Angelique Kidjo is one of those artists who gets stuck in. Politically and socially driven, her music and actions inspire. Indeed it seems that the power of art and political change are fused in her every effort. As a result, she has earned a bevy of international awards including Grammys, as well as political and ambassadorial respect. She has a horde of people that line up to work with her.
She has made significant impact herself as a musician across jazz, traditional African styles, Carribbean genres and Latin flavours. Her work as a campaigner for UNICEF, women’s rights, climate change, access for water amongst many other causes has been exemplary. Now, as she faces her half century, Kidjo has taken the time to recognize, reflect and return to the world an album encapsulating songs, messages and the artists that have affected and continue to affect her own journey.
It’s not surprising then that, with Oyo, she has produced a stellar and ambitious album. Perhaps most obviously and personally emblematizing her style and direction for this release is opener Zelie. Piercingly pure and passionate, her unaffected cry “Zelie” means ‘solemn’ and is strong, full of heart. The song recalls the first steps of adulthood; those nerves and that excitement. It was written and originally performed by Bella Bellow, to whom Kidjo frequently refers as a formative influence. Bellow tragically died in a car accident aged just 27 when Kidjo was just 13 years old. Through the music we are taken back to that moment.
From that point on, the choices of song are aspirational and taken from pioneering artists. James Brown‘s innovative, socially pertinent Cold Sweat (oft thought to be the first funk track) is given a work over. The first jazz saxophonist Sidney Bechet‘s Petite Fleur is treated sweetly as a delicacy, and there is a twist on the theme from John Barry‘s score for Out Of Africa. Otis Redding‘s I’ve Got Dreams To Remember is impassioned. Miriam Makeba homages feature too; Mbube is enthusiastic while, contrastingly, the lullaby of Lakutshona Llana, tickled by guitar, is less soothing than stirring. There’s even a spot for a Bollywood cover that bares little resemblance to its original production and owes more to Caribbean carnival in style.
With trumpeter Roy Hargrove Kidjo turns to a jazz-driven, ’70s Santana sound; the ballad Samba Pa Ti is sultry with a fantastic luxurious solo. John Legend joins her on an infectious rendition of Curtis Mayfield‘s Move On Up; sadly it seems to lack chemistry between the two artists and even sounds like they were recorded in very different environments. Dianne Reeves makes a pair to create Baby, I Love You from the Aretha Franklin songbook; it’s a sultry version but a touch a too tame when compared to the landmark recording. But then that’s almost inevitable.
Despite being an inconsistent album in terms of quality, Oyo is eminently listenable. This album is a soundtrack of Kidjo’s life, telling the particular story of her motivations. Its function is to continue inspiring people around the world and it should succeed at that, though as a covers project it is essential only for fans.