Not the same as it ever was: Angélique Kidjo reworks Remain in Light for Abu Dhabi

The Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi has another coup: one of Africa’s greatest living female vocalists and performers, “Africa’s greatest living diva” according to NPR and “the undisputed queen of African music” as the Daily Telegraph put it. Not just Angélique Kidjo, but Angélique Kidjo and her band performing her much-lauded reinterpretation of the groundbreaking Talking Head album Remain in Light.

“The first time I came to New York to sing, in 1992, David Byrne from Talking Heads came to my show – the first American artist to do so – and we met afterwards,” says Angélique Kidjo in a recent interview. “Not long before, in 1988, Talking Heads had recorded an album with some of my African friends from Paris. At that time, I discovered their music and fell in love with the Remain in Light album”.

In part that was because of the pervasive African vibe in Remain in Light. At the time David Byrne was consciously looking for a new style for Talking Heads, something that would reduce the emphasis on him as the band’s frontman; Brian Eno, producer of two Talking Heads albums before Remain in Light, was a restless experimenter (still is) and was equally keen on pushing the boundaries.

I fell in love with the Remain in Light album

The result, as Angélique Kidjo put it, was that “they created their own style based on the hypnotic rhythm patterns of Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat”. To the magical African rhythms, with few chord changes but much polyrhythmic variety, Byrne added some of his most cryptic lyrics. Extra musicians were brought in for the sessions, and when the new material was played live there were nine (sometimes ten) people on stage.

Talking Heads had not lost their arty Western ideals or their love of technology. The album tracks were elaborate studio concoctions, the result of hours of work over the mixing desks by Byrne and Eno.

But Byrne in particular was keen to set out the debts to West African music. His press release for Remain in Light cited John Miller Chernoff’s African Rhythms and African Sensibility, a book that was reviewed at the time as “a Rosetta stone for mediating, or translating, African musical behaviour and aesthetics”. At the same he drew larger parallels with a society in which many small parts contributed to a larger whole: “In sacrificing our egos for mutual cooperation, we got something – dare I say it? – spiritual”.

Remain in Light was released in 1980. The art rock enthusiasts loved it, but it wasn’t an immediate commercial success; the new styles and especially the introduction of new players caused a good deal of friction within Talking Heads, too. “Financially, we took a beating on that one,” says David Byrne. “At the time, it was a really hard sell. The reaction that we heard was that it sounded too black for white radio and too white for black radio.”

But it was a slow burn; today Remain in Light is regularly featured in the ‘best of all time’ lists – No129 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, No54 on NME’s – and aficionados would regard it as the best Talking Heads album.

Somehow I felt I was hearing social commentaries on the state of my continent …

And for Angélique Kidjo it represents “the magical power of African music”, not cloned but adapted. “Somehow I felt I was hearing, in a strange way, social commentaries on the state of my continent.”

A couple of years ago Kidjo came up with the idea of returning the music to its origins, a full circle of interpretation and presentation. “Now I want to pay it back and create my own African take on Talking Heads’ songs. We all know that rock music came from the blues and thus from Africa. Now is the time to bring rock back to Africa, connect our minds, and bring all our sounds to a new level of sharing and understanding.”

Bill Bragin, executive artistic director at The Arts Center at NYUAD, regards Angelique Kidjo as “one of the greatest live performers on the planet, in any style.

“Her expansive and innovative vision, cutting across culture and style, synthesising so many stylistic influences, as well as her deep history as a humanitarian, makes her the perfect artist to kick off our spring season and our first concert during the Year of Zayed.”

Angélique Kidjo was originally from Benin, but she moved to Paris in her early 20s to escape the political rigidity of her country. From an early age she sang and performed with her mother’s theatre group, though, and she has always tried to absorb all of the music she could find – traditional African sounds as well as Western rock, soul, blues, jazz.

That mix appears in her own songs, some of which will be featured in the NYUAD concert. They’re undoubtedly African, not just in the language (she is fluent in French, Yoruba and English but many of her songs are in Fon, the predominant language of Benin) but in rhythm and technique.

Arty aside: the cover for Remain in Light was produced with the help of the MIT Media Lab and a mainframe that took up several rooms. Computer-mediated art was hard work in the 1980s …

At the same time though she has often recorded with Western producers and usually in Western studios, understands and frequently sings with jazz stylings, covers full-on rock songs (Voodoo Child, Gimme Shelter), and has collaborated with a range of partners from Peter Gabriel (obviously) to (less obviously) Dr John, Cassandra Wilson and the Kronos Quartet.

Her interpretations of the Remain in Light songs are equally interesting. They’re certainly recognisable, with much the same instrumental hooks and the same vocal parts. But they’re layered with a distinctive back-to-Africa vibe – new grooves, especially new guitar lines; even more percussive rhythm; new messages that make the cross-cultural mood even more explicit.

Some time after the album’s original release Byrne admitted there was “less Africanism in Remain in Light that we implied … but the African ideas were far more important to get across than specific rhythms”. Angelique Kidjo has returned the whole project to its roots. It’s not the same as it ever was.

See Angélique Kidjo’s Remain In Light on 3 February, outdoors in NYUAD’s East Plaza. It should be a really great evening, opening with a DJ set by Mbithi Masya. He’s from Kenya’s very cool Just a Band, a house/funk/disco outfit with a DIY aesthetic and an eclectic mix of influences – jazz, hip-hop, disco and electronica – that suggests a good balance for Kidjo’s live gig. Masya was a big hit here when he performed as part of The Arts Center’s pilot season back in 2015, too.

Doors open at 6:30, Masya’s set is at 7pm, Angelique Kidjo’s Remain in Light is scheduled for 8pm. Tickets are AED 105, which sounds like a real bargain: more information here.

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