Razor & Tie
Word has it that when Angelique Kidjo and the crew she recruited for “Djin Djin” knew they’d recorded a good take, they’d break into spontaneous dance in the studio.
This is the likely effect the eclectic disc, produced by Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T. Rex), will have on listeners. Its 13 tracks play as if the Benin-born artist hosted a party rather than a recording session. Studded with performances by such guest artists as Branford Marsalis and Carlos Santana, yet still affording Miss Kidjo her own space, the final product boasts far-out covers, original Afro-pop ditties and African-infused tracks that shift with the winds toward reggae, funk, Western pop, classical and other diverse styles.
Hidden beneath the boisterous tunes are weighty discussions about violence, isolation and similar topics. It’s something of a given because the singer-songwriter frequently wears other hats as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador and an outspoken social critic. However, she coats the commentary with easy-to-swallow upbeat melodies and lyrics in a bevy of tongues (she’s fluent in eight languages) making sure to affect your hips before your brain.
“Djin Djin,” which refers to the bell that signals a new day in Africa, has a heart that beats audibly, thanks to percussionists Crespin Kpitiki and Benoit Avihoue. They’re from Miss Kidjo’s homeland as well, and their often fast-paced rhythmic pulse pumps life into tracks that also employ tenured artists from Brazil, the U.S., Senegal, Guinea-Bissau and other nations.
Like those on the trilogy of albums she released before this effort — “Oremi,” “Black Ivory Soul” and “Oyaya!” — this crop of songs succeeds in showing the commonalities in world music and the pervasiveness of African culture.
On a stellar collaboration with Ziggy Marley titled “Sedjedo,” for example, she links the motherland straight to the Caribbean. On the title track (which Mr. Marsalis graces) Alicia Keys’ guest vocals suggest that Harlem’s streets might not sound so different from those in Miss Kidjo’s hometown of Cotonou. Soul is universal, it seems.
Collaborations often fail in the recording world because guest artists aren’t able to find footing on the host’s chosen turf. Miss Kidjo, however, gracious and creative, manages to find a suitable landing for everyone who appears on her album — a place somewhere between both musicians’ material yet clearly on the African side of the line. Even Joss Stone, whose big belt might have tipped “Djin Djin” off balance, gets woven right into the soulful fabric of one of the funkiest, horn-laden covers of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” ever heard.
The record’s fairly seamless quality also owes to Miss Kidjo’s multipurpose pipes. Her reinterpretation of Sade’s “Pearls” with Josh Groban is dramatic and emotional (perhaps overly so for some listeners), her voice as smoothly edged as … well, a pearl. More traditional Afro-pop tunes, such as “Papa” and “Awan N’La,” on the other hand, have the artist singing the heck out of midrange notes with all the pride and spirit of her idol, Miriam Makeba. She unleashes commanding cries against the lulling instrumentation in “Emma,” then slips into something more classical on her album closer — an a cappella arrangement of Ravel’s “Bolero” titled “Lonlon” and one of the disc’s most inspired offerings.
Despite having been nominated four times, Miss Kidjo has yet to take home a Grammy. If she continues putting out material like this, it’s only a matter of time before she does.