In Black Ivory Soul Angelique Kidjo marries Afro-pop, Brazilian folk music and jazzy, percussion-heavy beats. The resulting music is, if not innovative, both beautiful and emotionally affecting.
Kidjo's rich alto washes over the acoustic guitar that leads into "Bahia," the zesty first track, named after a Brazilian town. The song, almost deceptively slow at the outset, transitions into a silky samba. Singing in Yoruba, an African dialect, Kidjo hypnotically chants a poetic message translated "Bahia is so far from the Motherland/ But the spirit is still alive."
Though Kidjo sings primarily in Yoruba and Fon (also an African language), those of us who don't know these languages can still understand and appreciate her music. (There are English translations in the liner notes.) The idea that music is a universal language has certainly become a cliché, but it's nonetheless true.
Kidjo, a native of Benin on Africa's West Coast, has always been influenced by her African heritage, and she continues to draw upon those traditions in her music. For this album, Kidjo has worked with Brazilian musicians, specifically from Bahia, whose skill adds authenticity, highlighting rhythmic patterns endemic to Brazil. Kidjo's artful Afro-Brazilian fusion music is played and sung with verve.
This passion is apparent on the dance-club ready "Tumba," which means "congas" in Benin. Kidjo's voice careens above the robust drumming. She harmonizes with herself; organs kick in and the song takes on a funky edge. The music accelerates with the shifting tempo. Feisty Kidjo, rapid-fire, spits out the word "tumba" again and again until it becomes a fusillade of syllables. The song breathes and soars.
Though Kidjo wrote most of the songs here, she does include two covers: Gilberto Gil's "Refavela" and Serge Gainsbourg's "Ces Petits Riens." "Refavela" is playful and joyous as Kidjo trades verses with herself in Fon, her vocal delivery so confident it almost passes for braggadocio. The lyrics translate as "A lot of words don't change things/ Just stand up and play your part." Men, presumably from her band, chant, almost rapping, a refrain in between verses and tinny drum solos. One gets the feeling that the song recounts romantic conquests or is, at least, an interaction between two lovers. And "Ominira," a peppy number, is catchy ear-candy.
Slower material also resonates with Kidjo's mission to bridge African and Latin American cultures. "Okan Bale," hymn-like and solemn, boasts an elegant string arrangement, with Kidjo's voice in fine form, dominant and lovely. Her words are translated, "I know where I come from/ From you, my family/ Let me take a moment to thank you/ Because you bring me joy and strength."
There are two sour notes on the album. Kidjo's duet with Dave Matthews, "Iwoya," is misguided, and seems just like a ploy for mainstream exposure. Kidjo shouldn't need Matthews to find fans. He's the odd man out here; his verses, the English translations of Yoruba proverbs, are nonsensical. He croons "You don't have to be old to be wise/ The bird doesn't wait till he dies to fly" (presumably a liberal translation). And the title track, the only song Kidjo sings in English, just doesn't measure up to the otherwise exquisite song selection.
In the press notes for Black Ivory Soul Kidjo speaks of the album as part of a trilogy. She promises that her next record will add Cuban jazz with a New York influence to her sound. The first album in the trilogy, 1998's Oremi, focused primarily on Africa. Think of Kidjo as a kind of sonic alchemist. As she broadens her focus, one hopes her music will yield global results, shattering cultural barriers.