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Angelique Kidjo/Femi Kuti at Denver Botanic Gardens

Geoff Anderson By

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Angelique Kidjo/Femi Kuti
Denver Botanic Gardens
Denver, CO
August 9, 2018

There is a Groove Heaven. I have proof. Angelique Kidjo, international world-beat star, recently released a song by song cover of the Talking Heads album Remain in Light (Sire, 1980). Kidjo, from Benin, has been exploring and laying down African rhythms for years now. Before that, Remain in Light hit the scene, the airwaves and innumerable turntables with its heavy influence from African rhythms, most notably those developed and popularized by Fela Kuti (father of Femi Kuti). Putting Kidjo together with Remain in Light is truly a match made in Groove Heaven.

The only thing better than this heavenly match is when Kidjo brings her tour supporting her latest album to your town. In my case, the tour landed at the Denver Botanic Gardens, a delightful outdoor venue with a stage surrounded by the audience. Thursday night Kidjo brought a five piece international backing band: guitar, bass, keyboards, drums and percussion. The instrumentalists (some of whom added backing vocals) were arranged around the perimeter of the stage leaving a spacious open area in the middle for prowling, prancing and dancing by Kidjo as she brought Mama Africa and the Heads to life simultaneously.

She began her set with "Born Under Punches," not a hit for the Heads, but one that displays the urgent, complex poly-rhythms of her home continent. The very next song was the one with some of the deepest grooves on Remain in Light; "Crosseyed and Painless." "Lost my shape/Trying to act casual..." The gut punch rhythms were right out of the original album except, if anything, more intense.

Next, she took a break from the music to discuss an important issue for her: forced marriage of young girls. Last year, she wrote and recorded a protest song on the issue, "Say No to Child Marriage." Kidjo, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador put together this song with a number of other African musicians to help fight the still common practice of parents marrying off their daughters when they are as young as 12. Her return to the music found her deviating for a moment from Remain in Light when she performed one of her own songs, "Cauri." The pattern continued throughout the evening with songs from Remain in Light interspersed with original Kidjo songs and further social activism and attempts at widening the typically narrow frame of reference of your typical American. A case in point was "Afirika" celebrating the beauty of Africa.

But back to Remain in Light. Many of the covers on her new album have complex, horn-augmented arrangements. With no horn section Thursday night, the available rhythm section had to plow the deep groove on its own. The interplay between drummer and percussionist often bordering on a frenzy was a good start. The bass, guitar and keyboards egged them on and added their own layer of complexity. The whole thing, executed with the tightness of a vice-grip, impelled the human body to undulating action.

A number of You-Tube videos of recent Kidjo performances from around the country include horn sections and backing vocalists on some of the Remain in Light songs. So the arrangements Thursday night were a bit different with more of a basic sound. "The Great Curve" on Remain in Light has multiple layers of vocals, layering countermelodies on top of melodies and different vocal parts moving in and out and through each other. Thursday night's version was more modest in scope with Kidjo concentrating on the main melody and an absence of the counterpoint.

Her closer for the evening was "Burning Down the House" which was from Speaking In Tongues (Sire, 1983), the follow up album to Remain in Light. But who besides a purist would care about that? It's a burnin' tune and Kidjo and band covered it with the urgent intensity it deserves.

Femi Kuti

The connection between Femi Kuti's father, Fela, and the music on Remain in Light is an obvious reason Femi Kuti opened for Kidjo; that and Kuti's common African heritage with Kidjo and similar musical styles. Kuti decided not to follow the Kidjo model and bring the stripped down band on the road. Instead, he brought along no less than 11 backing musician. With him on vocals and alto sax, that made an even dozen players to lay down the Afro-beat.

Along with bass, keyboards, guitar, drums and percussion, the band included a four piece horn section and three background singers that actually spent more time booty shaking than singing. Complaints, anyone? I didn't think so.

Kuti spent even more time than Kidjo talking about social justice from many angles. Most of his songs addressed that subject matter too. He discussed his wish for just "One World," he wanted equality, he wanted to stop the suffering of the people, he's offended when religion is used for bad purposes, he railed against poverty and climate change, he asserted that evil people cannot know joy.

Kuti was a whirlwind on stage, never standing still, singing to all sides of the audience-surrounded stage. He picked up his alto sax for several extended solos which featured circular breathing. Several times he went for three or four or five minutes playing without taking a breath. All at 5280 feet in elevation. Actually, just a few minutes of circular breathing is apparently far below Kuti's real capacity. Wikipedia says Kuti holds the world record for a single note sustained by circular breathing: 51 minutes, 35 seconds; probably set at a lower elevation.

The music brought forth by the 12 piece band was rich, complex, urgent and ever changing. With that many players, point and counter-point could be explored in all their varieties and nuances. Polyrhythms emerged, shifted, dissolved, evolved and revolved throughout the 75-minute set. Kuti's father, Fela, is credited with creating the Afrobeat style of music. It influenced the Talking Heads in the '70s and '80s and, with Femi, that beat goes on.

Kidjo Set List: Born Under Punches; Crosseyed and Painless; Cauri; Listening Wind; The Great Curve; Pata Pata; The Overlord; Houses in Motion; Afirika; Once in a Lifetime; Tumba; Burning Down the House
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