There is plenty to celebrate this month for collectors of African music as two of the continent’s biggest international stars have both released exceptional new albums.
The traditional rhythmic ties between Cuba and African is the centrepiece of the new album by Angelique Kidjo the veteran powerhouse from Benin while the legendary Youssou N’Dour from Senegal has released a collection of songs from different eras in an album suitably titled “History.”
Both veterans acknowledge some of the biggest musical influences to their distinguished careers. N’Dour pays tribute to his past, reflects on the present and looks to the future on ten songs on his new album.
“History” contains cover versions of two songs by the iconic Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunje “My Child” and “Takuta”. “Habib Faye” pays homage to the famed bassist and music director of the same name who along with N’Dour pioneered the Senegalese brand of ‘mbalax’ music in the 1980s.
The album also contains fresh arrangements of two classics by N’Dour, “Ay Coona La” originally recorded in 1990 and “Salimata” from 1989. N’Dour has reached out to the talent of a fresh crop of African musicians including Cameroonian Alain Rodrigue Oyono whose saxophone is ever present across the album and Swedish-Congolese singer Mohombi whose sweet vocals can be heard on the pop-rock track “Hello”. Seinabo Sey whose Swedish but with roots in Gambia, sings on a new version of the classic N’Dour song “Birima” which retains the Mbalax chorus with fresh verses in English.
Angelique Kidjo’s new album “Celia” is a tribute to Celia Cruz the “Queen of Salsa” with interpretations of songs by the Cuban singer who died of brain cancer in 2003.
Kidjo says she made the album to honour Celia’s legacy by bringing salsa back to its original home in Africa.
The songs are re-imagined with sounds and rhythms from Cuba, Africa, the Middle East, Brazil, and America. The 10 songs span the five decades of Celia’s career, before she left Cuba in 1960 to her recordings for the Fania Records label in New York in the 1970s. Celia became a star in the US after refusing to return to Cuba after Fidel Castro came to power through a revolution in 1959. She settled in the US and became an American citizen in 1961.
Angelique first saw Celia perform in Benin while still a schoolgirl and later performed with her in France. She has said that it is by seeing Cruz perform that she first believed that salsa could be sang by a woman, a style of music that had traditionally been male-dominated.
The songs are given a breath of fresh air with the Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen, best known for his work alongside Fela Kuti, on drums. Other musicians on the album are the Gangbe Brass Band from Benin, Song of Kemet from the UK and American Meshell Ndegeocello on bass.
The album was produced and arranged in New York and Paris by David Donatien who just like Kidjo is also passionate about salsa.
The album opens with one of the highlights of the collection, a very danceable version of the 1975 song “Cucala” with guitar and percussion and the outstanding vocals of Kidjo.
Another outstanding piece is the upbeat “Toro Mata” an energetic piece of salsa dance with Kidjo’s high-pitched vocals soaring throughout the arrangement.
“Quimbara” one of the best-known songs by Celia Cruz is transformed into a powerful funky groove driven by an Afrobeat-style guitar and the West African kora. Another of Cruz’s hits “Bembe Colora” features the British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchins and the trio of Sons of Kemet. Kidjo singles out “La Vida Es Un Carnaval” which became a late career hit for Celia in 1998. “Everything about that song is uplifting,” says Kidjo.
in an interview on National Public Radio NPR in the U.S. “Celia’s joy, passion, generosity is all over the song.”
Kidjo says she had no concerns about reimagining the music of such an icon as Celia because she never set to be like the Cuban. “I never wanted to be Celia. She gave me the strength to be a woman in the music business and this is a reflection of that inspiration.”
She says she felt a spiritual connection to Celia throughout the recording of the album. “I felt like she was there with me in the booth while I recorded this album breathing down my neck and saying ‘that’s good’,” Kidjo told NPR. “I am sure she would love the record and we would be on stage together killing it!”