West African singer Angélique Kidjo speaks eight languages. But when asked if it's true she hates recording in the studio, she doesn't use any of them. She just groans.
"It's not my culture," says Kidjo, who has been performing in front of real people — rather than a recording console — since she was a 6-year-old in Benin.
It may not be her culture, but Kidjo's spirited world-beat, Afro-pop albums have earned her four Grammy nominations and fans from Africa to Paris to Toyko. She makes her third appearance at the Houston International Festival on Sunday.
It's a fitting gig for Kidjo. The 46-year-old singer prefers a global approach, incorporating gospel, jazz and Latin and Caribbean influences into her sound.
"I like music that gives me the ability to try anything I want to try," Kidjo says. Say a peppy multilingual duet of the Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter with Joss Stone? Or an a cappella version of Bolero, with original lyrics in Ewe, a language spoken in Ghana?
"That was all about how music can transcend the matter of language," she says about Lonlon, her take on Maurice Ravel's classical war horse. It's the last track on Kidjo's new album, Djin Djin (pronounced gin gin), due May 1.
Kidjo says Ravel was one of the first classical composers to use the model of African music — particularly the percussive elements and emotional content — in his pieces.
"The first thing that comes to me about that music is love. Love seems so simple yet so complicated. That love demands a lot of work, a lot of commitment to do it right."
Typically, Kidjo says, the hardest part about a new album — aside from recording it — is finding the inspiration. Djin Djin sprang from her travels as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador.
"I've seen a lot of people's suffering, people's strength and people's joy. Even the ones who have nothing are sometimes the happiest."
Djin Djin's theme is the joys and sorrows of life, including birth, individuality, oppression and isolation.
"I didn't even know I was even influenced, but the songs just came to me. Some songs come fully. Beginning to end, you can hear them loud and clear in your head."
Usually, though, Kidjo starts with a thought that eventually puts itself to music.
"I don't write with my ears. I can hear the music in my head. I'll start humming the music and the lyrics." The rhythm, percussion and melody follow.
In those cases, Kidjo says, the music determines which language she'll sing. Djin Djin includes languages of Benin, Nigeria and Togo, as well as English and French.
Kidjo's major albums — Oremi, Black Ivory Soul and Oyaya! — reflected her exploration of popular music in the United States, Brazil and the Caribbean, as well as their African origins.
She skewed that approach to create Djin Djin. A pair of African percussionists became the center of the project. Kidjo then invited others to build on their rhythms.
Six of the album's 13 tracks feature guest musicians — Alicia Keys, Joss Stone, Josh Groban, Peter Gabriel, Ziggy Marley, Carlos Santana and Branford Marsalis all contribute.
"It was important to me that all of these great musicians come with me back to my roots," Kidjo says. The challenge was "not for them to be me or me to be them."
Her friends were up to that challenge, she says.
"There's something in the rhythm that is universal, that calls anyone in. It's infectious, they couldn't resist it," Kidjo says. "Those drums — even dead men can wake up and dance."
Kidjo also enjoyed the company. The studio sessions transformed from something to be endured to something to look forward to.
"I just wanted to stay in there, it was so fun," Kidjo says.
That's the reward of taking creative risks, she says. It's an emotion she likes to share with her audiences.
"What I want people to get out of my concert is the power of joy, because if you are a joyful person, you are a great achiever. Joy is strength; fear is not. Fear brings you back down in a hole."
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