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Angelique Kidjo on reinterpreting Talking Heads: 'I want to bring rock and roll back to Africa'

Angelique Kidjo

Angelique Kidjo Danny Clinch

The most striking difference between the Talking Heads’ 1980 masterpiece, Remain in Light, and Angelique Kidjo’s 2018 remake is the audibility and emphasis of the vocals.

David Byrne’s hiccupping yelps and mutters were always key to the enduring charm of the Heads’ cerebral kitsch, and on Remain in Light his dislocated Everyman seems particularly unnerved, drowning in the delightful sea of producer Brian Eno’s ululating Afrobeat, frizzy, “new wave” indie-rock leftovers and pillow-tossed synth grooves.

A native of the West African country of Benin, Kidjo has covered Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana and collaborated with everyone from Questlove to the Kronos Quartet. Her Remain in Light music is leaner, more muscular and overtly African, with paths cleared in the mix for his voice to be heard. She replaces Byrne’s hapless befuddlement and wry observations with defiance and confident statements of facts on the ground.

Kidjo will bring her rendition of Remain in Light to the Cedar tonight. City Pages caught up with her earlier this month by phone at her place in New York.

City Pages: I’ve read that you heard only one song off Remain in Light and nothing else off the record until many years later.

Angelique Kidjo: The first time I heard it was when I arrived in Paris in 1983. I was a student in this music school just trying to find my space, make friends, and being homesick and all that. My parents had sent me there to be away from the communist regime that had taken over [in Benin]. One day, some of the students decided to hang out and talk music. We went over to a guy’s house and in the middle of dinner, “Once in a Lifetime” came on and I just started moving, you know, started dancing. The rhythm reminded me of home. I didn’t know what it was—this was the period of cassettes and there was no name on it or anything.

I went from that school to a jazz school and I got involved in jazz music and so that song disappeared; it wasn’t what I was listening to at the time. In the 90s I came to play in America for the first time, supporting my album Logozo. I was at [the SoHo club] S.O.B.’s and the person in charge of press and promotion, who was snobbish and never paid much attention or respect to me, burst into my dressing room and said, “One of the biggest stars in America is coming to see your show!”

And it was David Byrne. He had long hair at that time. After the show he started talking to me about Afrobeat and King Sunny Ade, and I was like, ‘Who is this American guy talking about this part of the world where I come from?’ But I didn’t make the connection.

“Years later, I was talking with my management about what I wanted to do next. And my friend Damika said, ‘Do you know the Talking Heads album Remain in Light?” And I said yeah, a little bit. But it’s funny, when “Once in a Lifetime” came on I went crazy. That song had remained dormant in me; for years I’d be humming it without knowing what it is. And then when I heard the rest of the songs I knew I had to do the whole album.

People who said “Why do you like that, it is just rock and roll?” and “The lyrics are absurd,” they did me a favor. Because I want to bring rock and roll back to Africa—rock and roll is African music; every music has been impacted by Africa—and I knew that the lyrics were not absurd. They were singing “Born Under Punches”—we are all born under punches! And the punches are the corruption, which eats everything, so we can’t invest in people.

I could hear these songs in my head and how they [matched up with] the African proverbs in my head. That anxiety that [Talking Heads] felt during the Reagan era; I wanted to turn that into resilience and positivity. Because if you are afraid, you don’t make change. We need to think, how are my neighbors doing? How can I bring something to this—what am I creating?

CP: I think that is especially true in your version of “Listening Wind,” which can be viewed as a chilling portrait of a terrorist, but you inject a lot of empathy, and look at it through the eyes of someone whose neighborhood is being colonized.

AK: Exactly. Absolutely. Our story has been brutal sometimes but yet, are we going to continue that brutality? We have the choice to change.

CP: What are your favorite Remain in Light songs to perform?

AK: Oh, man, all of them. I guess “The Great Curve,” “Crosseyed and Painless.” Ah I love all of them. They all have different twists to them.

CP: Your live version of Remain in Light at Carnegie Hall in 2017 was spectacular and had a lot of special guests. And the record you released last year also had top talent. How do you pull off a performance with a touring group in a smaller venue like the Cedar?

AK: It is really important for me that when I do my music, I can always do it in the sense of just playing my guitar alone or with a big orchestra. I can play it up or trim it down. If I can’t, I’m not doing it.

CP: So how many people do you think you’ll bring? And will you mix in some other Talking Heads songs and some of your own material the way you have in other live shows recently?

AK: Yes, I always mix it. And there is going to be six people onstage, I think, the same people I [toured with] in Europe. When you get people who can make intelligent music who are also great human beings you hold on to them.

CP: Will there be background singers?

AK: Oh no. [laughs] But I’m not going to tell you everything.

Angelique Kidjo
Where: Cedar Cultural Center
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday Feb. 19
Tickets: Sold out; more info here