Earlier this year, Angelique Kidjo released her first live album – Spirit Rising – after a long carrier of studio albums and concerts in the most respected music temples on the planet. Kidjo is certainly one of the most important living African singers. In October 2011, Forbes listed her as the first woman in their 40 Most Powerful Celebrities In Africa. This reflect not only her artistic achievements, but also her social drive which saw Angelique take the foreground on many civil society battles, especially in defence of women’s rights.
Spirit Rising was recorded live in Boston, and could easily be sold as a ‘best of’ album. These 16 tracks offer Kidjo’s oldest signature songs and some surprises; all interpreted with a swift flow of guest stars. The band operates as a balanced wall of Afro-pop, lacking however the easy flow of African style percussion. There are good moments, yet these are short outbreaks swiftly dispatched. Kidjo’s vocal ability takes centre stage, and at times saves a song that would need serious redress. The many guest stars – Josh Groban, Dianne Reeves, Branford Marsalis, Richard Bona and Ezra Koenig – add some, but also seem to get in the way of the general performance. Basically, their presence is artificial and – with the exception of Branford Marsalis – they overdo it.
Tumba, the opening track, is a difficult one to perform live. The studio version is certainly better. Yet, here it is played well. Afrika and Agolo are signature songs from Kidjo’s old repertoire, and they appear here in sleekly dashing form. Much less convincing is Redemption Song, whenever our artist moves away from African to play with other styles she loses in quality.
A bad surprise comes with Malaika. This Swahili song comes from Mombasa, even though it was written by Fadhili William Mdawida, a Taita musician from inland Kenya. Kidjio simply does not get into the feeling of the song, taking freedom with the way of singing it and simply spoiling the mood. Malaika is the sad story of an impossible love. In Kidjo’s performance it becomes something between a hard rock and soft something else. Anyone who loves Kenya’s coastal music will not see in this performance a true rendition of Malaika.
All in all, this is an album to enjoy the best tunes by Angelique Kidjio, who remains a true star of African music.
Angelique Kidjio, Spirit Rising, Wrasse Records, 2012.