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Angelique Kidjo revisits cult Remain in Light album

By Alison Hird

Our guest on this week's edition of World Music Matters is African superstar Angelique Kidjo from Benin. The triple Grammy award winner talks to RFI about reinterpreting the Talking Heads 1980 classic album Remain in Light ... and giving it back its African roots.

The original Remain in Light album was groundbreaking with its blend of west African rhythms like Afrobeat and post-punk electronic looping.

Kidjo first heard the album's stand-out track Once in a Lifetime at a party in 1983 after moving to Paris from her native Benin to study. Having lived under the dictatorship in Benin where there was "no more radio just propaganda music day in day out", she says she became a "music junkie" in Paris.

"Here comes this song and I start dancing. And I've been racially targeted, someone says: 'Come on this is rock'n'roll, you can't dance to it, it's not African'.

"I said 'It is African music' and the guy says 'No, it's not, it's too sophisticated for you African people'. And I'm like 'You have the right to your opinion I have the right to mine'."

The song stayed in her head and in 2016, on the advice of her French-born producer husband, she listened to the whole album for the first time and was struck that "even though you dance to it, there is a sense of anxiety there".

War on drugs fills prisons

Kidjo attributes this to the fact it was released around the time Ronald Reagan became US president in 1981. The conservative Republican expanded the policy of zero-tolerance on drugs introduced under his predecessor Richard Nixon. Ending a public health approach to drug use, and with the focus on crack rather than powder cocaine, poorer African-Americans made up the majority of those sent to prison.

"It brought us to all the problems we're having today," says Kidjo who now lives in the US. "You see that anxiety is still there. Why do we spend so much time destroying one another instead of living together? That's the question [the album poses]."

Kidjo says while David Byrne's lyrics were often labelled "absurd" they spoke to her.

The song Born under Punches with the refrain "Take a look at these hands/The hand speaks/The hand of a government man" evoked tension between governors and people on the street. But, for Kidjo, "it's about corruption".

"We've chosen a system based on exploiting others. The power of money doesn't like truth, doesn't like light. Everything is done undercover."

Angelique Kidjo's "Remain in light" album cover ©Kerry James Marshall/Universal/Kravenworks Records

The album cover and video showing her seemingly flogging light-bulbs conjures up pictures of African migrants looking for a brighter future.

"I'm selling light on the black market," she explains, "I'm selling hope and I'm trying to tell people through that video and album cover that even in the darkest hours we have to reach out for the light."

African resilience

David Byrne gave his blessing to Kidjo's reinterpretation of the album once he heard the first recording. They performed Once in a Lifetime together at Carnegie Hall in May 2017.

The song muses about how in this consumer society we try and get the house, family and beautiful wife and then wonder "Well, how did I get here?". Rhythmically, it's the Talking Head album's most upbeat. But by replacing the guitars with a strong Afrobeat brass section and injecting a Beninese rhythm known as palongo, Kidjo takes the party atmosphere a step further.

The fatalistic "letting the days go by" refrain becomes more of a plea not to do so.

"What I wanted to do with the album is bring to the [reading] of it the resilience and the joy we have in Africa," Kidjo explains. "We don't live in Africa, we survive. And we've been in survival mode since the era of slavery. Our curse is our weatlh, but those resources don't help us get better, it makes our situation worse because only the one side, the rich countries, are taking the resources out of us, with the help of our leaders of course."

Wake-up call

On the song's video, an office of bored-looking workers are given a wake-up call when Kidjo in full African garb pops up on a screen, singing, and incites them to dance.

"For me either you sit down and complain and you bitch and you're bitter or you find a way to force people to act," she comments. "And if I'm able to come to an office in the Western world where people are living miserable lives, doing jobs they don't want to do with music and make them realise 'Well this job is just a job, you still have a life to live' ... if I'm able to convey that message I think we're gonna be all right."

Remain in Light is Kidjo's 13th album. She also works relentlessly to improve access to education for girls in Africa via her foundation Batonga.

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