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Jazz Notes: Spirited African Songbird Angélique Kidjo Channels Talking Heads and Burns Down the House at Carnegie

By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, May 10, 2017

It’s not unusual for crowds at Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium to give standing ovations to well-deserving artists at the finale of a superb performance. But what the striking vocalist Angélique Kidjo did on Friday, May 5 was one better. She not only got the capacity audience on its feet but also got everyone to dance as well. Plus, she and her band of close to 20 members kept the party hopping when they got off the stage and romped up and down the aisles. A rare sight in a house world-renowned for its cultural decorum and dignity in presenting both classical and groundbreaking music. But Kidjo, a three-time Grammy winner and one of popular music’s foremost African-born, New York-based artists, knew that this would be the spirited outcome from the moment she took the stage—adorned in a pink and blue pastel patchwork dress and matching turban—and launched into her latest project: her African-infused loving response to pop icons Talking Heads’ brilliant 1980 album, Remain in Light.

Remain in Light has ranked high among the rock world’s lists of best albums (Rolling Stone ranked it fourth for the ‘80s), largely because it proved to be the innovative opening of the gates of rock/funk getting in percussive touch with its roots: Africa. Heads’ leader David Byrne and producer Brian Eno were the visionaries as they took their art pop/new wave/funk backgrounds into new, dance-fueled territory with African polyrhythms and looped grooves sampled from Afrobeat’s king, Fela Kuti. When Kidjo, born in Benin but exiled to Paris because of political turmoil, first heard the album, she heard Africa, and as she said in the show, “It turned my head upside down.” In her project, she returns the favor by rendering the tunes on the album as an African response, with plenty of drums, a wealth of singing and a jazz-tinged backup band.

At Stern, where her Remain in Light project had its premiere, Kidjo opened the show with a lyrical African song, then cooked up a sizzling version of “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On),” with extended jams of the band featuring two jazz notables: guitarist Lionel Loueke and keyboardist Jason Lindner and the four-piece brass section The Antibalas Horns—baritone saxophonist and arranger Martin Perna, tenor saxophonist Morgan Price, trombonist Raymond Mason and trumpeter Eric Biondo. Kidjo, dancing buoyantly to the beats throughout, was joined by several backup singers, including Nona Hendryx who appeared on the original album. After an audience-clapping charge through “Crosseyed and Painless,” featuring Loueke slinging electrifying phrases high up the guitar’s neck, Kidjo charismatically talked to the crowd saying that “always as an artist I try to build bridges.”

Highlights of the show included a slowed down take on “Listening Wind,” a poignant composition about African colonialism, and the charged “The Great Curve” with call-and-response vocals and a ‘60s rock stingo guitar solo by special guest, 13-year-old Brandon ”Taz” Niederauer (of the Broadway show School of Rock the Musical). After an interlude of Loueke showcasing his solo mastery (complete with effects) and a celebratory fest of galloping African drumming, Kidjo (in a new outfit of dress and white overcoat) and the band returned to the stage and built their way up to several of the best songs of the evening, including a fun, funky duet with Hendryx through the live-wire “Houses in Motion.”

After telling the crowd that at her first American show at New York’s world music club SOB’s, none other than David Byrne was there. And he also was in the audience at Carnegie, so she invited her hero down from his first-balcony seat to join her in a rousing and dance-teeming run through the album’s classic tune “Once in a Lifetime,” with both dancing together and belting out the song’s manic end, “same as it ever was.” The unbilled performance was the hoped-for surprise of the evening (Kidjo had hinted in an amNewYork interview that all the Talking Heads had given their blessing to her project and that she had sent a couple of demos to Byrne, saying, “He can come…[but] you never know with David.”).

Since Remain in Light clocks in just shy of 40 minutes, Kidjo added in African songs from her repertoire, including starting her encore with a pair before going back into the T Heads’ zone, fast-forwarding to 1983 when the band recorded its highest charting hit single, “Burning Down the House,” on its Speaking in Tongues album. With Lindner signaling the song’s start with that eerie, bent note phrase, Kidjo and company took it straight to the dance floor, burning up Carnegie Hall much to the pleasure of the groove-inspired crowd (including Byrne in the balcony) with the band still singing and pulsing the beats in a communal parade. It was the perfect end to Kidjo’s scintillating show.

Editor’s Note: In addition to Kidjo touring ‘Remain in Light’ (which she will record), later this year she will headline numerous jazz festivals, including Umbria and Monterey, in her tribute show to the great Latin jazz vocalist and Queen of Sala, Celia Cruz.


Cover: David Byrne and Angelique Kidjo in concert at Carnegie Hall; photo: Fadi Kheir.


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