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Angélique Kidjo: West African singer performs her most beloved songs plus new music from Philip Glass all with full orchestra

May 18, 2015

"A classical orchestra has such a range that it is able to recreate the energy and the rhythm of African music through means other than traditional instruments. That was a great discovery, which reinforced my belief that music is a universal language, and that genres should not always be taken so seriously!"

That's how Angélique Kidjo—Grammy-award winning, incandescent singer-songwriter from Benin, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, and "Africa's premier diva" (according to Time magazine and NPR)—describes her love of performing with an orchestra. On July 10, she’ll make her US orchestral debut performing with the San Francisco Symphony. The concert features Kidjo singing music from her latest recording, Angélique Kidjo Sings, a collection of her most beloved songs arranged for orchestra. In this one-night-only performance, Kidjo and a full symphony orchestra bring to life the acclaimed singer’s signature mix of original songs alongside selections by Carlos Santana, Gershwin, and Sergio Mendes. Kidjo and the SF Symphony also debut a new Philip Glass work (composer of the famed soundtrack to the movie Koyaanisquatsi), written especially for her: Ifé, Three Yorùbá Songs for Orchestra.

"I was born in a large family who loved music so much in all its forms," she says. "We used to listen to Latin music, soul, and jazz. I started to appreciate classical music when I moved to France for school.”

"One day I heard Ravel’s Bolero and that was a revelation. I recognized African modes in it and the use of a hypnotic 'groove' on which the themes are built. I told my fellow students, 'This is African music!’ But no one believed me. Since then I learned that even Bach was influenced by African music with his use of the sarabande which was a dance that came to Europe from African slaves in America. Not many people know about this!"

After producing 11 albums that span traditional African folk, Brazilian rhythms, childrens songs, and interpretations of American rock, many may think Kidjo has taken a very interesting turn by working with avant-garde composer Glass on Ifé. It doesn't seem so surprising when Kidjo, who has known Glass since 1997 and credits him with being a major supporter of her career when she moved to New York, puts it in perspective.

"Philip Glass is the most generous and kind man, interested in the richness of world cultures. When I discovered his music, I realized it shares a lot with the music from my country Benin. A rhythmic cell is being presented and repeated with slight variations and polyrhythmic effects. His music is hypnotic and creates a kind of trance, like our traditional music. Also it feels like a living organism that is developing over time. A wonderful feeling: You’re witnessing life being created."

Ifé pairs Glass's churning rhythms, delicate melodies, and complex time signatures with Kidjo's vivid lyrical impressions of the 2010 Kingdom of Ifé exhibit at the British Museum.

"The exhibition of Benin bronze from the 12th-15th century Yorùbá kingdom in London was amazing," she says. "Its elegant style was somehow more realistic than commonly found in African art. When an archeologist 'discovered' the kingdom at the beginning of the 20th century, the preconceptions and prejudice were so great that he thought it must have been created by a Greek colony that had settled in Nigeria! The exhibition reminded me of all the great legends of the creation in Yorùbá tradition and gave me the desire to write some poems about them."

Soon the poems, written in Yorùbá, began to suggest the structure of a song cycle. "The first song, 'Olodumare,' tells the story of the creation of the earth by Oduduwa from a bag abandoned by drunken Obatala, the God of artistic inspiration. 'Yemandja' is the story of the goddess of the sea, how she escaped her abusive husband and turned into a river, which in turn created the sea. 'Oshumare,' is about the Rainbow Snake, a giant god who circles the earth and holds it together while biting his own tail."

After Kidjo penned the poems, she recorded them and gave them to Glass, who had studied phonetics. "He was able to translate my recording into phonetics signs and then create beautiful melodies that are so original and powerful."

Even Glass's trademark shifts in time signatures match Yorùbá mythological themes: "The time signature changes in  'Oshumare' convey the feel of the rainbow snake who is turning the earth around on its axis, holding it all together, but not always turning in a regular and steady way: As you know, the world we’re living in is far from perfect!"

If you go:

West African singer Angélique Kidjo makes her US orchestral debut in this San Francisco Symphony concert featuring her most beloved original songs and those by Gershwin and Santana performed with full orchestra as well as the US premiere of Ifé, Three Yorùbá Songs for Orchestra that composer Philip Glass wrote for her.  7:30 p.m. July 10 at Davies Symphony Hall. (415) 864-6000 sfsymphony.org