As part of New York’s “Ubuntu” celebrations of the music of South Africa, multiple Grammy winner Angelique Kidjo will present a tribute to the legendary Miriam Makeba that features South African greats like Faith Kekana, Stella Khumalo and Vusi Mahlasels – as well as the lead singer of Vampire Weekend.
This interview by Evan Milton first appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” of 2014/09/06.
Last month, Angelique Kidjo headlined the fourth “MoreJazz” festival in Maputo, the brainchild of UCT Music School graduate and Mozambican national, Moreira Chonguica. She performed four shows which were as varied as they were brilliant: a small stage on the five-star grandeur of the Polana Serena Hotel’s chandeliered function hall, where she had Maputo’s society elite up and shaking their well-heeled and impeccably attired derrières; on a huge outdoor stage set in Maputo’s rapidly-redeveloping Cabotage docks; at a lavish outdoor banquet in the glorious gardens of Folha Verde Matola and then amidst the 20 000-plus crowd at the FACIM international trade fair. Amidst all this, and her commitments as a Unicef Goodwill Ambassador, she found time for an exclusive interview.
Ms Kidjo has often spoken of her indebtedness to Miriam Makeba, and frequently includes the songs of “Mama Afrika” songs in her set, or reminds listeners of this important African-born, but globally felt, legacy – and also notes that it was Makeba who first taught her to decry the term “world music” under which Western critics and industry moguls attempted to lump the many, many musics of the African continent.
“Miriam Makeba… showed me that… you can tap into any repertoire of music from Africa, and still be true to yourself.”
– Angelique Kidjo
“My take on Miriam Makeba’s music will always be different from a South African point of view,” says Ms Kidjo, every bit as feisty off-stage as her energetic stage performances might suggest. “As a young Beninese girl, she was the one who showed me that I can be an African artist, but have an international career, and that you can tap into any repertoire of music from Africa, and still be true to yourself.”
Ms Kidjo was first approached to present a tribute to the music of Mama Afrika in 2009, for a festival in Paris. “I started thinking of the repertoire of Miriam Makeba, and I said to myself, ‘I can only do this if I reach out to the people that worked with her’. That’s how I found out about Faith (Kekana), Stella (Khumalo) and Zamo (Zamokuhle “Zamo” Mbutho), three South African women who worked as her supporting singers. Then there is Vusi Mahlasela – how could I do this show without him? Vusi is one of those male artists who embodies being a gentleman. He is considerate, but he also has male strength, and that is something I respect and admire.”
“I tried to bring a Guinean influence because she spent a long time in Guinea: fourteen years of her life. So in Paris, we had Sayon Bamba Camara from Guinea, and Rokia Traoré from Mali and Dobet Gnahoré from Cote d’Ivoire – West African singers – and Asa and Ayo from Nigeria. I wanted something that would show the story of Miriam Makeba to a new audience who does not know her. We told the story of her birth, of motherhood and her political life. Then we took it to London and the Montreaux Jazz Festival, and now it is coming to New York. The challenge is how to present to the new generation that are in search of music that comes from Africa – to understand and be attracted to the music of Miriam. It’s a melting pot that includes younger artists too, like (Tony winning) Audra McDonald, like Ezra Koenig from Vampire Weekend, and I’m looking at different options, someone like Maxwell… Ways to keep Miriam’s spirit alive to a new generation; that’s the challenge.”
“Until we decide that every human being has the right to a decent life, I will not stop and I will not keep quiet.”
– Angelique Kidjo
Ms Kidjo embraces challenges, and has made vocal campaigning for human rights, women’s rights and the rights of children a priority in her work offstage, and as part of her shows. In 2007, she co-founded the Batonga Foundation, which provides education, school supplies and support, and mentoring to girls in Ethiopia, Mali, Cameroon, Sierra Leone and her birth country of Benin. She has been a Goodwill Ambassador for Unicef since 2002 and visited schools and global health initiatives in countries as far flung as Senegal and Syria; Uganda and Haiti.
“It doesn’t matter how rich this African continent is, the people of Africa have not benefited properly from these riches. So here I am in Mozambique, and working with children, who are the innocent victims of a system that no-one can call fair, because someone decided – long ago – to enslave us, to colonise us and once that was done, to continue enslaving us mentally and economically. Until we decide that every human being has the right to a decent life, I will not stop and I will not keep quiet. Because it’s not fair and it’s not just that a child that is born in a country in Africa – if the family of that child is not rich – then the talent and the skills of that child, nobody cares. Money that used to be a necessary evil that we had to trade with, has become a weapon to enslave people. I’ve realised that when people want to talk about Africa, I am one of the first people they call. I tell the positive stories of Africa. People has to realise, first, that Africa is a continent, not a country. I tell stories that show that Africa is absolutely vast and rich, and I am building a bridge – with music – about the powers that African cultures can offer.”
This interview by Evan Milton first appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” of 2014/09/06
“Ubuntu: Music and Arts of South Africa” runs in October and November at Carnegie Hall in New York, featuring Angelique Kidjo’s tribute to Miriam Makeba, as well as performances by, amongst others, Hugh Masekela, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the Bakithi Khumalo Band, Madala Kunene, Phuzekhemisi, Abdullah Ibrahim, Philip Miller and William Kentridge, David Kramer, Dizu Plaatjies and Cape Town jazz quartet Kesivan Naidoo, playing with Kyle Shepherd, Reza Khota and Shane Cooper. See more on CarnegieHall.org/SouthAfrica
Angelique Kidjo’s latest album, “Eve”, is now widely available.