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At The Sheldon, Angelique Kidjo Highlights The African Roots Of Celia Cruz's Music

Angelique Kidjo recently won her fourth Grammy Award, for 'Celia,' an Afrocentric reimagining of the music of legendary salsa queen Celia Cruz. [2/14]
Lauren Serroussi
Angelique Kidjo recently won her fourth Grammy Award, for 'Celia,' an Afrocentric reimagining of the music of legendary salsa queen Celia Cruz.

Musician Angélique Kidjo fled to Paris from her homeland of Benin in 1983, several years after a Soviet-aligned dictatorship seized power in the West African nation.

She has since built a career as one of the biggest stars of African music. She’d already won three Grammy Awards before earning this year’s award for best world music album. “Celia” is Kidjo’s tribute to and rethinking of the music of Celia Cruz, the Afro-Cuban singer and queen of salsa. Kidjo’s interpretations emphasize the African roots of Cruz’s music. 

She launches an international tour at the Sheldon Concert Hall tonight.

Kidjo spoke with St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin over the phone from her home in New York. 

Jeremy D. Goodwin: “Quimbara” is obviously one of the greatest hits of Latin music, a song a lot of people love, people hold close to their hearts. What did you do with it?

Angélique Kidjo: I said to myself, 'Go back to that feeling when you first hear her sing it.' As I was sitting in the public listening to her singing “Quimbara,” I was beating a 6/8 beat on it. And I was like, 'This is so African.'

Goodwin: When we listen to your version of it, it’s very familiar, but it’s also got a different feeling to it. We know we’re somewhere else. 

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Credit Marc Arthur
Angelique Kidjo launches an international tour Friday at the Sheldon Concert Hall.

Kidjo: Exactly. Yes, we know we’re back to Africa, where it all started.

When you hear “Cúcala,” I used the same kind of method. Because when I’m listening to “Cúcala,” I’m not thinking about anything except: Where does this rhythm take me? What is it saying to me? And I follow that, and I stay on that until I follow the journey of the song.

Goodwin: Compared to “Cúcala” or “Quimbara,” “Yemaja” is a song that’s much more obscure from her catalog, from a record in the ‘50s. It’s named for an Afro-Cuban deity.

Kidjo: She is the protector of women, but she’s also the protector of water.

Goodwin: Why was it important for you to include a song like that, that has a spiritual element?

Kidjo: For me, a person that left Africa and still have the memory of the gods and goddesses — and when she sings it, in the language that I grew up speaking and singing, it is profoundly emotional. 

Because here it is: Slavery has tried to dehumanize and deny Africans any culture. So the culture survives. Because there’s no way anyone can erase someone’s memory completely. It’s impossible.

At The Sheldon, Angelique Kidjo Highlights The African Roots Of Celia Cruz's Music
Hear Angelique Kidjo talk about the African roots of Talking Heads hit 'Once in a Lifetime,' and why it reminded her of home when she first heard it.

If you go

Who: Angélique Kidjo

When: 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 14, 2020

Where: Sheldon Concert Hall

How much: $45-$60

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @JeremyDGoodwin

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Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.