Review: Angelique Kidjo at The Music Center at Strathmore

The raves never stop pouring in for Grammy Award-winning singer, composer, and humanitarian Angelique Kidjo – nor should they. Called by NPR “Africa’s greatest living diva,” Kidjo’s ample gifts – her soaring and supple voice, superb songwriting, and mesmerizing choreography, combined with the driving rhythms of her talented band – were on full display at The Music Center at Strathmore on September 9, 2016. Her rapturous fans were delighted.

Angelique Kidjo. Photo courtesy of The Music Center at Strathmore.
Angelique Kidjo. Photo courtesy of The Music Center at Strathmore.

Born in Benin in 1960, Kidjo absorbed the traditional sounds and rhythms of her native land, along with West Africa’s sonorous Yoruba and Fon languages. After a period of political upheaval which suppressed Benin’s indigenous cultures and discouraged artists, she moved to France in 1983 and gradually gained fame as the lead singer of the Euro-African jazz/rock band Pili Pili. She now lives in Brooklyn with her husband and musical partner and tours widely.

Kidjo is a true collaborator who finds common cause with musicians and musical traditions worldwide. She has recorded with artists from Branford Marsalis and Carlos Santana to the Kronos Quartet. In 2014, she premiered “IFÉ”, three creation poems sung in Yoruba with orchestral music by Phillip Glass. Her creative efforts have been rewarded with three Grammys for Best World Music Album in 2008, 2015 and 2016.

Angelique Kidjo took to Strathmore’s capacious stage dressed in a gorgeous West African-inspired costume of her own design. A  coat of many colors swirled from floor length in the back to a mini-skirt in front, enabling her the freedom to dance energetically throughout the evening in shimmering tights and high-heeled ankle boots. The total effect of her raiment was queenly, dignified, strong and sexy all at once.

A persistent message of peace, love and inclusion suffused the evening, as Kidjo introduced each song with references to what inspired its creation.  Always, however, her focus is on the challenges faced by women and girls on the African continent. She paid homage to her mother Yvonne and performed several songs from her 2014 award-winning recording, Eve. From the moving “M’Baamba” to “Blewu”, and “Awalole,” she celebrated the beauty and spirit of Africa’s women who she characterized as  some of the least privileged yet most resilient populations in the world. In the haunting “Cauri,” she speaks to the tragedy of girls as young as 10 who are sold off to older men, becoming mothers while they are still children. The lovely composition “Batonga” refers to a nonsense word she made up as a child, to intimidate the young boys who taunted her for going to school.

Kidjo also honored her role model Miriam Makeba with a rousing performance of “Pata Pata” which brought the whole audience to its feet, and also the beautiful “Malaika.” The audience also joined in as she sung “Afirika” – which she performed last year in the U.N. General Assembly. Backed up by her amazingly versatile band (two guitarists and two percussionists, including natives of Senegal, the U.S. and Chile), the evening’s rhythms ranged from Afro-pop to reggae, calypso, and jazz.

Kidjo’s collaborative spirit and humanity does not stop at the edge of the concert stage. A tireless advocate for world peace and women’s rights, she has been Good Will Ambassador for UNICEF since 2002. She is the co-founder of the Batonga Foundation, which supports African women and girls seeking higher education. She won the Ambassador of Conscience Award (2016) from Amnesty International. Of her, Bill Clinton has said, “the only thing bigger than Angelique Kidjo’s voice is her heart.” As she escorted a young girl up on the stage to dance with her, and then extended the invitation to members of the audience, Kidjo’s essential humanity and wide embrace reigned supreme on this memorable evening.

Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, with no intermission

Angelique Kidjo performed on September 9, 2016 at The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, MD. For tickets to the Music Center’s upcoming events, go to their website. For Angelique Kidjo’s upcoming tour dates visit her website.


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