Angélique Kidjo, the songwriter and singer from Benin, was in Kenya being a do-gooder when the concept of her new album, “Eve,” came to her, she said, “like a light bulb blowing up in your head.”
Kidjo, who is a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, was visiting small Kenyan villages, seven hours by car from Nairobi, along with the executive director of UNICEF, Kenya’s minister of health and a CNN crew to draw attention to the widespread malnutrition that can leave children stunted for life.
In the village of Merti, where a pilot program was helping mothers and children, Kidjo was greeted by women harmonizing and dancing to a joyful, traditional welcome song. Soon, Kidjo was singing along. Her husband and songwriting collaborator, Jean Hébrail, caught the moment on an iPhone camera, and the women’s voices became the core of Kidjo’s version of the song, “M’Baamba,” the first song on “Eve.”
In an interview at her Brooklyn apartment, Kidjo, 53, recalled thinking: “This is the album right here. It has to be about these women, how they prevail in hard surroundings and still smile.”
Village traditions, cosmopolitan transformations, female solidarity, African pride and perpetual energy have been constants in Kidjo’s recording career. She’s an expatriate who has never left Africa behind. In a career of making transnational hybrids, she has kept African languages and an African sensibility at the core of her music. Kidjo performs at 8 p.m. Friday in the Great Performer Series in the Performing Arts Center at Rockwell Hall.
She has worked with musicians and producers from Europe, Africa and across the Americas, and the inevitable cultural blends have been a major factor in building Kidjo’s worldwide audience.
“Ninety-five percent of the audience doesn’t understand her lyrics,” Hébrail said. “So we have to find a way to make it interesting sonically and musically for people who don’t understand.”
Yet her words, her sense of melody and the primal cry in her voice always announce her music as African above all.
“When I succeed, and a song comes,” Kidjo said, “there is this sense of relief and of pride, because you succeed without adulterating the truth of it. I don’t want it to be diluted. I just want it to be there the way it is. The modern music can have the life of the traditional music because they have the same bedrock history.”
Along with the “Eve” album, Kidjo has just released her autobiography, “Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music,” which traces the story of the determined woman with the potent voice who emerged from the small town of Ouidah, on the coast of Benin in West Africa, where her family’s ancestral home still stands. From there, she went on to reach an international audience, win a Grammy Award and stand alongside world leaders as a voice of Africa.
Kidjo has not lived in Benin since she slipped out in 1983 and settled in Paris. Yet she still writes most often in the West African languages she grew up speaking, Fon (her father’s heritage) and Yoruba (her mother’s). She also speaks two more of Benin’s local languages, Mina and Goun, along with French, English, the German she studied in school and the Portuguese and Italian she is learning now.
“It’s the song that brings the language,” she said.
Her core band includes guitarists Lionel Loueke, who is from Benin, and Dominic James, who has worked with her since 2002. Various songs on “Eve” feature New Orleans pianist Dr. John, guitarist Rostam Batmanglij from Vampire Weekend and the Kronos Quartet. But they also feature Kidjo’s mother, Yvonne, Beninese percussion played by members of the Gangbe Brass Band, and nine choirs of women Kidjo recorded across Benin. Once she finished the Kenyan song, Kidjo said, she decided: “Now I’ve put East Africa in there. I need to go back to Benin.”
Even as they are mixed into the album’s polished productions, the Beninese women’s tracks still hold the sharp, metallic sounds of local percussion instruments and, now and then, the chatter of background conversation. They are live keepsakes from present-day Africa, the voices of the kinds of women Kidjo wants to reach most. “I just want them raw,” Kidjo said, beaming.