Review: Angelique Kidjo – Belfast International Arts Festival, Grand Opera House
What do you get when you pair one of Africa’s most famous and talented female vocalists with one of the most influential and iconic album’s of the early 1980’s? It has to be Angelique Kidjo performing her re-invented and re-interpreted version of Talking Heads’ Remain in Light. There’s also a certain sense of serendipity about tonight’s concert, coming less than a week after David Byrne’s majestic solo show in Dublin’s 3 Arena. How would Kidjo’s versions of classic songs such as “Once In A Lifetime”, “Born Under Punches” and “The Great Curve” hold up against those of the man who wrote them? In the immortal words of Michael Buffer, let’s get ready to rumble.
It’s worth mentioning tonight’s support act, Larks, the latest project from ex-Runaway Go front woman Fiona O’Kane. Her new sound is very much indie rock/pop for grown ups with touches of PJ Harvey (for the oldies in the audience) and Wolf Alice (for the newbies).
O’Kane has a sumptuous voice and a great range. and her three-piece backing band this evening were spot on – all well-travelled and very talented local session musicians. She covers soul (“Like This”), slow love songs (“Johnny and June”) and her current radio-friendly single release “Whole Again.” The stand out song was maybe the quirky, poppy “Stalactites” and this allowed O’Kane to show off her vocal range to it’s full extent.
After a short interval, the Belfast International Arts Festival’s director, Richard Wakely, takes the stage to introduce Angelique Kidjo, describing her as “the most important African voice of her generation.” This isn’t an overstatement and Wakely welcomes Kidjo to the stage after noting that is her first ever time performing in Ireland.
It’s fair to say that Kidjo brings a different and personal perspective to the Remain In Light project. Although the Talking Heads’ originals and Byrne’s solo versions were dripping with world music influences, Kidjo interprets the songs with a very definite African sound.
The rhythmical percussion paired with electric guitar and layered vocal harmonies sound is very reminiscent of pioneers of African music such as Nigerian musicians Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade (Nigeria) and Manu Dibango (Cameroon) but also brings something that is fresh, new and invigorating.
Kidjo is an energetic and commanding presence on stage; always moving, always on the go. The band start off with “Born Under Punches” and this starts in a restrained and steady way before picking up towards the end. “Crosseyed and Painless” is faster and funkier with a big bass and drum break which allows Kidjo to show off her dance moves.
Kidjo is a UNICEF Ambassador and her social activism is never very far away. She takes time between songs to speak directly and forcefully on subjects such as child marriage, women’s rights, poverty and climate change. It’s never over-done, and anything she has to say on any of these subjects is relevant to what she is doing on stage. Actually, it’s just relevant regardless of what she doing on stage.
“Listening Wind” seems to be delivered as a commentary on modern American foreign policy and “The Great Curve” is introduced as a song which highlights the importance of women in the world. This song seemed a little flat without the backing vocals and screeching keyboard breaks of the original, but Kidjo’s voice carried it through.
Kidjo introduces the next song as a tribute to a great African singer but refuses to name either the singer or the song, noting if we don’t know who and what it is that we haven’t been living on planet Earth. I’m not 100% sure but my guess was that the singer was Miriam Makeba and the song was “Pata Pata”, but I stand to be corrected on both counts – answers on a metaphorical postcard please. Anyhow, this was a fantastic piece of afro-pop that anyone with a pair of feet would have felt compelled to get up and dance to.
It’s back to the album for a slow and vocal-driven version of “The Overload” and a funky version of “Houses In Motion” Kidjo does the thing that never fails to freak the security people out and goes walkabout among the audience while singing “Mama Africa.” She keeps the big cover version for last and launches into a staccato version of “Once In A Lifetime” delivered with soaring vocals with an infectious jit-jive backing.
She finishes the show by inviting some audience members up on stage to dance with the band on “Tumba” and this could have gone either of two ways – great fun or really naff. It genuinely fitted with the upbeat and celebratory tone of the evening and the dancing was….varied.
The highlight may have been a big lad having to get his winter anorak removed on stage by Kidjo. As an encore we are treated to a blisteringly good version of “Burning Down The House” which brings everyone in the Opera House to their feet.
Despite the opening paragraphs in this review, it’s unfair to compare Kidjo’s version of classic songs with the originals, or even with David Byrne’s solo performances, as they are very different pieces of work that seem to come from very different places.
Where Byrne is serious and always appeared to be driven by a desire to make “art,” Kidjo seems driven by a desire to make music that is uplifting and inspiring, and her blending of humour and political and social awareness strikes the right note. This was an evening of happy music, smiles and dancing all round. There should be more evenings like this.