critic’s pick 120

Though promoted over the past two decades as a world music songstress, Angelique Kidjo has very much evolved into a singer that defies borders. Inspired by the Afro-pop muse of Miriam Makeba, among many others, she absorbed the culture of her native Benin, soaked in modern European pop influences after moving to Paris and now sits as a reigning multi-cultural star in her current homeland of New York.

Not surprisingly, Kidjo makes the rounds on her new Ojo album. She rubs elbows with Bono, John Legend and Dianne Reeves, covers Makeba hits, embraces soul classics by James Brown, Curtis Mayfield and Aretha Franklin and reinvents a sterling Santana instrumental.

That, amazingly, isn’t what sets off sparks on Oyo. Its appeal instead sits in a sense of balance that hasn’t always been exacted from past Kidjo recordings. The intense dance groove quotient has, quite rightly, leveled off. Kidjo has never needed production tricks to enhance her very natural sense of soul and rhythm. So it’s a treat to hear the subtle lushness of the Makeba lullaby Lakutshona Llanga glow with a groove so summery that it sounds like a West African variation of the great Brazilian songs popularized by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Such a style is underscored further on a beautifully lyrical, French sung version of the Sidney Bechet jazz ballad Petite Fleur.

One might raise an eyebrow when the big names roll out. Typically, a hearty guest list commodifies the work of ethnically rich artists like Kidjo. But teamings with Bono and Legend on an update of Mayfield’s Move On Up and jazz-pop diva Reeves on Monfe Ran E (a revision of the 1967 Aretha Franklin hit, Baby, I Love You) are far from mere marquee star mash ups. Move On Up puts the emphasis on sleek, percussive grooves while Monfe Ran E promotes an Afro-pop sheen with hints of Americanized gospel.

The treats simply pour forth from there. Kidjo applies her native Yoruba (one of the four languages she sings in) to the Otis Redding soul standard I’ve Got Dreams to Remember (which results in shades of continental blues and gospel) and the 1970 Santana instrumental Samba Pa Ti (which further benefits from trumpet turns by Roy Hargrove). And then there is the most unlikely transformation – a version of James Brown’s Cold Sweat served with a humid, commanding vocal charge.

But the most telling moments on Oyo are the most reserved. On the album-opening Zelie and the closing Atcha Houn (well, it’s a finale save for a pair of bonus tracks), Kidjo sings with light but still joyous buoyancy against the backdrop of a single guitar. Both tunes reveal a sense of unadorned soul and a voice built to wail around the world. Here, though, that voice sings with the forthright reserve of a friend close at hand.

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