February 5, 2013 - 7:30pm
BY ADAM DEPOLLO
Few African musicians have as much international influence as Beninese singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo. In her long career as a musician and activist, Kidjo has garnered critical praise for her powerful voice and impressive performances (she is the recipient of five Grammy nominations for Best World Music Record, with one win for her 2007 album Djin Djin), and has received countless awards and commendations for her work as a champion of peace, women’s rights and many other worthy causes. The singer brought her talents to bear in front of a packed house at Hill Auditorium on Friday night.
Kidjo’s performance was preceded by the San Francisco-based Ethiopian singer-songwriter Meklit Hadero. The deceptively simple melodies of her songs captivate with their charm while they belie the results of what is clearly a deep study of folk, jazz and African musical styles which she has undertaken in the cultural mecca of the Bay Area. Although her four-piece band didn’t stand out for its virtuosity, Hadero’s own impressive vocal talents demonstrate how she landed the opening spot for such an acclaimed singer.
After a brief intermission, Kidjo made her appearance, greeted by a roar of applause from the audience. However, walking onto the stage, the petite singer certainly did not cut a very intimidating figure. As she reached the microphone, dwarfed by her band of international musicians, the last thing one would expect to hear would be the tremendous power of her voice as she filled the auditorium with the first note of “Zelie” and continued, without a hint of weariness, for the entire two-hour duration of the show.
During what she called her “sermons” to the audience, Kidjo set the theme for the evening: the celebration of life. Nearly every song demonstrated that Kidjo practices what she preaches. Driven by the high energy of her percussionists Maggate Sow and Yayo Serka and surprisingly vigorous dancing by the 52-year-old singer, Kidjo made it her mission to ensure that the crowd practiced what she preached as well. One dance number followed another (which almost leaned toward repetitiveness), culminating with Kidjo inviting as many audience members as could fit onto the stage with her for a nearly half-hour-long outburst of joy and energetic, albeit mostly amateur, dancing.
During the more quiet moments of her performance, Kidjo demonstrated the refined beauty of her voice. Her stripped down rendition of Sidney Bechet’s “Petite Fleur,” taught to her by her father and dedicated to the women of the world, brought the entire auditorium to a reverent silence.
Of course, the words of an objective observer can only capture the experience of participating in a live performance so well.
Perhaps better to do justice to Angélique Kidjo’s performance, then, is an image. I went to the concert with a friend of mine from Ghana, and as we were leaving Hill after the show, I noticed him doing something that I had never seen him do before: he was crying. I asked him to explain this sudden burst of emotion. His answer—better than any praise I could give—“it reminded me of home”.