Dance music / Angelique Kidjo Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
The faithful came to worship at the shrine of Kidjo at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday - but the Beninoise dance diva was very nearly upstaged by her Cameroonian spirit dancer. Dressed in gold and purple - and, after the costume break, gold and, er, navy blue - Kidjo was playing her final show in a four-date UK tour, which showcased material from the new album, Fifa (meaning "peace"). She had brought with her a tightly drilled seven-piece backing band which included, on bass, producer and husband Jean Hebrail, the man chiefly responsible for assimilating the singer's dazzling vocal dexterity and catchy Beninois rhythms into a Western dance music sensibility. Also in the line-up, Merlin Nyakam, an intriguingly polished "traditional" dancer who supplied more than a little humour and drama when the proceedings threatened to flag.

Angelique Kidjo is the most successful female singer/ songwriter to emerge from Africa since Miriam Makeba. Her style is polymorphous and eclectic - each new album delineates a new shift in ideas - and she brings together a staggering variety of styles: reggae and rap, jungle and funk, rock and blues, not to mention West African fuji (a precursor to jungle), apala and juju. It's not a gift which has endeared her to all the critics - some of whom find that relentless creativity wearying. Further, they ask, why must she always insist on singing in fon, her native tongue?

But language didn't appear to be much of a barrier for the large, mainly Anglo-Saxon crowd and some knew the lyrics to Kidjo's songs by heart. Tunes like "Ife", taken from the soundtrack of Jim Carrey's dire Ace Ventura 2, and "Akwaba", from the new album, allowed her majestic voice full rein. Others, like the gospel-infused "Welcome" and, half-drowned in percussion, "The Sound of the Drums", were simply tiresome. Luckily, at times like these, Nyakam, like some dreadlocked lord of misrule, brought verve and interest to the stage. Naked except for what looked like a designer tutu, his face painted white with blue eyeshadow and black-coated lips, he fought playfully with Kidjo for the attention of the crowd. Later, accompanying her on "Shango", a fiendishly rhythmic blend of fuji and jungle, he resembled a Haitian obeah-man, twirling like a dervish in a multi-coloured sheet.

Kidjo, no slouch herself, is a supple-jointed bundle of energy, and on fail-safe dancefloor-crammers like "We We" (pronounced way way), "Lon Lon Vadro" ("Come, come my love") and "Agolo", her first big European hit, she willed the faithful out of their seats and into the aisles. Although she indulged in a spot of preachiness, comparing the pressures of modern living to the charming simplicity of village life, she quickly redeemed herself by crooning "Fifa", the title track on the new release. Later, she even coaxed the audience into singing a cappella. A heady reprise of "We We" closed an altogether overwhelming experience.

ROY BARTHOLOMEW

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