Unlock editor summary for free
Rula Khalaf, editor of the FT, picks her favorite stories in this weekly newsletter.
As Angelique Kidjo elegantly took to the stage at London’s Royal Albert Hall in a gold sequin dress and African shirt, she looked every inch a diva. “You thought you were coming to a concert,” she told the packed audience, “but you’re going to work.”
The Benin-born, five-time Grammy-winning star dubbed the “Queen of African Music” urged the crowd to sing along. It looked like her work was done. The mix of Fair-Isle sweater-and-pants types who looked like they’d been at the first Womad festival in 1982, younger hipsters and a West African contingent with gaudy ruffles and intricate prints seemed too well-bred for the task.
But Kijo is not a woman to be put off. Exuding high-voltage stage presence and charisma, her voice soared majestically over the infectious and rousing rhythms of 2010’s “Kelele,” complete with catchy pizzicato strings courtesy of Chineke! Orchestra, the first majority black and ethnically diverse ensemble in Europe. She soon moved into her lyrical version of Santana’s “Samba Pa Ti,” with its flirtatious flutes and Yoruba words.
A headline date at London’s EFG Jazz Festival, it was also the first night of a world tour celebrating 40 years of Kidjo’s remarkable musical career, which runs in tandem with her prolific activism. She is not only a UNICEF ambassador and the founder of the Batonga Foundation, which helps disadvantaged girls and women in Africa, but is also French President Emmanuel Macron’s spokesperson for AFAWA (Affirmative Financial Action for Women in Africa), an initiative designed to help close the funding gap for women entrepreneurs on the continent.
Fittingly, Kidjo’s songs were peppered with passionate words about everything from the importance of education to the need to fight for justice – for women, the people of Africa, and victims of oppression of all backgrounds. But there was nothing pushy about her rhetoric. Before “Ominira,” which she explained meant “freedom,” she stopped abruptly, realizing she’d inadvertently left a song out of her setlist. “I’m such a passionate freedom person,” she said, “I can skip the errand!”
By the time we reached the interval, through a lush French chanson-style cover of Sidney Bechet’s ‘Petite Fleur’ and the syncopated West African rhythms of ‘Mama Golo Papa’ (Mummy Loves Daddy), pockets of the audience were on their feet and Kidjo was telling us to ‘get your shoes ready for dancing’ for the second half.
She wasn’t kidding. After a break, just as Bob Dylan “went electric” during the second half of his 1966 show at the Royal Albert Hall, here comes Chineke! Orchestra was replaced by Kidjo’s stunning tight band, complete with rock-style electric guitar, bass and drums, as well as African congas.
There were guest appearances from Laura Mvula and rising Ghanaian dancehall star Soundbwoy, but the scene stealers were two other duos. French-Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf joined Kidjo for a rendition of Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” playfully sparring with her on impromptu horn solos as she fluttered across the stage as a soulful rendition of Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” found her a duet with the Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour.
Finally, a turbo solo rendition of Miriam Makeba’s jubilant ‘Pata Pata’, accompanied by both her band and orchestra, was followed by Kidjo’s rocking and triumphant ‘Afrika’ with all her guests.
There were moments of poignancy in Kidjo’s recognition of how far the world still has to go, but when it came to her closing encore rendition of “Kelele,” all five levels of the venue were on their feet, hips swaying, hands in the air in unequivocal a joyous celebration not only of Kidjo’s career, but of shared humanity.