Rarely do two superstar singers of African popular music converge together for an evening performance, but Angelique Kidjo and Youssour N’Dour did just that at Oakland’s Paramount Theater recently as part of the 2011 San Francisco Jazz Festival.
A resident of New York City, Kidjo was born and raised in the West African country of Benin where she started singing at the tender age of six; she fled the then dictatorial, pseudo “Marxist-Leninist” nation to relocate in Paris in 1983. Her travails have undoubtedly played into her distinctive viewpoints and she is a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF and founder of the Batonga Foundation (www.batongafoundation.org). A great vocalist, her music covers the gamut from soul to funk to samba to reggae to salsa, jazz, gospel, zouk, makossa, and soukous.
Star of the 2010 documentary I Bring What I Love, Youssou N’Dour first came to fame with his percussion-driven mbalax sound — a singular combination of traditional griot percussion and praise-singing with imported Afro-Cuban and Haitian kompa arrangements. Recently, he has diversified into reggae and, as of this year, is the proud holder of an honorary doctorate in Music from Yale University.
It is Angelique’s turn first, and she takes the stage with her customary jest and enthusiasm. Angelique has never been one to restrain from social commentary while on stage, and this performance finds her in fine oratorical form. But she also never misses an opportunity to dance, telling the audience, “You want to dance? Go ahead!” Soon, a good portion of the audience is up, dancing in their seats or the aisle. Except for the young woman sitting down and texting on her cell phone, most of the audience stays on their feet throughout. Her expert talking drummer, along with the rest of the expert crew, maintain the excitement.
She performs her ebullient version of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up” and follows it with her trademark “Mama Africa,” as she extends her customary invitation for the audience to ascend the stage, and the scene becomes the same as a mosh pit except everyone is standing. Waving her hands in the air, she dances in tandem with her talking drummer before letting other women take their turn.
After a break, N’Dour’s group assembles on the stage. A musician announces that the performance will be split in two parts — reggae and mbalax. His reggae is enthused but hardly traditional, and is perhaps best characterized by Marley, his tribute to Robert Nesta Marley.
All of the numbers are signatured by Youssou’s ebullient, resonant and sweet vocals — which have enabled him to bridge language and culture and unite everyone who hears him in great buzz of positive energy. While the musician’s costumes are striking, the onstage choreography (including scarf dancing) lively and celebratory, it is his remarkable music that will endure.
Move on up