of them before the recording, so those collaborations sounded natural. It was not something arranged for marketing reasons -- there was mutual respect.

Q: In the CD liner notes, under "Ae Ae," you've written: "The African youth want to fulfill their dreams and to improve the lives of their families. Traveling to America, Europe, Asia and Oceania should not be the only alternative." Please talk about conditions now in Benin, and what you wish to happen to make such a dream possible.

It is not easy, because globalization has affected everyone, both in rich and in poor countries.

The poorest countries have difficulties exporting their products because a lot of the international trade agreements are not fair for them. Also, when you are in Benin, you are dreaming about what is going on in the Western world without getting a sense of what is really going on there and how much you can be humiliated when you arrive.

I want to try to improve education in Africa, because this is what could build the countries in the years to come and help people understand the world as it is and making the changes needed.

Q: What inspired the idea to cover "Gimme Shelter"?

It was not thought out beforehand. We heard the song in the opening titles of the movie "The Departed," and thought the lyrics sounded quite apropos these days.

The next day, the band jammed on it, and in 30 minutes, it was recorded!

Q: In the liner note thank-yous, you write of Peter Gabriel, "your soul belongs to Africa!" Please talk about working with him.

I have known Peter for many years, and he is truly a big fan of African music. When you see him backstage at an African show, he is just having the time of his life. He has done so much to promote this music without calculation, just for the love of it!

When we received his vocals, and we first listened to them, it was so emotional. I'll never forget that.

Q: I understand that you were inspired early on by a Jimi Hendrix album cover, and that part of this record was recorded at Electric Lady Studios (Hendrix's studio). What was it like recording there?

So many studios have closed in New York. We wanted to record the album with all the musicians playing live in the same room, so there was not a lot of options. But when I heard that Electric Lady was available, I was so thrilled. It was like finishing what I started as a little girl ... trying to sing Jimi's lyrics without understanding any of them.

Q: I'd like to ask you about "Senamou (c'est l'amour)." You write: "Why are the poor getting poorer? Why are the rich getting richer? Is poverty a crime? And you think there is no hope? No, human kindness, I still believe in you." Please talk about the hope you express in those lyrics.

I am a very positive person. Through all my travels with UNICEF, I have witnessed so much suffering, but I still believe something can be done about it.

The world has to get more balanced. This is something everyone is starting to agree with!

By Tad Dickens

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