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Angelique Kidjo delivers urgent, resonant joy to California Plaza

Angelique Kidjo at Grand Performances: "We could transform Africa for real if we could educate our women"

Midway through Angelique Kidjo's joyous, insistent concert as part of the annual Grand Performances series in downtown Los Angeles, the Benin-born singer and bandleader paused to address the thousands surrounding her. 

Speaking into a microphone that she described as her "weapon of mass loving," one that had already delivered typically powerful singing through a handful of songs, she urged the thousands in attendance to educate themselves on the plight of the African woman. 

"We could transform Africa for real if we could educate our women," she said with an unwavering voice as convincing as it was true -- a tone that remained consistent on Friday whether singing, spinning and grooving in rhythm or speaking. 


Angelique Kidjo: In the June 23 Calendar section, a review of Angelique Kidjo's concert referred to the sampled voice of the singer's "late mother." Kidjo's mother, Yvonne, is alive. —


Performing in support of her recent album "Eve" and new autobiography, "Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music," she jumped between singing in French, Swahili, English, Yoruba and her own invented language, offering aural history accrued through her years absorbing the indigenous rhythms of Benin and beyond.

The result was a resonant, practiced show that combined glistening West African guitar pop, Afrobeat and rock with Kidjo's buoyant voice. 

Such has been the case since the Grammy-winning singer emerged from  Paris in the early 1990s, her African roots combining with the city's multiculturalism to create a cosmopolitan blend. Through early hits "Botonga" and "Agolo," nearly a dozen solo albums and globe-trotting collaborations with artists including Manu Dibango, Cassandra Wilson, Gilberto Gil, Alicia Keys and many others, Kidjo has built a substantial, impressive body of work. 

That sturdiness defined her set, a mix of music from throughout her career. Kidjo and her four-piece band at this point understand how to move open-air crowds to dance. When they commanded it, it was so. 

But then, she brought some power with her, in the form of guitarist/secret weapon Dominic James, a heavy-hitter of soukous and high-life guitar best known for co-writing singer Shakira's 2010 World Cup anthem "Waka Waka." In his delicate runs were a mix of styles from across the cluster of the region's countries, including Nigeria, Mali, Senegal and Sierra Leone. 

That Kidjo connected so fully on Friday night is no small feat. California Plaza can be a tough place for dance music. At most venues, the area in front of the stage is a dance floor. At Grand Performances, that space is occupied by a big half-moon shaped moat separating performer and crowd, dead space that can hinder connection.

It wasn't a problem for Kidjo. When she sang, a space as big as the universe seemed to open in her voice box, pushing forth pitch-perfect notes that were less gymnastic bravado than they were stable, marble-dense platforms. 

During "Bana," which features a sample of her late mother singing, you could have constructed a high-rise on Kidjo's sustained note. Behind her a fountain shot four-story bursts of water that occasionally locked with the rhythms.

The artist hit a peak near the end when, after making her way around the pond and into the crowd, she sang as she greeted people until she'd gathered a hefty tribe of dancers, who followed her back to the stage. As the band moved into the mesmerizing "Tumba," from her 2002 record "Black Ivory Soul," a dozen-plus audience members strutted their best moves. 

Gradually, percussionist Magatte Sow, holding a talking drum under his arm and popping it in rhythm, made his way to the center. Squeezing it to create warbled beats while he pounded, the Los Angeles-based Sow traded turns with the dancers, him delivering beats while they responded. 

To the side, Kidjo watched as she drove her feet into the ground, a messenger delivering righteousness on the wings of music while she and the crowd, lost in borderless music that transcended language, chanted "Tumba, tumba, tumba, yo!"

Looking for music tips? Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times


12:45 p.m., June 24: The review of Angelique Kidjo’s concert as part of the Grand Performances series incorrectly referred to the sampled voice of the singer’s “late mother.” According to the singer, through her representative:  “Angelique's mother Yvonne is in fact alive and well in Benin.”