Living under a Communist regime in her homeland of Benin, West African music legend Angélique Kidjo had little to no chance of hearing Talking Heads’ seminal album “Remain in Light” when it was released in 1980.
That wait only made her flip all the harder when she finally came to “Light,” living in exile in Paris three years later.
“It was one of those times where it felt like the music was already inside of you, even though you hadn’t heard it before,” she said of the American band’s Africanized sounds. “It brought me back to my village and made me feel homesick, but at the same time it reminded me that music can do that — it can take you to a place, take you beyond borders and politics.
“That became a basis for my own singing career.”
Modern border issues and politics provide a rather dramatic backdrop as Kidjo, 58, brings the album full circle. She has rerecorded “Remain in Light” track by track and is now taking it to U.S. audiences on tour, accentuating its African influences as only a Grammy-winning, Yale- and Berklee- doctored, UNICEF Goodwill ambassador can.
Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s Orpheum shows were widely held up as two of the best Twin Cities concerts of 2018. Kidjo’s “Remain in Light” performance Tuesday at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis could be a strong contender for 2019.
Coproduced by hip-hop guru Jeff Bhasker (Kanye West, Jay-Z), with the Talking Heads’ full blessing, the rerecording is outright thrilling. From the devilishly funky and fiery remake of the epic opening song “Born Under Punches” to the joyous update of the hit “Once in a Lifetime,” laced with sweet Soweto guitar, jazzy horns and jubilant call-and-response vocals, it’s mind-blowing and breathtaking for its adventurousness and sheer energy.
Talking by phone from her home in New York City, where she has lived since the early ’90s, Kidjo had a similarly steamrolling, infectious effect as an interview subject. She was fresh off a daunting performance of David Bowie’s “Lodger” album with super-composer Philip Glass and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Glass’ third symphonic Bowie project.
“It was such an adventure,” she said. “This one, you could really hear Bowie’s poetry. We don’t acknowledge him as a poet enough.”
Nonetheless, she was eager to return to her other tribute to rock heroes. Here are highlights from the conversation.
On coming of age in Benin: “Artists in Benin at the time were closed off from the rest of the world by the Communist regime, and were told their art had to serve as propaganda. My house was very much about freedom of speech, and freedom in general. When I left Benin in 1983, it was a hard choice, because it was hard for my mom and dad. But my mom and dad were worried about me, because they taught me to speak my mind against injustice. Which, of course, is exactly what I did once I got out and was free to pursue my art.”
On hearing “Remain in Light” for the first time: “When I arrived in Paris, I felt the need to catch up on the 10 years of music I had missed. I became a music junkie. Some other students and I would go to a friend’s house whose fridge was filled up by Mom and Dad every weekend. We would go raid the fridge and listen to music, which at the time was all on cassette.”
“And on comes ‘Once in a Lifetime.’ It hit me like a brick. I stood up and started dancing, and everybody didn’t understand why. Somebody said, ‘Come on, Angélique, this is rock ’n’ roll. This is not African music. You can’t dance like that to this music.’ I said, ‘That’s what you think. I just came from Africa, and these rhythms are from there!’ ”
On meeting David Byrne: “I did my first album in 1991, and then I started touring America. I was playing at S.O.B.’s in New York when the PR girl for the label burst into my dressing room, so excited: ‘Angélique! One of the superstars in America loves your music and is coming to your concert.’ That person was David Byrne.
“I didn’t make the connection between the Talking Heads and David Byrne, though. So he and I started talking, and he brought up Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade. I couldn’t believe that a guy in America is talking about the music I grew up listening to. I looked at him and just thought, ‘This guy is weird.’ ”
On the Talking Heads’ musicianship: “The thing that’s intrinsic in the Talking Heads music is the way those young, white Americans trusted in [African] music. It was a conversation more than it was a jam session. They really found a perfect partner in Brian Eno to nourish their music. And for me, the pillar of that album is the bass player, Tina Weymouth. She ran the show. If you listen, her bass line makes everything stick together, and everything else falls around her parts. She’s unmovable. She sits on it and holds it from beginning to end.”
On the record’s political themes: “The album was born out of the anxiety that these American kids felt under Ronald Reagan. That anxiety is multiplied by hundreds today. People are suffering globally because of greed and corruption from political leaders and giant corporations. ‘Born Under Punches’ to me means we are living with governments that are corrupted, a system that is corrupted to the core. For all of us, that corruption is the punches; it just beats the hell out of us day after day.”
On being an immigrant touring present-day America: “It’s so ugly everywhere. I wonder how we got here. I think social media accelerated it. It’s also part of the injustice that we have allowed with our silence. The wealth of the world is in such a small minority’s hands. So many people are suffering.
“I’m not saying this as a socialist or capitalist. I’ve lived in a poor country. The poverty that we experience in Africa — which has been passed down from slavery and colonization to today — is coming to the rich countries now. They’ve already demonized us [in Africa] and taken everything away from us, so now they’re doing it in the richer countries, too, including America.”