Stories » In a new album dedicated to Celia Cruz, Angelique Kidjo reignites Cuban classics with their Afrobeat roots / Financial Times

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In a new album dedicated to Celia Cruz, Angelique Kidjo reignites Cuban classics with their Afrobeat roots / Financial Times

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Exiled from Cuba by Fidel Castro's revolution, the singer Celia Cruz settled in New York, living for a while in Hell's Kitchen. Thirty years later, forced out of Benin by the Marxist-Leninist regime, Angélique Kidjo found herself in New York living on the same block. She was already a fan of the Cuban singer, having seen her on a 1974 tour of Africa in the wake of the Rumble in the Jungle. This fascination persisted. Kidjo has always engaged energetically with the music of the African diaspora and now, following her West African reimagination of Talking Heads' reimagination of West African music on last year's Remain In Light, she pulls much the same trick on the songs of Celia Cruz.

Celia darts chronologically around a career that began in the 1940s as a singer on Radio Garcia-Serra, winning cakes in talent contests; saw her become the lead singer of Sonora Matancera; work after the revolution with Tito Puente, Johnny Pacheco, Dionne Warwick and the Fania All-Stars; be a voice for Cuban exiles and the biggest-selling Latin artist of the 20th century.

Kidjo and her arranger David Donatien both play up the African roots of salsa and uproot them. The opening "Cucala" zips along to high Afropop guitar riffs and an Afrobeat shuffle from Tony Allen, with Kidjo's Beninois compatriots the Gangbé Brass Band providing brass stabs. The late classic "La Vida Es Un Carnaval" has a slinky groove straight out of 1970s Addis Ababa, and a fluttering saxophone solo from the currently inescapable Shabaka Hutchings. Theon Cross's tuba rumbles away at the bottom end alongside Meshell Ndegeocello's bass guitar. "Bailayemaya" clatters with shekere, horns and bells, its rhythms translated back east across the Atlantic. Where "Toromata" is stop-start, "Quimbara" is more of a headlong rush, another Afrobeat reinvention with Kidjo initially restrained, then tumbling out words in echoing rushes as the guitars chime and horns bleat.

Tito Puente's "Sahara" is a more intimate affair, with jazz piano from Xavier Tribolet, Kidjo's voice sultry with vibrato. And the end of the album is quieter. On "Oyadiosa" the bass element is Clément Petit's bowed cello; "Yemaya", reflecting Cruz's childhood fascination with Santería chants, is just Kidjo, calling to responses from a multi-tracked choir of her own voice, against Donatien's juju percussion, invoking the goddess of the sea.

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