Angélique Kidjo has taken the Talking Heads album Remain In Light and given it a new lease of life and meaning. The album deemed as ground-breaking and innovative when it was released in the 1980s used many different layered rhythms from around the world, relying on ‘natural’ musicians rather than tapes and loops, but also drawing closely from complex and intricate patterns from West Africa.
Almost 40 years later Benin born Kidjo has worked with producer Jeff Bhasker and reimagined the songs on that album mixing in influences from her own country’s different dialects and from musicians like Fela Kuti. The album itself is new, vital and fresh and the messages of those original songs are teased out by Angélique to help make sense of the way the world is now in 2018
Born Under Punches and Crosseyed And Painless open the show, the later mixed with Fela Kuti’s 1970s song called Lady. “She go say him equal to man. She go say him get power like man. She go say anything man do himself fit do” The lyrics reiterate Kidjo’s interaction with the audience about how some people in the world treat women and how important a woman’s role is to keep the world turning. This links brilliantly into her own compositional lament called Cauri about a girl whose choices in life are decided only by her parents.
Kidjo’s voice is joyful, soulful, mournful and multifaceted, when she mixes in the four main dialects of the Benin language into some of the songs you might think she has several backing singers and loops but there is no evidence of this on stage I just think she can do marvellous things with her sound. The band too are crisp and sharp and all the instruments can be heard…but a little more volume in the brass and bass would help bring it to life even more.
The message is clear from Angelique “What are you going to do to help change the way the world is now.” Apart from love and peace, the changes need to come from those who create war, or see war as a stand-off negotiation for their own personal gain. The changes need to come from us all that litter and create unnecessary waste. The changes need to come from us all and how we think and interact about our fellow human beings.
In the original Talking Heads big band there were nine players on stage including extra musicians Steve Scales, Bernie Worrell, Adrian Belew and Nona Hendryx. Hendryx recently performed with Kidjo live on stage in New York as part of the same tour. Scales (percussion) and Worrell (keyboards) were particularly important for driving the beat and defining a groove in the live shows. Here the band is still a nine piece but with added saxophone and brass. But is is the percussion of Magatte Sow, who is much in demand for live and soundtrack work, and keyboards of Thierry Vaton who catch my ear early on in the set.
The Great Curve and obligatory African anthems Pata Pata and Afrika are a chance for Angélique Kidjo to get everyone up and dancing and the those that were already “dancing in their seats” took the opportunity to stand and and shake it all about. This gave the show a brilliant vibe but I felt the project also lost focus at this point and it would be much better to have these traditional songs at the end and let the creative work of the musicians shine through, perhaps playing the album in its entirety. The spell is broken a little.
But the magic is created again by the wonderfully hypnotic The Overload and the earlier performed Listening Wind where those near 40 year old words feel new and intense and even more relevant in a time of environmental disasters, trade wars and terrorism. They are the stellla part of the show.
At the end the movement and dancing could not be stopped and the whole Royal Festival Hall crowd are invited on stage to celebrate. This show could well be the next big Womad headliner for sure.
The album Remain In Light is out now and features production by Jeff Bhasker and features long time guitarist Dominic James and percussionist extraordinaire Magatte Sow. The album version of the songs performed tonight are different again where tonight was a party the record is more of funked up re-awaking but a great reminder of a super evening of live music.
Live Review and Photography by Simon Jay Price of Angélique Kidjo live at the Royal Festival Hall on Friday 8th May 2018.