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Africa Rising: Angelique Kidjo at Town Hall NYC

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Angelique Kidjo
Town Hall
New York, New York
March 26, 2010

Angelique Kidjo's album Oyo (Razor & Tie, 2010) includes guest vocal appearances from the likes of John Legend and Dianne Reeves. At Town Hall, without the services of Legend or Reeves, Kidjo sung the entirety of Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up" and Aretha Franklin's "Baby I Love You" all by her lonesome. Was the audience missing something? Not at all. The sheer power of Kidjo's voice and her ubiquitous stage presence only added to the songs. In fact, the versions she presented were far superior to those on the album.

The show at Town Hall proved yet another example of the time-tested jazz adage that a recording can never be a substitute for music created in the moment. And it was a testament to the awesomeness that is Kidjo = 8349. As she said at the beginning of the show, "Don't be fooled by the comfortable seats. My music is made for you to get up."

Sure, she's got all-time pipes, but what separates Kidjo from the rest of the pack is the way she truly feels her music. Every song has a back story, a special place in her heart, and Kidjo is able to present even the most familiar songs with a clarity that allows the audience to grasp a song's meaning personally in addition to its meaning to the singer. And such feeling allows her to synthesize all the different types of music she loves into her own special gumbo. Make no mistake, Angelique Kidjo is a true original, and she's out to make you believe.

Growing up in Benin, Kidjo was exposed to music from every corner of the world, from James Brown and Sidney Bechet to Bollywood artists. Mostly, it was her father who exposed her to the world through music, and when he passed away in 2008, she decided to embark on the Oyo project. She went back through all the music she was exposed to as a child and made it hers, made it African.

At Town Hall, Kidjo went through a series of tunes from Oyo, as well as other songs in the same vein. "Zelie" and Miriam Makeba's "Lakutshona Llanga" started the show off slowly, but "Dil Main Chuppa Ke Pyar Ka" brought the crowd to its feet. "Move On Up" and "Kelele" were mid-set highlights, with able backing vocals from Kidjo's touring band. "Mbube" showcased the full range of Kidjo's vocal abilities, from grunts and growls to the soft massaging of lyrics a la Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

The backing band provided characteristic professional support, at times even stealing the spotlight. Drummer Daniel Freedman and percussionist Mino Cinelu, both well known in jazz circles, complimented each other beautifully and provided danceable polyrhythms throughout the show. Andre Manga subtly added color with rhythm lines on both bass and guitar, and his staunch, unmoving character provided an interesting contrast to Kidjo's effervescent stage demeanor. And guitarist Dominic Kanza smiled widely while following Kidjo through different styles including Afrobeat, High Life, soukous, and makossa.

Toward the end of the show, Kidjo invited audience members on stage to dance with her as she closed the show. What followed was an all-out rave-up in which audience members, male and female, black and white, senior citizens and small children, engaged in a game of old school one-upsmanship. Kidjo showed her generous spirit by dancing with two little girls who couldn't have been more than 8 years old, as their proud father looked on—a memorable moment that showed her character. She is trying to solve the world's problems, one child at a time. It's a good kind of Ponzi scheme; if she can inform the people at her shows, then they can inform their friends, and so on.

Fittingly, the show closed with "Baby I Love You," a thank you from Kidjo to her diverse group of fans. Angelique Kidjo is a new kind of pop diva—one worthy of being written about on a jazz website. She is real, she is unique, she is educated and informed, and as she made exceedingly clear at Town Hall, she will be around for a long time to come.

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