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Angélique Kidjo/Ibrahim Maalouf: Queen of Sheba (Mi’ster Productions)

A review of the seven-movement orchestral suite from the vocalist and trumpeter

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Angélique Kidjo/Ibrahim Maalouf: Queen of Sheba (Mi’ster Productions)
The cover of Queen of Sheba by Angélique Kidjo/Ibrahim Maalouf

Angélique Kidjo’s new album with Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf represents something of a demotion. Earlier this year she starred in an original theatrical production created with her husband, French musician and producer Jean Hébrail, and their daughter, actress Naïma Hébrail Kidjo, that cast the Beninese-born, Brooklyn-based superstar as the orisha Yemandja. While the historically freighted musical explored the trans-Atlantic slave trade from a West African perspective, Yemandja wasn’t particularly successful at harnessing Kidjo’s expansive energy.

Judging by her collaboration with the Paris-based Maalouf, she’s far better suited for royalty. Instead of a goddess, Kidjo inhabits the role of the titular Biblical ruler in Queen of Sheba, turning Maalouf’s seven-movement orchestral suite into an epic experience. Even without consulting a translation, she makes it possible to envision Sheba’s fabled journey to King Solomon’s court in Jerusalem, delivering her Yoruba lyrics with her trademark rhythmic precision and regal presence.

Maalouf’s enthralling orchestrations are as concerned with propulsion as textural depth. The rhythm section blends players associated with both leaders, bass guitarist Zach Ostroff and percussionist Magatte Sow coming from Kidjo’s camp and drummer Stéphane Galland and keyboardist Frank Woeste from Maalouf’s. The musical synthesis builds from the rhythm section up. “Ahan” sets up the dynamic that prevails throughout the odyssey, with Maalouf’s slippery maqam-inflected lines and lithe, pliable tone contrasting strikingly with Kidjo’s bright, brassy sound. Even when supported by a chorus, Kidjo’s voice is in front of the mix. She’s in charge of this voyage, while Maalouf counsels and guides her on the way. It’s a role she was born to play. Yemandja aside, Kidjo’s creative ambition has served her (and us) exceptionally well, whether she was exploring a seminal Talking Heads album or the Celia Cruz songbook. Queen of Sheba ranks among her very best work. 

Learn more Queen of Sheba at Amazon or Apple Music!

Angelique Kidjo, Dianne Reeves and Lizz Wright in Newark, N.J.

Ibrahim Maalouf

Andrew Gilbert

Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelancer who has written about arts and culture since 1989 for numerous publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, East Bay Express, Berkeleyside, and KQED’s California Report. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he experienced a series of mind-blowing epiphanies listening to jazz masters at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in the late 1980s, performances he remembers more vividly than the gigs he saw last month.