BENIN: Ayé - Angelique Kidjo
Updated: Apr 10
The Afro-pop superstar combines disparate American genres together seamlessly, highlighting their African origins
Angelique Kidjo is a titan of the world music scene (no matter how much she might hate the term used to describe the genre in which she is so often labelled as) and her journey in gaining such status arguably begun with the release of this album. When one listens to the funky-pop rhythms of Ayé, they can easily be fooled into thinking that the record is simply a frivolous collection of fun and bouncy songs. Although the tune that earnt the so-far four-time Grammy Award winner her first Grammy nomination (Agolo) might on the surface appear to be just an incredibly catchy dance track, it tackles the issue of the environment in a rather beautiful way.
“...her birthplace of Ouidah on the Benin coast, which was at the centre of the global slave trade, where millions of Africans were taken as slaves who went on to develop the musical styles she blends together in her work.”
So often, as is this case here, artists use their energy and wisdom guided by both religion and politics to address serious themes and package them in a palatable and fun way, producing music that makes its listeners dance, and if they chose to go deeper, makes them think too. Kidjo’s philosophy is grounded in several aspects of her being. She considers herself both a proud African and a proud feminist. Whilst her feminism is undeniable, one could listen to an album like Ayé and chose to rather unjustly call into question her alleged strong sense of African identity. There are a myriad of reasons as to why this hypothesis could not be further from the truth.
Criticism has been levelled at Kidjo for pandering to an international audience by singing in English later in her career which is just an unfair attempt to invent a narrative that isn’t there, that she is a traitor who has abandoned her African roots. Those who listen to an album like Ayé and label her instrumentation as 'Western' rather than African clearly have little understanding of the origins of gospel, blues, R&B, jazz, soul and funk – a selection of just some of the genres she combines to make her own unique pop style - which all have their roots deeply set in Africa. One might argue not only do these genres and many others have their origins in Africa as a whole, but even more specifically her birthplace of Ouidah on the Benin coast, which was at the centre of the global slave trade, where millions of Africans were taken as slaves who went on to develop the musical styles she blends together in her work.
Just because Ayé does not focus on traditional instrumentation such as using the kora or the balafon, this is largely irrelevant as the musical composition still has an overtly African undertone to it. What’s more, Kidjo sings in Yoruba, a Nigerian language, as well as in her native Fon, often using the Beninese traditional zilin vocal technique which adds to the authenticity of her desire to celebrate African culture. Her story as an African is inextricably linked to the complex relationship that she has with her home nation Benin. After independence, like many African nations, Benin decided to side with the Soviets which was more of a devastating decision there than in many places. Mathieu Kérékou’s military coup led to a communist dictatorship which brutalised businesses, banking, education and culture as they tried to finance the country by taking nuclear waste from Russia. The Marxist destruction of culture came due to the leadership’s pressuring of musicians like Kidjo to record political anthems, as much of the best music comes from protest.
This sparked a fire in Kidjo’s belly after she fled to Paris. Watching the demise of her wonderful nation has definitely been the source of inspiration behind much of her activism and her music. Though Joel has previously touched on Vodun culture in countries like Benin, what is rather wonderful about Kidjo is that she finds a compatibility between her Catholic upbringing and Voodoo, which is expressed in some of her songs. It is perhaps this selective understanding of aspects of the two traditions, such as the sanctity of life and respect for nature that the stone-cold banger that is Agolo is grounded in.
Though there is definitely a Prince-like sound, which comes as no surprise, considering that the album was partly produced in Minnesota by Prince’s sidekick-in-chief David Z. The Prince influence is most apparent on Tachedogbe, though the funk can be heard on a series of other tracks such as Adouma and Yemandja. There are also a series of other ballads which are undercut by Kidjo’s immensely powerful vocals. The best example of a ballad with this epic voice on display is Azan Nan Kpe, though Djan Djan and Idje Idje are also worth a mention too. Other styles appear on the album too, for example the Congolese soukous-adjacent track Lon Lon Vadjro and a reggae-infused number Houngbati. Though it has to be acknowledged that Agolo is musically head and shoulders above the rest of the album, it is still nonetheless an accomplished record that is intensely African despite any critics misunderstanding of what being African is about.