In Paris, 1983, an anxious and homesick Angélique Kidjo found Africa in an unlikely source: a band of New Yorkers called Talking Heads.
“I was fleeing the communist dictatorship in my country [Benin], where every kind of music was banned,” Kidjo tells The Adelaide Review. “So, I couldn’t stay there anymore.” The newly liberated 23-year-old was hungry for a world of music that for over a decade had been closed to her. “I was like a music junkie; everything and anything that came my way I’d listen to.”
One evening at a friend’s apartment, someone slid an unlabelled mix cassette into the tape deck. The song was Once in a Lifetime, and to Kidjo, it was African music. “I’m telling you the title now,” she recalls. “Back then I didn’t know anything about it – I just started moving. That song took me back home, and it was a surprise to me – it’s very hard when you’re homesick.
“When it’s a cassette you don’t see the cover, the name, you don’t see the artist that’s playing, you just hear the music. It brings me strength and comfort [from the] anxiety when you leave your country to settle somewhere else.”
The song and its 1980 parent album Remain in Light came at an important juncture in Talking Heads’ career, as the one-time post-punks broke away from their CBGB roots with a groove-based approach inspired by the Afrobeat sounds of Fela Kuti.
“Everything is in there, you can feel Afrobeat in it,” she says of the album. “For me it was beyond, it just speaks to my heart at that time.
“Wherever you are, you find that and you’re never lost,” she says. “[And] the chorus of the song reminds me of something in my country that I sang when I was a kid.
“People think that African music is just jam sessions, that we’re just playing whatever we want to play,” she says of the intricate frameworks of overlapping polyrhythms that so intrigued Byrne and bandmates Tina Weymouth, Christ Frantz and Jerry Harrison. “It’s much more complicated than that, and the drums have a huge part. It drives you to completely lose yourself in the music, a kind of trance. That’s what I felt when I listened to the Talking Heads album; that repetitiveness, the loop, it brings that trance.”
Once in a Lifetime stayed with Kidjo as a musical cue for home and comfort from a particularly turbulent time in her life. As the 2016 US election left her with a sense of despair not unlike that she encountered in Paris, she was driven to craft her own second version of the album. “Today, we are at the brink of collapse, our selfishness, consumption, there’s no logic to it,” she says. “Then comes the election, and the anxiety everywhere reminded me of that myself and my anxiety when I first listened to it. It brought me right back.
“It’s like a Rubik’s cube, it’s like you’re doing these puzzles,” she says of the recording process, which enlisted Nigerian drummer and Fela Kuti collaborator Tony Allen alongside younger artists like Devonté Hynes and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig. “I didn’t force it at all, but the answer was right there before me. For me, it was taking rock’n’roll back to Africa.”
Artists today often risk critique and calls of cultural appropriation when drawing inspiration from other cultures, but for Kidjo Talking Heads did more than their due diligence. “In the first press release [for Remain in Light], it said in order to understand this you must first listen to the music of Fela Kuti, read the books of Michael Trainer and other experts in West African music,” she says. “They did the research and they never tried to copy it, they just wanted something that inspired them, which is that loop. That chant induced rhythm, there’s something there that is real. How do you do that without playing ‘African’ music?”
With her own version of Remain in Light to be showcased in March as part of Kidjo’s second WOMADelaide appearance, she brings the loop full circle. “My career’s always been about building bridges,” she says. “We tend to forget that we are all Africans, we want to feel superior or convince ourselves that we’re better than anyone else, but we’re all one family. That’s what music keeps reminding us, and since I’ve been doing music it’s always been the thing that kept me humble, that kept me going.
“With music I’m never lost, I’m always home.”
Friday, March 8 to Monday, March 11