Angelique Kidjo entered my musical world in 1991 when I was living in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. A singer myself, and thriving with my own Afro-jazz group of Ivoirians and Burkinabe, I was always listening to and even working with female vocalists from West Africa. At Studio JBZ, which was the ultimate recording studio during those times, I met many talented singers from Mali, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, and Burkina Faso. It seemed that everybody came to JBA in Abidjan to try and make their start. The apartment I shared with my husband in Williamsville was a home studio where artists from everywhere came to make their demo tapes, or maquettes as they call them there. My husband arranged their pieces, and we often “threw in” my talents as a background singer to reel in more customers. I’d also come from two years in Mali, where Oumou Sangare bedazzled me with her mega hits “Moussoulou” and “Diaraby Nene.” But when Angelique’s album Logozo came out and I heard the song “Batonga” on the radio, I was addicted. Her voice was amazingly rich and strong and energized. The music was so exciting and danceable, it felt like Oumou Sangare times 10. Several of the musicians I worked with knew her from Paris, and spoke more highly of her ambition than anything else. I remember thinking, “well, if she made it this big with more ambition than talent, then I can too!” In short, Angelique Kidjo was a source of inspiration for me in terms of her voice and music and her character. The slideshow below features some photos taken by my VOA colleague Jackson Mvunganyi (co-host of Up Front) during our interview.
Now, 21 years later, I’m sitting face to face with this world-class star, and she is even more inspiring than ever. I had dreamed about such an encounter differently – where we would be sharing a world stage somewhere, singing a duet – but right now neither of us is holding a microphone. We’re just sitting side by side in some chairs in the upstairs room of the Embassy of Benin in Washington D.C. I have a mere ten minutes to interview her before she goes on stage, where she will be holding a microphone–but she’ll be holding it longer advocating girls’ education in Africa than she will singing. During our precious ten minutes, we talked about her foundation, the Batonga Foundation, named after that old hit song “Batonga” from the early ’90s, and why it is so important to her. Pan-African in scope, Batonga currently operates in Benin, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Ethiopia, and Mali. It was raining outside, and she did get sidetracked for a moment with a nostalgic story about her grandmother always knowing when it was going to rain back in Benin by the degree of pain she felt in her arthritic knees. Listen here for our interview:
After the interview, Angelique went downstairs and gave a compelling speech about the Foundation, followed by comments from the Benin Ambassador to the U.S. and other Foundation members and volunteers. Here is an excerpt of her speech:
When everyone had finished speaking, Angelique took up the microphone again, but this time the talking was definitely over! Right there in that small visitor’s room of the embassy, everything lit up as soon as she opened her mouth and delivered her first note. She sang strong and true, just as in her recordings, and all of the talking heads were instantly transformed to smiling faces. Angelique sang the melancholy ballad “Malaika” that made her so famous, and then her old hit “Batonga” that has now taken on the added weight of being the theme song to her Foundation, and then another hit whose title I can’t remember now – but the whole while dancing like she was 32 rather than 52. Here she’s singing “Africa”…
Angelique gave us all of her voice that night, as a singer and as an advocate for a cause that gives thousands of African girls their own voice.