Angelique Kidjo offers a banquet of rare musical treats in her new Razor & Tie album, Spirit Rising. Recorded in Boston during a PBS concert at station WGBH, it showcases Kidjo amid a line of special guests that includes Josh Groban, Dianne Reeves, Branford Marsalis and Ezra Koenig.
Angelique's prior associations with Groban, Reeves and Marsalis have already produced some memorable results. And the presence of singer/guitarist Koenig, from the rock band Vampire Weekend, enhances the proceedings with a seasoning of youthful vigor.
Add to that the dancers of the Tony Award winning Broadway musical FELA!, the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College, the Borromeo String Quartet, a trio of young horn players from Berklee College, and a world-class rhythm section led by the versatile bassist Christian McBride.
That collection of talent alone would be enough to make for a brilliant program of music. As it does.
But the element that brings such a uniquely dynamic quality to this succulent musical feast, taking every selection up to a different expressive level, is the fact that the entire program was recorded live. Spirit Rising is, in fact, Angelique's first live recording. As any of her numerous fans will be quick to report, Angelique Kidjo performing live is one of the most awesome experiences in all of contemporary music.
Perhaps because it's as exciting to her as it is to her listeners.
"I'm so happy when I'm on stage," says Angelique. "Being on stage is what makes every singer/songwriter's life worth it. Singing in the shower is only for yourself. But if you write and perform music for other people, you also have to be able to make them part of the music. The audience gives me energy, so I have to give it back. If I kept it, I wouldn't be able to sleep for two days."
Angelique's goal, in this remarkable performance - which is also available on a DVD from WGBH - was to apply her irresistible, live-on-stage vivacity to a program of music representing both a tribute to her African roots and a convincing display of the music-without-boundaries that has become the essence of her art.
In doing so, she cruises joyously through a set of her gripping original songs, rock specials such as the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" (with Reeves), Curtis Mayfield's r&b "Move on Up" (with Marsalis) the Gershwin's Songbook classic, "Summertime," Bob Marley's "Redemption Song," a surprising take on Ravel's "Bolero" (also with Marsalis), Vampire Weekend's "I Think UR a Contra" (with Koenig) and a pairing with Groban on "Pearls," a song they've done many times together.
Born in the West African country of Benin, raised in the busy port city of Cotonou, Angelique was surrounded by a multi-hued world of music, dance and art - from the rich sounds, rhythms and story telling of traditional Beninese culture to the far ranging fascinations of international pop, rock, blues, Latin music and jazz. Add to that the blessing of parents who honored creativity, who supported Angelique's artistic goals unconditionally, encouraging her to give free rein to the talents she began to reveal as a six year old.
Expressing those talents to the fullest, drinking in all the music around her, transforming it all into a uniquely personal vision, she became a highly visible international artist while she was still in her '20s. Throughout the '90s and beyond, she has performed globally, winning honor after honor, including a Grammy, while using her visibility to campaign for women's rights, provide educational opportunities for girls, and support environmental initiatives.
The desire to do the live performance that resulted in Spirit Rising has hovered in Angelique's mind for years. Doing it with a close group of friends has allowed her to express a fundamental belief - one that has been with her from gifted childhood through success as an international star.
"Music is one," says Angelique. "I've tried my entire career, my entire life, and I will continue trying until I die, to let people realize that music is for everyone. It's not a matter of language, it's not a matter of color, it's not a matter of where you come from. It is the only thing, really basically, where everybody can come together and make a conversation."