Marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, the Passage Of Music Festival’s two-month long series of events got underway with tonight’s pairing of veteran Beninese dance diva Angélique Kidjo with Cuban-born Cape Verde newcomer Mayra Andrade.
Elegant in a turquoise and blue skirt and top symbolic of her nation’s particular relationship with the sea, Andrade set about her set as singer backed by a black-clad band. Playing tracks from her debut album Navega, her lilting Cape Verdean Creole singing, evocatively tropical, never seemed forced and fitted superbly with her music, rooted in her country’s sanguine rhythms. Whether loud or quiet, her microphone technique was a demonstration of how to sing. The all-seater audience lapped it up.
When a stool and guitar were brought to her, she demonstrated playing ability as subtle as her vocal accomplishments. Later she would switch to a scraping percussive device in a face-off with her main percussionist. From voice to guitar and on to percussion, she flowed naturally. She left the Barbican a happier place – expect her to headline on her next visit to these shores.
Kidjo’s driving crossover rhythms were in stark contrast. Her band were set well back from the lip of the stage, allowing the diva to strut her stuff – and strut it she did, from the moment she erupted onto the stage in a startling shiny pink trouser suit. Her close-cropped peroxide curls topped off a figure that would rival Prince for how to dress like a superstar, but one who would surely dance the Purple One under the nearest table.
And if Kidjo ever elects to quit music, she’ll have work as both a dancer and a lay preacher. Her motion from one side of the stage to the other, as fast as it was poised, was mesmerising. Well before the end of her set there was dancing in the aisles, even during a lengthy costume-changing instrumental interval with the requisite band solos.
While her physical performance could be faulted only by the churlish, her songs weren’t quite in the same league. Kidjo’s supremely powerful voice gives tongue to a plethora of languages including her native Fon, but new album Djin Djin features a galaxy’s worth of guest stars, from Amadou & Mariam through Joss Stone and Peter Gabriel to Youssou N’Dour (none of them here tonight) and falls back on covers, including The Rolling Stones‘ Gimme Shelter.
Here, this and much else was given a contemporary political context. Her engaging between-songs banter touched on racism, homelessness and poverty, war and peace – as an orator she is indeed powerful, though the music began to feel like the interludes between her polemic.
A stage invasion comprised of everyone from young children to besuited office gents was invited to join her, several of these getting their turn in Kidjo’s spotlight before she raced up the aisles and danced with everyone she touched. Brimming with confidence and with that voice, it should have been enough. But with little respite from full-belt vocals and none of the subtlety of her support act, Kidjo left the impression of someone not quite demonstrating the full range of her talents.