The Beninese singer and songwriter Angélique Kidjo knows that to cover a song is to make both music and an argument, and her 2018 release Remain in Light puts this fact to good use. Track by track, the record reimagines the celebrated 1980 album of the same name by New York post-punk eminences Talking Heads. Through incisive new arrangements, Kidjo underlines and reinvigorates the Afropop effects and Africanist philosophy that Talking Heads lifted as the inspiration for their supposedly most innovative work. She and her band play the album as the profoundly grooving Afropop it might have been, rather than as the art school pop pointillism it was—it's tempting even to say that she unearths what its songs actually wanted to be. The result is at once a keen reminder of the Western music industry's extractive relationship with African and Afro-diasporic musics and a deft act of cultural reclamation.
Yet Kidjo's no hardliner on the question of appropriation. At least where music is concerned, she's quicker to talk of inspiration than she is of imperialism. In an interview with Pitchfork timed to the release of Remain in Light, she suggests that her aim wasn't payback, but a gesture of acknowledgement: “Talking Heads were very honest from the get-go. From the moment you give credit to the people who inspire you, and you don't copy their songs, it's not cultural appropriation, it's cultural expression.” Speaking now in the general, she continues, “We are all inspired by somebody, by music we've been listening to. Is that a crime? No. For me, that's the beauty of music. We bounce off each other.”1 The reasoning here hews to a kind of liberal multiculturalism, an orientation that squares neatly with the prevailing ideology of World Music, the metagenre in which Kidjo's made her career. There the celebration of collaboration and “exchange” can often elide matters of power or inequality. And forget talking about commodification. Yet Kidjo's involvement in the World Music industry has been savvy. Across her career she's been adept at maneuvering amidst its machinery to position herself as an auteur, presenting the world of music as she herself hears it, and always foregrounding her standpoint as an African woman.
In this she's been a forerunner of a set of artistic and intellectual tendencies that have come to be called “Afropolitanism”—a term both complex and contested. As with much Afropolitan work, for Kidjo history and autobiography prove especially useful modes for exploring Africa-in-the-world and the-world-that-is-Africa. She's taken up the former, for example, on the trilogy of albums Oremi (1998), Black Ivory Soul (2002), and Oyaya! (2004), which trace the musical ramifications of the transatlantic slave trade in the resemblances between West African, North American, Brazilian, and Caribbean forms. Meanwhile, autobiography motivates Õÿö (2010), where takes on Beninese traditional musics join covers of Curtis Mayfield, Miriam Makeba, and James Brown to re-enact the cosmopolitan soundtrack to the singer's upbringing in Cotonou.
With her latest project, Celia (2019), Kidjo achieves something of a culmination, revisiting and layering these favored strategies. The trilogy's interest in diaspora, Õÿö's autobiographical organizing principle, and Remain in Light's ear for stylistic genealogy combine in an album that pays respect to one of Kidjo's musical heroes while also inviting a re-hearing of the history of popular music.
Celia is first and foremost a love letter from Kidjo to the late Afro-Cuban singer Celia Cruz. The latter's career was long and legendary, from early success in 1950s Cuba fronting the Sonora Matancera, through a 70s stint in the New York crew of salsa heavyweights that made up the Fania All-Stars, to her 90s prominence as a respected elder in the world of popular song. To compose the album, Kidjo and producer David Donatien have selected ten songs that together offer a rich portrait of Cruz's artistry. They range from Afro-Cuban religious invocations to all-out salsa jams featuring the rapid-fire, guaracha-style lyrics that were a Cruz specialty—and that here put Kidjo's Spanish diction to the test. As on Remain in Light, these covers receive new arrangements that play on and play up the connections between American and African musics. Though this time the focus homes in on the two-way transatlantic current on which African and Afro-Cuban musics have repeatedly crossed the sea. Backing Kidjo is a formidable crew: not only frequent collaborators such as guitarists Amen Viana and Dominic James, but also Gangbé Brass Band, members of the jazz group Sons of Kemet, bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, and the Afrobeat pioneer and drummer Tony Allen.
The bond Kidjo feels with Cruz is profound and consequential. In press for the album and in her memoir, she's explained that—along with Miriam Makeba and the Afrocentrically attired Aretha Franklin of the cover of Amazing Grace (1972)—Cruz served as an early role model, proving the artistic and career possibilities for a black woman singer who would foreground her Africanness.2 Cruz made a particular impression as a woman striking a leading pose in the masculinist world of salsa. Later, while living in Paris, Kidjo would meet Cruz in a nightclub and accept an invitation to sit in with her band. Afterward, the two singers kept in touch. On Celia, it's easy to hear the technical inspiration Kidjo took from Cruz. They share a timbral range that can move from ringing and bell-like to brassy, blending with or differentiating from their accompaniment at will. And each singer's ability to land squarely and powerfully at the dead-center of a sustained, straight-tone pitch may be matched only by the other's.
Kidjo and Cruz also share a more specific diasporic link, one fleshed out in the four songs on Celia that draw on the Afro-Cuban religious tradition of Regla de Ocha. Sometimes also called Santería, Ocha is the Cuban branch of what's come to be known as Yorùbá traditional religion: practices such as the worship of deities called orishas and the divination system named Ifá. Musical facets of Ocha include batá and bembé drumming, as well as a vast corpus of songs in a dialect of Yorùbá that Cubans call Lucumí. This sacred music, along with that of other Afro-Cuban religions, has long flickered in and out of Cuban popular styles, at some times more covertly than others. One of the more overt and successful interpreters of Lucumí song within the popular music sphere was Cruz. Starting in the early 1950s, cantos to the orishas were an important part of her repertoire with the Sonora Matancera, and in 1964 the record label Secco gathered a dozen of these songs onto an LP titled Homenaje a los Santos con Celia Cruz. For Kidjo, who is Yorùbá on her mother's side, this slice of Cruz's catalog affords an opportunity to sound a resonance between her own biography and Cruz's, as well as to explore a tradition that has been deeply important across the African diaspora.
Because Cruz's Lucumí repertoire is so often showbiz-y—all pianos and horns and teatro bufo clichés—one might expect Kidjo to spend her time exorcizing modern accretions to turn Cuban pop “back” into African “folk.” But this is not her aim. So while “Baila Yemaya” finds her amending the Cuban pronunciation of the eponymous orisha's name to the more continental Yorùbá “Yemọja,” Kidjo and producer Donatien keep the pop spirit of Cruz's original, setting the dance to an Afrobeat groove. Similarly, Celia's version of “Elegua Quiere Tambó” (retitled, simply, “Elegua”) maintains Cruz and Sonora Matancera's theatrical seriousness, but with the participation of Gangbé Brass Band routes it through the circum-Black-Atlantic tradition of brass band playing that produced, among other things, New Orleanian jazz. If the purpose of these arrangements is to stage a reunion between Afro-Cuba and Africa, this is accomplished by something beyond a time-bound concept of “roots” and “authenticity.” To reconnect Cruz's popularized Lucumí songs with the continent, Kidjo doesn't invoke the traditional music that is presumably their source, but rather the popular styles of twentieth-century Yorùbáland. Cruz is invited to a celebration hosted not just by her ancestors, but also her contemporaries.
Even when traditionalizing impulses appear, as on the album-closing “Yemaya,” there's a complexity to the execution. Cruz's 1962 version of the song opens with a declamatory passage in Spanish saluting the orisha in her Catholicized guise as the Virgen de Regla; after a break, it segues into a second section with Cruz leading the call-and-response of a well-known Lucumí canto set to piano, bass, drums, and a bell sounding the looping timeline of bembé clave.3 Kidjo's version, however, cuts right to the chase, dispensing with Cruz's introductory paragraph. Gone too are the piano and bass, leaving only percussion and voices entering immediately with the pentatonic strains of “Yemaya e,” now against a variation of the bell pattern. For as much as these changes might be heard as a movement away from a (Cuban) popular mode and toward a sound more typical of (Yorùbá) ritual contexts, Kidjo hasn't so much transformed Cruz's version as she's intensified what it already contained. The logic isn't about reversion, but recognition, and as Kidjo entwines her own biography and discography with Cruz's, Beninese Yorùbá and Cuban Lucumí cultures likewise meet with an easy familiarity.
The album's geographical imagination also reaches beyond Cuba and the Bight of Benin to embrace a pan-Africanism mostly latent in Cruz's work, but which finds fuller expression on Celia. With “Sahara,” for example, Kidjo revisits an arrangement made for Cruz by Tito Puente in 1970. While Puente couched this frankly Orientalist desert fantasy in a thickly orchestrated early-disco idiom, Kidjo and Donatien drop the finger cymbals, winds, and very 70s electric guitar figuration in favor of a strings, piano, and percussion instrumentation that plays more seriously in 2019. Describing the Sahara as the “sister of Egypt and Arabia” and “garden of Allah,” the song draws North Africa and Islam into Celia's thematic range. In another direction, the first bars of album-opener “Cucala” nod to the widely influential guitarism of Congo. And although “Oya Diosa” begins by hailing the orishas “Eleguá and Ogún from Africa / Ochosí and Changó from the African forest,” its arrangement deploys a Hollywood-film-score aridity and something approximating the “Sahel blues” to evoke that not-entirely-forested region of the continent.
The itinerary continues on to East Africa as well. On Kidjo's version of Cruz's late-career anthem “La Vida Es Un Carnaval,” a contingent of horns and Farfisa organ replaces the melody of the Cruz version's trumpet-fronted instrumental interludes with a new line in the Ethiopian ambassel mode. Ndegeocello's bass figure flips the relentless and very Caribbean tresillo of the original into rhythmic retrograde. And late in the game, Shabaka Hutchings's sax solo honks and wails and never met an upper-neighbor tone it didn't love to worry. These transformations lift the song from the streets of Carnival and drop it down on the stage of an Addis Ababa nightclub in the waning years of the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie. What doesn't change is the sanguine—even anti-revolutionary—cast of the lyric: no problem for avowed anti-communists Cruz and Kidjo.
Yet this Ethio-jazz turn isn't as disconnected from the album's interest in the relationships between Africa and the Caribbean as it might at first seem. The link runs through Ethio-jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke, whose first two LPs were titled Afro-Latin Soul Volume One and Volume Two (both 1966). While he called the group that made those records the Ethiopian Quintet, it was mostly made up of Puerto Rican musicians he'd met in New York—the very same place Cruz would later join the Fania roster. Of course, Caribbean and other Afro-Latin musics have a history in Africa that stretches back even further, as early as the nineteenth century, when they traveled along with sailors and formerly enslaved people returning to various parts of West Africa. By the middle of the twentieth century, records of Afro-Cuban music and band arrangements of Latin dances became entertainmentstaples in many of Africa's urban centers. As musicians around the continent developed and elaborated a number of popular styles, they sometimes embraced effects, patterns, and instruments from Latin musics as useful resources—a process that continues today. It's against this backdrop that Cruz gained her fame in the Benin of Kidjo's childhood and that she and the Fania All-Stars were met with a heroes' welcome during their fabled 1974 performance in Kinshasa.4
Another witness to this circulation of Latin music in Africa was Kidjo collaborator Tony Allen, even as jazz would ultimately become the drummer's lodestar. As a young man, Allen sometimes deejayed parties around Lagos using his uncle's record collection, which included Afro-Cuban music on the popular GV series. As he started to play drum kit, two of the first four styles he learned were Cuban: the mambo and the “rumba” (actually son traveling under a different name). And his first professional gig, with Victor Olaiya's highlife band, was as a specialist on the “clefs”—a Nigerian English translation for the humble but pivotal Afro-Cuban instrument called the claves.5 On Celia, Allen lends singular credibility to the album's excursions into Afrobeat, the style he pioneered alongside Fela Kuti. In a brilliant pairing, Kidjo and Donatien deploy Afrobeat as the means for reimagining their selections from the high salsa period of Cruz's career. These two genres—which took shape roughly contemporaneously on opposite sides of the Atlantic—both thrive on the kind of energy only a finely tuned set of interlocking parts can generate. Their encounter on Celia revels in their similarity-in-difference and drives to the heart of Kidjo's project.
The trajectory followed by “Toro Mata” on its path to the album makes the point. The song is originally a landó, a key genre in the Afro-Peruvian musical and cultural revival of the 1950s through 70s. Like other landós, “Toro Mata” sets its intricate melody atop a groove suspended somewhere between six-four and twelve-eight feels.6 But in a version by Cruz and Johnny Pacheco from their 1974 album Celia & Johnny, the song's phrasing undergoes significant revision in order to conform to salsa's four-four meter and unbreakable clave scansion. Yet if the jump from landó to salsa required a major rhythmic remodel, that's not the case for the transformation Kidjo and Donatien want to effect. Rather, they're able to apply mainstays of Afrobeat orchestration like a rocking and rolling ṣẹ̀kẹ̀rẹ̀, chicken scratch guitars, and an ostinato riffing horn section directly to the preserved form of Cruz and Pacheco's salsa version. Holding it all down is Allen playing a variant of what in recent demonstrations he's called “the first pattern of Afrobeat,” a dialog between kick and snare drums accompanied by his inimitable way of working the hi-hats.
That this all fits so well is partly a result of the history that so interests Kidjo: both the history of diaspora that made, for example, Yorùbá musical techniques available for the making of both salsa and Afrobeat, as well as the history of Latin music's availability as a resource for twentieth-century African musicians.7 But Kidjo also invokes a different order of history here, a more personal one. The simultaneous presences of salsa and Afrobeat recall Kidjo's early encounter with Cruz's music in the same moment of Allen and Kuti's reverberant innovations, an encounter that helped inspire her to a life in music leading eventually to her present collaboration with Allen. And yet the fruit of this collaboration is ultimately something new, something creatively rich and irreducible to history alone.
Celia's standout in these terms is perhaps its roiling version of “Quimbara.” Allen and Donatien on drums lay down a six-eight groove, while Ndegeocello on bass and Julien Duchet on bass saxophone play a figure that secrets an echo of the arching conga-drum melody that characterizes the rumba guaguancó original. Above this, Kidjo weaves among the guitars and horns with her most powerful singing on the album. The thundering low end begs for nothing so much as a sound system that can do it justice and dancers ready to receive its exhortations.
With Celia, Angélique Kidjo has offered a set of sounds and ideas of great value for all of us who are interested in the global range of popular musics. It deserves a wide hearing—and more than a few citations. The season is always ripe for revisiting the artistry of Celia Cruz, but beyond doing just that, Kidjo has crafted an intricate and personal statement on diaspora, memory, and long-distance bonds between women in the making of modern black music.8 The album's sustained attention to a single figure so dear to Kidjo deepens the effect of her distinctive approach to world music. The result is a model quite unusual in the music industry—something beyond the logic of the “tribute,” with its overtones of finance and dependency. Instead, Kidjo tends and venerates Cruz's legacy, insisting that it be remembered well, while at the same time celebrating its vitality in the present. Especially welcome is the album's reminder of Latin music's significance for African audiences and the creative uses to which African musicians have put it. Often, the story of the worldwide pop landscape—what the critic Wesley Morris has recently glossed as “the proliferation of black music across the planet”—is recounted as one driven by music from the United States: from jazz at the beginning of the twentieth century to hip hop and electronic dance musics at its end.9 But in fact other American popular styles from outside the United States—all indebted to Africa—have also charted wide-ranging itineraries. And neither have African musics stood still. Tango, “rumba,” samba, calypso, bossa nova, salsa, Afrobeat, reggae, dancehall, reggaetón: these have all at one time or another been movements of lasting and international consequence. Kidjo is surely right to celebrate Cruz as an exemplar of this history. And on Celia she continues to sing herself into it, too.