When I walked out of the Ordway after seeing Angélique Kidjo on Friday, I was surprised to see snow. The concert was so full of warmth, I was sure the heat would radiate outward to the entire city and melt all of it away. Her performance was hot, her band was on fire, and the Ordway audience danced hard enough to burn that old house down. Apparently it’s up to the audience to do their best and carry the message from her warm heart forward. Especially to our increasingly cold-hearted societal structures, including the political system. When you experience Ms. Kidjo, you just have to believe it’s possible. Anything is possible.
The Ordway’s program describes Kidjo as “one of the greatest forces in African music.” That is undeniable. From headlining the 2010 FIFA World Cup Opening Cermony with Alicia Keys, John Legend, and Shakira to performing with other “greatest forces” including Bono and Peter Gabriel, her reputation as a global diva stands strong. Kidjo’s performance may be the first concert I’ve attended where I’ve understood less than 10% of the words, yet walked away completely understanding why I wake up happy and optimistic each day: the world doesn’t only create oppressive and argumentative societal structures and systems, it creates inspiring and generous people, many of whom are fantastic. That includes every person in the Ordway that night who, from tapping their toes (in reserved Minnesota style) to shaking all size booties (thank goodness for cross-cultural influence), “got it” and celebrated how wonderful our world can be if you just let people “be” and share their multi-faceted personalities and talents.
Ms. Kidjo is, unfortunately, too well acquainted with oppressive political and societal structures. She’s been forced into exile to avoid imprisonment in her home state of Benin in Africa. (Miriam Makeba is the African role model who paved Kidjo’s way to America.) She’s been denied South African citizenship because of her campaigning against apartheid. She’s managed, however, to wade through all that to carry on via her passion for celebrating life, treating herself with respect, and creating music by becoming an amazing writer and performer. She is also a strong activist as exhibited in her work for UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and Kidjo’s own organization: Batonga Foundation, which provides educational opportunities for African girls.
But back to the show. Kidjo entered the stage alone, wearing a stylish batik-print outfit complete with lil’ black boots and a slit that showed enough leg to give Tina Turner a run for her money! Kidjo is breathtakingly beautiful with short golden hair and facial expressions that tell stories all on their own. Her first song (if I understood her later explanation correctly) was “Atcha Houn,” which was also the first song she sang in public (at her mom’s theater company) when she was six years old. Thank goodness for her mother’s encouragement and thank goodness that the little girl fell in love with the microphone and stage. The show evolved as her guitar player entered, then the remaining band. By the third song, I actually forgot I was seeing a live performance. Kidjo’s strong and clear voice rang out with such clarity in tone, but in a language I didn’t understand, that she became a sort of live instrument. But then, the dancing started, and her stories started, and her encouragement to “love” started and thus, the big show began.
The first song sung in English was “Cold Sweat,” followed by a great story explaining how much Kidjo loved sneaking out to (or, well, trying to sneak out to) parties when she was a little girl. Highlighted in this song, but also throughout the evening, Kidjo had “conversations” with the drums, highlighting the skills of her Sengalese drummer by teasing him about his vanity and inability to dress sensibly for Minnesota (all in great fun). There is a clear influence of her own Beninese roots along with neighboring countries: Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, and Cameroon—but also of farther-away countries including Spain, the Caribbean countries, East Asia, and India. Kidjo told another great story about going to the movies, and particularly the same ones over and over and over again, so she could sing along (in this case, a Bollywood film) and shriek along with the audience.
Kidjo gave props to her friends and mentors, including Miriam Makeba, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, her father and mother, and her six brothers and extended family back in her tiny home village. She gave advice—strong, unfiltered advice—about parenting: “If you can’t protect the children, don’t have them,” and “If you can’t take care of your children, then put them into the hands of someone who can.” She also gave kudos to her own daughter’s baby-sitter who helped raise that child (who will now be attending Yale—no small feat). One story illustrates how Kidjo practices what she preaches. While on tour, Kidjo’s daughter became deathly ill. She and her husband signed away parental rights to that forementioned baby-sitter in order to ensure that Kidjo’s daughter would receive emergency medical assistance. Respect, love, and trust. Clearly, Kidjo knows of what she speaks—that is undeniable. More advice followed, my favorite tip being to remember to say “good morning!” with dignity and love, to yourself each day and let that be the start of greeting the rest of the world just as positively.
The audience was incredibly diverse in cultural heritage, age, and size. There were no boundaries, only embraces. Kidjo herself left the stage during one song and danced her way all the way up the main floor of the Ordway, weaving through the seats and dancing and embracing so many in the audience. And by dancing, I mean all-out, full-arm swinging, full-body swaying dancing. She is one strong woman!
The last song of the show before an encore, was a dance fest that included 20+ people on stage (in ages from 4 to 60+) dancing not only along with Ms. Kidjo, but also starring in their own Kidjo-a-Go-Go dancing. Those in their seats applauded wildly when personalities were unleashed via dance moves that rivaled James Brown’s! Pay attention to your neighbors, people, because boy-oh-boy, they can dance. The encore included a dynamic performance of Aretha Franklin’s “Baby, I Love You” with Kidjo’s great pals, Minnesota’s own warm and generous Steele Family. Ain’t no doubt about it, if there is ever an opportunity to hear Ms. Kidjo—on radio, video, live, or even just in your own head—take it and shake it. Then spread the warmth. Eventually, perhaps, even Cold Wars will cease.