The conversation: Grammy-award winning singer Angélique Kidjo on African resilience, her own made-up language and dining with Vampire Weekend

"Growing up, if I didn’t understand the language, I’d make my own"

You moved from Benin, West Africa, to Paris when you were 23 because of the political situation. How do you look back on those years?

It was a moment of my life that I really hate, because I lived in fear. In Benin, before the Communist regime and the military coup happened, it was a very liberal place. I started listening to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones on the radio. It gave me a sense of belonging to the world. When the Communist regime arrived, the first thing that I noticed that changed was the sound of the radio. Suddenly all we heard was “Stand up for the revolution!”.

Your new album, Eve, is about African womanhood. How much is it a celebration and how much is it about struggle?

There’s a good balance in Africa. The economic crisis has taken a huge toll on the women in the market. They’ll tell you, ‘The price of this has doubled or tripled, how are we going to make any living?’ But they just go about their business and find a way to make ends meet. People have a joyful soul, and a resilient soul, and that’s what they’re all about.

You collaborated with Rostam Batmanglij from Vampire Weekend on one track. How did that happen?          

The first time I met Vampire Weekend I was MCing at a fundraiser for Peter Gabriel’s charity Witness. I was waiting in the wings to introduce them and I didn’t know who the hell they were. As soon as they started playing, I was like ‘Stupid you, you know this song’. I was really interested; it was like rock’n’roll with a touch of African music. Now we have a good relationship, they come over for dinner from time to time.

Do you have a dream collaboration?

I’m open for everything. Once you’re inspired to write a song, the song will bring the right collaboration to it. Music for me is a universal language. All music comes from the same place, the same roots. It is made of the same 12 notes and we all use those notes, it doesn’t matter where we are born.

You speak French, Fon and Yoruba, and I read you also have your own personal language?

I’m number seven out of 10, so I was always listening to all this music, growing up. Sometimes I was like ‘Yeah this is cool’, but if I didn’t understand the language, I’d make up my own lyrics. I started making up my own words – like ‘Batonga’, ‘Wombo Lombo’ – because that’s how the sound came to me.

Your foundation is called the Batonga Foundation and promotes education for girls in Africa. What do you make of Madonna’s schools in Malawi?

If it’s done with respect and in conjunction with the people of Malawi, then I say yes. Because you cannot help Africa without the African people being the centrepiece of it. They know their needs, they know what they want. You have to leave your personal involvement aside. We are not numbers, or statistics, we are people with feelings who deserve respect. If you want to make a profound and long-lasting change in Africa, you have to do it with your guts and not just your money.

You’ve been described as ‘Africa’s premier diva’. Are you?

No! To ‘Africa’s premier diva’, I say, ‘OK, thank you’ but it comes with responsibility. It puts more pressure on me to be better all the time. Everything I say, everything I do, it has to be done properly

Benin-born singer Angélique Kidjo was signed by Island Record’s founder Chris Blackwell in 1991, and has since collaborated with Peter Gabriel, Carlos Santana and Alicia Keys, among others. She now lives in New York City. Spirit Rising by Angelique Kidjo is published by HarperCollins on 30th January 2014 as a hardback and ebook priced £20

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering