The Benimese icon Angélique Kidjo came close to performing one of those shows that you remember all your life at Carnegie Hall on Friday night. The two hour set fell into two halves, 45 minutes then a break while Max Percussion took the stage, and then Kidjo for the last hour. That first 45 minutes was flawless, the African Percussion break strong but why was it at all, and the final hour didn’t hit as well.
Kidjo came to Carnegie (2019 – 2020 she was Carnegie’s Perspective Artist of the year) to perform for New York at the tail end of the Pandemic and invited some friends to help celebrate the return to, in Curtis’s words, living again. Kidjo moved to New York City 25 years ago and she is us, calling her second home a microcosm of the world and let’s add a place that for a renaissance African pop superstar is a building block of world music. Last night, dressed in African garb, with a great band behind her anchored by drums, percussion and a terrific Nigerian bassist (Michael Olatuja) and including a string section and back up vocalists, she brought World Music to New York.
If you haven’t heard Angelique’s current album, Mother Nature, an ode to the new sound of Afrobeats where Kidjo invites the new generation of artists who are changing modern music to join with Africa’s Queen, you really should. And, yes, to a degree this was a celebration of the album, but the only artist from the album who appeared was Olu Fann of Earthgang. So it wasn’t that.
Whatever it was, it had moments that took your breath away, the first four songs were so powerful a statement of joy and power it was a shake up of even the best expectations. Angélique opened with a quiet and relaxed cover of The Beatles “Mother Nature’s Son” and continued with agitprop anthem “Choose Love,” with its direct call for a different world, “Brothers, why are we fighting each other, my sisters why we let the men take our vow…” and if her answer is a tautology so is much pacifisms, “Africa, One Of A Kind” is her pan-continent fetishisms in full effect, and Talking Heads “The Great Curve” (you know, the one where the world revolves on a woman’s hips) revolved on her hips (it was answered in the second half with a perfect “Once In Lifetime” with water running underground…) AND THEN INTRODUCES PHILIP GLASS.
That entire first 45 minutes was a marvel, with Kidjo dancing across the stage like a jitterbug, a moved and moving expression of the natural infinity with the birthplace of the human race. It reached its climax with Olu Fann and Africa’s Diva dancing through a storm of sound on “Take It Or Leave It” – pure joy.
And then… I agree, yes, Max Percussion were good, five percussionists and a dancer, though maybe the question is why are they there? So Kidjo can take a break? And if I say, okay, what the heck it’s her show, that doesn’t explain why she allowed Josh Groban to solo on “What A Wonderful World”. Kidjo played in support of Groban on his 2007 world tour, and they performed the song they recorded together, “Pearls” and Josh refused to dance so the damage was done. It was a black swan moment, it found her fallible.
The rest of the second half had its ups and downs, trumpeter Lebanese Ibrahim Maalouf, who wrote “Queen Of Sheba” with Kidjo in 2018, sounded beautiful but slowed down the show’s impact, Cyndi Lauper, who looked great by the way, performed a misjudged blues number. Andra Day, whom Kidjo admitted to being her zoom buddy during lockdown, finally made a believer of me with a thrilling “Rise Up” and in a way it pointed to the problem with the show. She had Andra were followed by Cyndi to lead the way to a singalong to “One Africa (Indépendance Cha-Cha)” with all the featured guests on stage to end the evening. It sort of fizzled out.
There is so much to admire about Angelique Kidjo, not least the length and breadth of her musical aspirations, I saw Yemi Alade (she is on Kidjo’s album) last month at LPR (here) and the DNA is similar though Kidjo has the gravitas only time can give you. And while that’s cool, sincerity drags me like hell…. sincerity is so insincere. That was not a problem for me last night. The only way for sincerity to work is if 1) you are angry, 2) you are ironic or 3) you are self-deprecating. This is the third time I’ve seen Kidjo and she is always two of the three. It is just a pity she didn’t think the evening through a little further.
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