Now I know you can’t get the feel of a concert on videos and I’m no connoisseur of Angelique Kidjo’s YouTube clips, but the few snippets I’ve seen didn’t prepare me for her concert last night at NCPA. The videos that I have seen of Kidjo all show her with a bevy of back-up singers and a large band. She strides up and down, wearing trousers and a jacket on most occasions. Last night, there were no back-up singers. Her band was made up of a bassist, a guitarist, one percussionist and one drummer. And there was Kidjo herself. No trousers or jacket but a cotton skirt and top ensemble. She paced, she danced, she sang, she told stories. She made the enormous stage at Tata Theatre of NCPA seem like a compact little thing that could barely contain this woman’s incredible energy. This particular space seats about 1,000 people (at least) and Kidjo made it feel like an intimate space. By the end of the concert, the stage was packed with audience members who were dancing with her; everyone was on their feet and moving. It was, in short, the most I’ve got for Rs. 400 in years.
In hindsight, the way she was able to push the entire crowd off its seats is even more fascinating. Because in the cold light of the morning after, I can say quite honestly that not all the songs that she sang were brilliant musically but they were fantastic in concert. Many were covers and it is true that Kidjo manages to make a cover feel more like an original because it really doesn’t sound anything like it’s actual original. Like, for example, a song that she sang from the 1953 Bollywood movie “Aan”. I think it was meant to be “Dil mein chhupaake pyar ka” but no one — not Naushad, who was the music director for the film, or Mohammad Rafi, who sang the song — would have recognised it to be in anyway related to a Bollywood song. Kidjo had a sweet little story for this song:
[As a child] I hate Mondays. After a weekend, I just don’t wanna go back to school and I’m like, “Hm, why don’t everyday is the weekend?” And my father is looking at me like, “Have you done your homework?” So, here come the Indian movies and I’m there, oh I’m saved. Every Sunday, I want. Why? Because it gives me so much joy. For me, good always prevail over evil and I’m like, YES! I would go to school on Monday and my Maths teacher when he comes, I’m just gonna think about the Indian movie and I will forgive him.
And that movie “Aan” came and we liked it so much, there was no other movie that we allowed for five years in the same movie theatre. Every Sunday! I took my dad I think ten or twelve times and after a while, he go, “This is the deal. I leave the money on the dining table. You go get it. I don’t want to see your movie anymore.” But the funny part of all this is not even the movie itself. It’s what happens when we’re sitting. The movie is playing, and we talking. “Don’t go there! The bad guy’s there. You stupid?” And on top of that, we invent our own song on top of the soundtrack. So here I come, asking everybody “Do you remember that movie?” And we named the movie, call it “Le Magicien de [couldn’t catch the last word. Maybe ‘l’enfer’].” We didn’t know, we don’t speak Hindi. So we invent the song and everytime I ask somebody, they go [sings her invented version of the “Aan” song which begins with “Le magicien…”]. No, that is what we invent. It’s not that song that I’m talking about. The real one. And they go, “Huh? You still remember that song?” I say, “It’s been bugging me since I was born, djeah.” Since I saw the movie, I’ve listened to that song, I’m obsessed with it.
My husband, he’s French. Never saw any Indian movie. When we start dating, I start telling him, “We gotta go to see Indian movie. And he’s like, “Huh?” He’s like, “What is that?” He come from academic family. He’s got Masters degree in philosophy and I’m telling him, “Let’s go see Indian movie!” He goes, “Alright, but only for you.” And then he get hooked too!”
The concert was filled with little spoken interludes like this one. It’s impossible to get the infectious lilt of her English, speckled with sounds from other languages, in a transcript. Some screamed UNICEF PR campaign but most were charming. Kidjo’s father played Beethoven on a banjo. When she was a kid in Benin, everyone wanted to be James Brown so they’d show up for parties wearing white suits. Kidjo has seven brothers and two sisters. One of her brothers keeps coming to India for work and it fell upon him to discover the “real” song from “Aan” for Kidjo, who went on to record her version of it. Here’s the thing. I like Mohammad Rafi and Naushad’s version better. Similarly, Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” is gold, as far as I’m concerned. Not that this means I minded doing a little stomp at NCPA when Kidjo performed it. I even sang along, but while it was a superb concert performance, it’s not what I would listen to on my own.
That was the most impressive thing about Kidjo: it was a superb performance. Perfectly calibrated to get the crowd to connect with her, laugh with her and finally move with her. The girl from Benin, who has a voice that can single-handedly outsing a choir, who dances with such incredible abandon, who’ll throw out a little lecture on African music and then say, “If you want it, take it. It’s yours. That’s what’s great about African music: it’s not exclusive, it’s inclusive.” Of course there’s a certain amount of artifice in there (the girl from Benin is now more a girl from Brooklyn, for one thing) but nothing felt like an act. Probably because the most important part of the concert, Kidjo’s amazing voice and her love for the music she performs, is genuine. And because she’s bloody good at what she does.
Curiously, thinking back to the concert, the song that has stayed with me is a song that we didn’t dance to, which had no pyrotechnics of voice or percussion: the simple “Malaika”.