Tearing down musical walls

The Baltimore Sun

As a performer, Angelique Kidjo is too free-spirited for the recording studio. She likens it to jail. So during the making of her latest album, the sparkling Djin Djin, the world-fusion artist worked closely with producer Tony Visconti to capture the vibrancy and spontaneity of her stage shows.

"The recording studio, it's too fake for me," says Kidjo, who headlines Lisner Auditorium in Washington tonight. "I come from a live background, you know. You're out there, and you're performing, and you record as you go along. I told [Visconti], 'If you make me like the studio, I'll like you forever.'"

The producer delivered. The West African-informed rhythms that drive Djin Djin (pronounced gin gin) were performed by members of the Gangbe Brass Band, a group from Benin, Kidjo's native country. The tracks were recorded live in the studio as the singer laid down her vocals. Taken by the music, she would often dance around the microphone.

"It was so much fun. When it was over, I wanted to stay," Kidjo says.

For Djin Djin, the artist's eighth album, she collaborated with major pop stars, including Alicia Keys, Branford Marsalis, Peter Gabriel and Josh Groban. Unlike her previous seven albums, Djin Djin, released this month, is poised to receive mainstream attention.

The independent label Razor & Tie and Starbucks Entertainment partnered to co-release the album. A major player in the music retail realm for a few years now, Starbucks will stock and play Djin Djin in its many coffee shops across the country. Under a striking profile shot of the artist on the CD cover, a promotional sticker prominently lists the names of her multiplatinum collaborators.

"The fact that people can get their music where they get their coffee is a good thing," says Kidjo, 46. "People who would never hear this music could hear it right there in the store. It's creative and aggressive, marketing-wise. You have to be that way today."

It also helps that Djin Djin is one of Kidjo's most accessible albums. Several songs are rendered in different languages from Benin, Nigeria and Togo, but the music is infectiously melodic throughout, charged with rainbow rhythms and Kidjo's evocative, crystalline vocals. Although the marquee-name collaborations are an obvious pop marketing ploy, most feel sincere.

The swaying "Salala" is a perfect musical marriage between Gabriel and Kidjo. The Benin artist and British soul-pop sensation Joss Stone turn the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" into an unlikely carnival-like jam. However, the remake of Sade's "Pearls," featuring Carlos Santana and Groban, is overwrought. It's the only forced moment on the album.

On a personal level, though, Kidjo says the collaborations were rewarding.

"I'm just happy with the music and that the artists were so willing to be a part of it," she says.

Although recording Djin Djin was fun, Kidjo still contends that the stage is still the best place to experience the music - with or without her duet partners.

"I'm with a six-member band for this tour, and it's been great but a little exhausting," she says. "But if you're gonna be a musician, you're gonna get tired. Music is everything on stage. When I'm on stage, I'm in heaven."

See Angelique Kidjo at Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St. N.W. in Washington, tonight at 8. Tickets are $25-$40 and are available through Ticketmaster at 410-547-SEAT or ticketmaster.com.


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