One of Africa’s greatest living singers, Angelique Kidjo, pays homage to the female spirit in ‘Eve

June 11, 2014   | Wallace Bain | Santa Cruz Sentinel

One of Africa’s greatest living singers pays homage to the female spirit in ‘Eve’

The name of Angelique Kidjo’s latest album is “Eve,” and that tells you a lot about the enormous vision of the most ambitious African recording artist alive today.

On a personal level, “Eve” is a shorthand nickname for Kidjo’s mother Yvette, who raised young Angelique in the small African country of Benin. Yvette, in fact, is a featured guest vocalist on the album.

On a more universal level, “Eve” is, of course, the First Woman in Judeo-Christian tradition, and we now know that the first homo sapiens Eve emerged out of Africa some 200,000 years ago. For years, Kidjo has been a humanitarian advocate affiliated with groups such as UNICEF, and her primary focus these days is on the women of Africa, particularly creating a new perspective on African women that counter the widespread stereotype of poverty and misery.

On an even grander level, Kidjo in “Eve” is embracing womankind all over the world.

“The first mother of us all is Eve,” said Kidjo, who performs live June 19 at the Rio Theatre in a show sponsored by the Kuumbwa Jazz Center. “And the story of Eve has been told by men, as if Eve were just a villain or a victim. When someone grabs your story and tells it before you have a chance to open your mouth, you’re done. I’d like to change that.”

The new album, a landmark in Kidjo’s 25-year career, was released earlier this year at about the same time as her new memoir “Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music,” with forewords from Desmond Tutu and Alicia Keys.

Her native country was ruled by hard-line communists throughout the 1970s and ’80s and “Spirit Rising” tells the story of how Kidjo – who turns 54 in July – escaped the restrictive regime to settle in France.

Fluent in four languages, Kidjo was influenced by traditional African music, African interpreters of Western music (especially the great Miriam Makeba) as well as sounds coming from America, including gospel, jazz, soul and rock ‘n’ roll.

“Eve” was inspired in part by Kidjo’s humanitarian work, helping to give African girls and young women access to high-quality education and to fight acute malnutrition in African children. In one instance, she was greeted by a group of women in Kenya with a traditional chant that she recorded in the moment on her iPhone. Samples of that original recording are included on the new album.

“I remember thinking, oh my God, this is what I wanted the world to see, what I wanted the world to hear,” said Kidjo. “They had this wonderful spirit despite their circumstances and no one could ever take that away from them.”

Kidjo is a Grammy Award winner and has recorded with many of the greatest names in popular music including Branford Marsalis, Carlos Santana, Bono, Dianne Reeves, Peter Gabriel and Alicia Keys. She was instrumental in the evolution of Afro-pop in the 1990s, and “Eve” marks the culmination of her decades-long efforts to blend African traditions with Western trends.

Kidjo traveled to Benin with a field recorder to capture the harmonies and chants of female choirs in her hometown, as well as the villages of her mother and father. She had taken similar sojourns across Africa early in her career. As a result, “Eve” is fueled by rhythms and sounds from a wide swath of Africa, from Kenya to Nigeria to the Congo.

The upshot of the album is unapologetically feminist, each song devoted to one aspect of the lives of African women. “Ebile,” for example, mixes traditional African women’s choirs with the chamber music of the Kronos Quartet to make the case women being the “anchor of humanity.” Another song, “Cauri,” takes on the charged issue of forced marriages between older men and teenaged girls.

“Yes, we need men and women for the human family to survive,” said Kidjo. “But in so many cases, the one who does the difficult work of the family is the one who is not respected. How can a man stand before his family and say he’s proud to be a man and not fight for women’s rights? I don’t get it.”

Angelique Kidjo

When: Thursday, June 19, 7:30 p.m.

Where: The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz

Tickets: $40 general; $55 Gold Circle

Details: www.kuumbwajazz.org

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