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

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