At roughly 43,500 square miles, slightly smaller than Pennsylvania, the West African nation of Benin is one of the smallest on the continent. But in the singer Angélique Kidjo and, more recently, the guitarist Lionel Loueke, Benin-tucked between Togo to the west and Nigeria on the east-has produced two of Africa’s more oversized talents. Kidjo’s presence on the international scene precedes Loueke’s by some two decades, but their paths have crossed often: Kidjo knew of Lionel (pronounced Lee-onel) when he was a boy, long before he touched a guitar for the first time, and they have followed a similar trajectory in their lives, each leaving Benin for Paris, completing their formal education, piling on musical knowledge and experience, and ultimately settling in America.
Both Kidjo, 49, and Loueke, 36, exhibit a deep respect for the traditions of their homeland. But an insatiable thirst for the music of other cultures-American music in particular-has resulted in both artists creating idiosyncratic hybrids that are global in scope yet indisputably African at the same time. Kidjo’s recordings integrate a panoply of elements ranging from R&B to jazz, rock, dance, Latin and numerous indigenous African strains. Her latest, Õÿö (Razor & Tie), includes compositions by Sidney Bechet, Otis Redding, James Brown and Carlos Santana, in addition to a Bollywood tune, Kidjo’s take on the South African standard “Mbube” (better known in America as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) and originals co-written with her French husband and co-producer, Jean Hebrail.
Loueke has also absorbed all that has come his way, and although he tends to lean more firmly in a solid jazz direction-he has spent time in both Terence Blanchard’s and Herbie Hancock’s bands-he too has developed a playing style that proudly displays an undeniable African component. On Mwaliko, his second as a leader for Blue Note, Loueke is accompanied by his regular sidemen, bassist Massimo Biolcati and drummer Ferenc Nemeth, with both Esperanza Spalding and Richard Bona guesting on bass on two tracks each, and Marcus Gilmore sitting in on drums for a track.
Kidjo’s and Loueke’s shared roots and mutual admiration have led them to contribute to each other’s newest recordings as well. Õÿö features Loueke on guitar and as co-arranger, and she returns the favor on Mwaliko, contributing vocals to two tracks, including the traditional Beninese number “Vi Ma Yon.” Their collaborations, said Kidjo as she and Loueke sat together for a roundtable chat in a conference room at Blue Note’s Manhattan offices, “come easy because we speak the same language. I was home, he was home, and it was perfect.”
JazzTimes: Did you know each other in Benin?
Angélique Kidjo: I knew Lionel’s father and big brother, because his father was the principal of the high school where I was going. I was in the same class with his older brother Alexis, and I’d always see Lionel around. You’ve always been a quiet person, as far as I can recall. Me, I was always loud and running around and making sure that nobody took advantage of me as a girl.
Lionel Loueke: I remember you were in a band called Les Sphinx, and I was so into the music and I was going to check it out, even though I was a kid and [your performance] was at midnight. Even back then, you had something special. The first time I heard you was at a recital in the school.
AK: Our band was the best in the school, the best of all the schools. We always won all the time and I liked that! What I’m curious about is when you started playing guitar, because I never saw you with a guitar until I went [back to Benin] on holidays and I saw you play at the French Cultural Center. I remember saying, “You’re now playing guitar? What the hell?”
LL: Yeah, well, I started because of Alexis. When I look back today, it could have been the piano or something else, but the guitar was available. I had no right to touch his instrument, so I was trying to play only when he wasn’t around. Then one day he caught me with the instrument; I thought he would be mad, but he said, “If you want to do this I can help you out.” And I remember he showed me my first chord, a C major. I’ll never forget that-it was around 10 p.m. and I played that same chord till 3 in the morning. I wanted to get the chord right! So that’s how I got to the guitar. A friend of my brother showed me some things too.
JT: Did either of you take music lessons or were you self-taught?
AK: I taught myself how to sing, but my mom was a big help with that because she used to sing. But her passion was mostly theater. She taught me how to dance and sing. She put me onstage when I was 6 years old. My father was always singing too, and he loved to play the banjo. He learned how to play by himself. We’d play all the songs from his youth, from Nat “King” Cole to Henri Salvador and many others I’d never heard of.
LL: I learned by listening mostly to African guitarists like Tabu Ley Rochereau, and, of course, we’re from West Africa, close to Nigeria, so I got a lot of influences from Fela [Kuti], King Sunny Adé and those guys. Then later on I checked out guitar players from Mali because they had a different style from west to east to south.
JT: When you were growing up in Benin, you listened to R&B, jazz, blues and rock. Did you realize then that this was African-rooted music making a full circle by finding its way to you?
LL: Personally I wasn’t aware. When I really started to understand American music and jazz, I didn’t forget where I came from but I just focused on that music. Later on, of course, I understood that all this music was really connected, but for me it was just American music and I didn’t see any relation.
AK: Mine was a different story because of my brother, who had a band. My father bought the instruments for them. They were a cover band, basically: Motown, Stax, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana. When I looked at the album cover of Jimi Hendrix, I asked my brother, “This guy is African, right?” He said, “No, he’s not African, he’s African-American.” I was 9 years old and I turned around and looked at him and said, “Do you think I’m stupid? How can somebody be African and American at the same time? It’s two different continents.” He said, “Yes, but he is a slave descendent.” I asked, “What is a slave and what is a descendent?” He said, “You’re asking too many questions. Go ask your grandma.” So I went to my grandmother and she started telling me the story of slavery, and I looked at her and thought, “Oh, she’s being senile; she’s old and losing her mind.” Because what she was telling me, and the education I had from my mom and dad, said there is only one humankind and we are all linked together. So I shut that down and said, “That never happened.”
Then when I was 15 I discovered apartheid in South Africa. The music of Miriam Makeba had come into my life before that, but I never knew that she was an exile. Then I just blew up in rage. I turned around to my father and mother and said, “You guys have been lying to me when you said there was one humanity. Then we treat people like this. What is it about slavery?” They tried to explain it to me because I was in so much pain and so enraged after realizing that. So I wrote my first song, called “Aza Nan Kpé,” which means “The Day We Come,” but my first words were so hateful, so violent, that my father said, “Not under my roof. We understand your frustration, but music has nothing to do with hate. You can express the same feeling in a positive way. You go back and rewrite that song or you’re never going to sing it again.” So I went back and rewrote it in a way that was an anthem for a better understanding between human beings. It’s on the album called Ayé.
So music was always a part of my life but I never figured out what was happening in America till Curtis Mayfield with “Move On Up” [which Kidjo covers, with Bono and John Legend, on Õÿö]. Suddenly I thought, “We have youth in Africa that are struggling to have a future, and the same thing is happening in America?” Coming from a poor country, I can’t visualize a big country like America, that is such a rich place, having the same problem.
JT: How did you get access to American music? Was it mostly through the radio?
AK: A lot of music like that was played on the radio. And we had parties where we had all that music and we would just listen to it.
LL: And, of course, some people were coming from Europe and bringing it in.
AK: But I knew somehow that it was linked with Africa. I always said to people, “Without Africans, there wouldn’t be rock and roll, blues, jazz, R&B, soul. There won’t be pop music without Africa.” So every time people say, “But it doesn’t sound African,” I say, “Does blues sound African to you?” And if they say, “But blues doesn’t sound African,” that’s where I say, “You’re wrong.” Just because we’re African artists, we don’t have to be pigeonholed and put in a category. I always tell Lionel, “Do your thing. Just be Beninese. Play the music you love to play. When somebody hears you, they have to know it’s you. Because the way you touch that guitar, nobody else plays the guitar the same way.”
LL: It’s the same with you. You have your own voice. Musically, when I hear one note I know it’s you, just like if you hear one note from Miles you know it’s Miles.
AK: I remember when you came to Brooklyn from Berklee [which Loueke attended upon his arrival in the U.S.] and you played the guitar, and it sounded perfect. But I want to hear Benin in there. And I do–that fucking shit you put in your guitar, oh, man! And it’s not only that I take pride in that; it’s also because I know that time is passing and we are going to have to leave a legacy for the next generation coming from Benin. They have to know that to be a musician respected around the world, you have to be yourself.
LL: And besides all of that, what we’re doing goes beyond Benin. It’s the whole continent; it’s all of our influences. Of course we have that tradition, but we use other elements from Africa.
JT: Do you think that there is a danger you might lose some of your African-ness the more time you spend in America?
LL: It’s just like a language. I can’t go home and say to people, “I can’t speak to you anymore.” The language is there. I think it’s always going to be there, and whatever we learn now…
AK: We just add to it. You never forget where you come from. I always say, “I don’t know where I’m going but I know where I come from.” And I know where I can go back to at any time. At any moment, in any circumstance, I know where I come from. When you start questioning it, you lose the emotion. When you let your emotions open to the music, you find yourself in that music and you speak that language at that moment.
JT: Do you find that you get a different kind of response when you perform at home and when you perform elsewhere?
AK: Absolutely! The response is different.
LL: When I play a concert at home, it’s different for so many reasons. First of all, you’re playing for your people, for family and friends. And even then the repertoire is different. I don’t present the same thing I present here. What I present is still me, but my idea as a jazz musician is to take a traditional song that everybody knows and make it different and show them there’s different ways to approach music.
AK: That’s what I like about what you do. A lot of people in Benin want to play guitar, and some of them are very gifted. And there are more and more jazz clubs in Benin now. When I was still there they didn’t exist. But they are just copies of everything else. You are the link between what they are listening to, what they know from other jazz musicians, and what they can do with what we have from our culture.
LL: It’s the same with people here. They listen to us and they say, “Wow, it’s something different!” So it goes both ways.
AK: I never questioned [mixing styles together]. I grew up listening to all kinds of music. The thing that people don’t picture in the Western world is that when people want to play in Benin, they get the drums out, they set them up and they play. We don’t have to have a plan. For me there’s no difference between that and listening to Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Miles Davis-the cradle of it is in Africa, so I never asked myself if I’m doing R&B, soul or blues. I don’t care.
LL: It’s part of life in Africa. We wear masks and play percussion. Of course I have a big jazz education now, but the music I’m playing is music. I don’t want to put a name on it. I play music. When it comes from [Angélique] people can feel it. For me there is no other way. Even if I played rock it would be with my soul. When I was starting out Angélique was already big, but I never dreamed about [success]. The only thing in my head was, “I want to get better. I want to be a good musician.” When I started to work with people like [Angélique] and Herbie [Hancock] and Wayne [Shorter] it was like the cherry on top.
AK: My father always used to say, “You can dream big; that doesn’t cost a penny.” If you don’t dream big, you don’t challenge yourself. Both of our parents knew that the greatest gift they could give us is to educate us.
LL: And humility. I think you’re the perfect example of that. For me, you represent to the whole world the whole continent. We had Miriam Makeba and we have Angélique Kidjo.
AK: You have to be humble. It’s a gift but it comes with responsibility. You go to people with your music to empower them and make them feel special. It’s not about you anymore when you’re onstage.
The rest of this article appears in the May 2010 issue of JazzTimes