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Angélique Kidjo, a voice of change

Pierre Marie Zimmerman

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Angélique Kidjo is in the kitchen.

It's a frigid winter afternoon in New York, and because Kidjo, the superstar singer and activist from Benin, West Africa who has lived here two decades, is busy — with rehearsals, a tour, a host of events and interviews for her new album, “Eve,” and her memoir, “Spirit Rising” — she has been cooking too.

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She proffers fresh-baked lemon and caramel cakes to the various people who traipse into the ground-floor apartment. She brews espresso. She rebuffs the makeup advice of her husband, musician Jean Hébrail, who emerges from their basement production studio, encouraging her to look her best for an arriving camera crew.

Kidjo, 53, who plays the Somerville Theatre on Sunday, is a multitasker with charisma and strong opinions. She is one of world music’s most visible stars, a stunning singer-turned-compulsive collaborator who has worked with everyone from Alicia Keys to Philip Glass. Her commitments take her on frequent travels to conflict and poverty zones as a goodwill ambassador for Oxfam and UNICEF. Bill Clinton blurbed her book. Desmond Tutu wrote the foreword.

“Eve,” the new album, is at once the fruit of Kidjo’s journeys and testimonial to her tremendous convening power. It features a band that, on its own, could headline the world’s premier jazz venues, including Christian McBride on bass and Lionel Loueke on guitar. Add guest spots by Dr. John, Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, Nigerian neo-soul singer Asa, and, for good measure, the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra.

But the core of “Eve,” which Kidjo dedicates to women in general and to her mother in particular, is the women’s choirs that she taped in the field. They sing music that Kidjo brought them, which she then layered into the songs on “Eve,” and their own music, which appears as interludes.

It was a chance encounter, while on a UNICEF visit to a drought-struck region of Kenya, with a local choir that Kidjo spontaneously recorded on her iPhone, that inspired a musical approach for the women’s project Kidjo was already mulling.

‘I had started writing about women’s issues. The lessons I’ve learned, and the resilience and beauty that I encounter over and over again.’

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“I had started writing about women’s issues,” Kidjo says. “The lessons I’ve learned, and the resilience and beauty that I encounter over and over again. And the concept came after a very emotional visit to a village in Kenya. It gave me chills, and I wanted the world to feel the voice of these women.”

That Kenyan choir appears on the album’s first track. Kidjo went on to record nine other choirs in Benin, traveling the length of her home country, including to areas she’d never visited before, gathering multi-generational women’s choral groups for outdoor recording sessions that invariably turned into much more.

“It became social talk too — they wanted to talk to me about their kids, what they go through every day; you talk about a lot of things,” she says. “And it was hard to leave them, because they didn’t want to stop.”

The credits for “Eve” list every member of each of these choirs; the groups will receive a share of the royalties. That recognition is important, Kidjo says, not least as recognition for a relationship that goes back, at least in spirit, to her days as an emerging singer and her early local stardom before she left Benin in the 1980s.

“They’ve given me so much, since I was a child,” Kidjo says. “Some of them have known me from afar, and some of them told me: ‘We’ve been dreaming of meeting you for so long and now this dream has come through — thank you for coming.’”

The sentiment of honoring roots also pervades “Spirit Rising,” Kidjo’s memoir, which is lavishly illustrated with photographs and, at the end, a short set of recipes — a teaser for the cookbook she intends to write someday. It was the sudden illness and death of her father in 2008 that prompted her to write, she explains.

When she returned from the funeral, grappling with grief, she took advice from friends who told her to release her emotions by recording her memories. “They said talk, talk, talk, and get it out of your system. And it became a book.”

From her family’s history in Ouidah, birthplace of Vodoun religion and a main port in the Atlantic slave trade, to her career start during a repressive time in Benin’s history, her surreptitious departure for Paris, her hardscrabble life there as an artist and immigrant, and her ascent to fame, Kidjo has plenty of good material. Other chapters recount her activist life and musical projects in the United States, Brazil, and beyond.

Kidjo’s message is universal and humanistic — she loves living in New York, she says, “because I come together with people from all over the world here.” But her politics is squarely centered on African liberation. She does not mince words about the continued burden on African nations from unequal terms of trade, mineral exploitation, and debt.

“Debt for what?” she says. “Every time I hear that, I say it’s an insult. Who do we owe money to? We don't owe people [squat]. They owe us everything!”

She recalls the message that prompted her, in the 1980s, to leave Benin and take her chances on the world stage. It came from Jerry Rawlings, at the time the president of Ghana and a rare progressive voice among corrupt heads of state. After a performance at a diplomatic summit in Togo, Rawlings invited the musicians to meet him.

“He told me to raise my voice and speak to the world,” she says. “That no matter what I do, I have to speak on behalf of my culture and African people. I had never thought about that before. And without even planning it, it’s what I still do today.”

Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at siddharthamitter@gmail.com.
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