Beninese singer-songwriter and activist Angélique Kidjo showcased several songs from her new album “Celia” at the Top of the Standard on Tuesday night. The album is a 10 track tribute to Cuban-born “Queen of Latin Music” Celia Cruz.
Kidjo shuffled to the competing rhythms of two sets of drums onstage. Her head, angled downward under a green patterned head wrap that matched the rest of her outfit, rolled from side to side. She cut the rug in chunky heels. The guitarist began a new solo phrase as the rhythm section swelled. Kidjo’s dancing intensified. She tore off her head wrap in one clean motion and sent it spinning to the side of the stage.
A couple phrases later, she returned to the microphone and dove into a new verse, her rich voice radiating a powerful warmth. She blazed through lyrics with precision, tinged her voice with a growl, and held notes for an eternity without so much as a quaver.
Kidjo’s incredible career and 30 years of experience on stage are evident in her performance. Even so, she retains the generosity and passion of a new artist performing for the first time. At the end of her set (closed out by a cover of “Once in this Lifetime”), she waved her band up to the front and clasped their hands for a bow. The audience cheered and demanded an encore. Kidjo, toweling sweat from her brow and in the process of removing her mic, exchanged a couple words with the band before returning to the mic with a wide smile.
“Celia” will be Kidjo’s second cover album to date. The first was “Remain in Light,” a 2018 reimagining of the 1980 Talking Heads album of the same name. These two albums alone illustrate Kidjo’s diverse musical influences and expansive discography. In a brief tour of her greatest hits, you’ll hear rock drums, African polyrhythms, funk guitar octaves, synths, and hip hop beats. The only constant is Kidjo’s African roots.
Kidjo’s tribute to Celia Cruz centers Cruz’s African heritage. Each track is a faithful recreation of the original, but Kidjo finds the intersection of Latin and African influence in the song and explodes it.
During the performance, Kidjo reminded us of the importance of heritage and identity.
“That is what helps you strive.”
But rather than using identity as a dividing force, as often happens today, Kidjo used it as a unifying one.
“We are all human.” She beamed at the audience before delving into a performance of “Afirika,” from her 2002 album “Black Ivory Soul.”
She implored us to sing along, and walked the edge of the stage pausing every couple feet to hold the microphone into the audience.
As we sang along (Ashè é Maman, ashè é Maman Afirika) at the Top of the Standard, a sleek, chic venue with fancy drinks and fancier people, I felt an unexpected sense of healing in the room. A couple feet to my left, an older couple stepped from one foot to the other. Next to them, a group of young women in business casual threw their hands up and sang the unfamiliar words with growing ease. Kidjo whooped and clapped her hands, encouraging us further into the performance.
As I witnessed Kidjo’s effect on the audience, I had the same Kidjo did reflecting on her first experience watching Celia Cruz perform with Johnny Pacheco in Cotonou. “I realized what kind of woman we were dealing with!”
Kidjo’s album “Celia” is available April 19.
Check out one of my favorites from the album, “Quimbara,” below: