- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 16, 2007

If every artist who’s ever collaborated with Angelique Kidjo showed up at a recording studio one afternoon, it might resemble a 21st century remake of “We Are The World.” Standing side-by-side would be African greats like Manu Dibango and Youssou N’Dour, European hit makers such as Peter Gabriel and Joss Stone, plus Carlos Santana, Dave Matthews and other North American stars.

Since releasing her first album in her native Benin at age 20, Miss Kidjo has used music as a platform to promote unity, and if her latest record, “Djin Djin” (released earlier this month), is any indication, she’s had tremendous success — at least in the sonic sense.

Not many artists can pull off a disc that drives from Afropop-style ditties to island-influenced, feisty funk-flavored duets and then on to an a cappella restyling of “Bolero,” with guest artists hopping in and out along the multilingual route.

But Miss Kidjo can.

“What I tried to do with this album is what I’ve been trying to do with all my music,” the 46-year-old performer says. “It’s to show that we are all one. … If we don’t gather together, we are all going to disappear. The only way to express that is through music.”

Even as a youngster, Miss Kidjo knew that songs were more than just notes and chords. “When I was listening to the traditional music of my culture, I was always learning something,” she says. That’s probably because she asked a lot of questions — like why musicians in Africa often coupled dancey beats with weighty lyrics, or why Jimi Hendrix was called an African-American. When her family took a stab at answering the latter query, she recalls, “It was something I could not put together.” The idea of being an African and an American at the same time just didn’t sit right with her, particularly since her parents had long preached “that there is only one kind and we all have to live together.”

Much later in her life, the singer acted on what she calls a “lifelong fascination” with Mr. Hendrix and recorded a cover of his tune “Voodoo Child.” (It appears on her 1998 record, “Oremi.”) She’s also recast tunes by Sade, the Rolling Stones and the Gershwins over the years, and always manages to get a startling amount of new mileage out of the familiar cuts.

“I don’t have any trouble singing a lot of other people’s songs,” the artist says. “They bring a song to me and I’m giving them an answer with my cover of it.” When she’s not touring or recording, Miss Kidjo serves as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador and is also a wife (to French bassist-composer Jean Hebrail) and a mother. Sometimes, she can’t accomplish everything she has on her ambitious slate — for instance, she laments that she’s “too late with James Brown.” The Godfather of Soul was her impetus for learning English; now she’ll never get the chance to prove her linguistic skills to him.

“I thought I had time,” she says, pausing only a second before dropping the name of another artist with whom she hopes to work. She never forgets to honor the past, but her eye is perpetually focused on the future.

Miss Kidjo performs at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium (www.lisner.org) tonight at 8.

Mando Di-wow

Believing in yourself is an important part of making it as a musician, although the fact that Swedish garage rockers Mando Diao list themselves as an influence right alongside the Beatles and Elvis might strike some as a bit overboard.

“We’re our biggest fans,” vocalist-guitarist Bjorn Dixgard says. “We love our music so much.” Lucky for them, their jangly rock songs — which sound a lot like those of their countrymates, the Hives, have attracted a lot of attention from outside the band as well. Their 2002 debut, a collection of demos called “Bring ‘Em In,” skyrocketed to CMJ’s Top 10 in only three weeks and went gold in Japan and several European countries. The 2004 follow-up, “Hurricane Bar,” got them noticed by the American press, and last year they walked away with the Swedish Grammy for best rock act.

Now, they’re testing out their American audiences on a tour that supports their third record, “Ode to Ochrasy,” which draws its odd inhabitants from their touring experiences. The 15-date jaunt kicked off with appearances at SXSW and Coachella in March and April and concludes with a spot on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” on May 25.

Self-satisfaction doesn’t always quell pre-show jitters, however, and Mr. Dixgard admits he’s a bit nervous about the upcoming late-night TV gig. “We’ve done big TV show in Europe before, but that’s nothing compared to Conan,” he says.

Not bad for five guys from the industrial town of Borlange (population about 50,000).

“It’s just such a small town and there are not a lot of things to do if you don’t like sports,” Mr. Dixgard says, adding that “We’re not really good at sports, any of us. We were only into music. It was pretty much the only option to survive in that city.” See what surviving sounds like tonight, when Mando Diao plays the Black Cat (www.blackcatdc.com) with Pop Levi and the Films at 8 p.m.

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