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Ms. ANGELIQUE KIDJO (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Angelique Kidjo wasnt shy about bursting into song when she came to our New York studio.

Ms. KIDJO: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: Angelique Kidjo is one of Africa's most popular singers, who grew up in Benin. These days she lives in New York, but she's just made an album of the songs she heard when she was a kid. The one she's been singing is actually an American classic from Otis Redding.

(Soundbite of song, "Dreams to Remember")

Mr. OTIS REDDING (Singer): (Singing) I've got dreams, dreams to remember.

MONTAGNE: You heard this song as a very young person.

Ms. KIDJO: Yeah, but I didnt understand anything about the language at all he was speaking.

MONTAGNE: Cause you, of course, speak French.

Ms. KIDJO: Yes. So I would be standing in the middle of the house, screaming I ga dwea, making up my own lyrics.

MONTAGNE: (Singing) Dweam.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KIDJO: (Singing) I ga dwea, dwea, dwea to emembah.

(Soundbite of song, "Dreams to Remember")

Ms. KIDJO: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: Angelique Kidjo first went on stage when she was six. Her mother was helping to run a theater company. And little Angelique hung out so much there, she knew every scene by heart. Which is why when an actress got sick one day, her mother pushed her out on stage to sing a traditional song called "Acha Houn."

Ms. KIDJO: And the spotlight was right in my face. I didnt see the public and I was scared. I was scared like I can't even tell you. All the bones in my body was just like, akakakakaka(ph). Then I start singing, people was like, Hah, what kind of voice is that? Me, I was six years old.

As soon as I finished singing, I didnt wait for the applause. I went to my mom - why did you do this to me?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KIDJO: And then she just said to me, you did very good.

MONTAGNE: Hmm. Wish we had a recording of that, but, of course, we dont. But on this CD we can hear your adult version.

Ms. KIDJO: At that time they didnt record anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Well, it would have been a very wonderful tape. But let's take a listen to "Acha Houn."

(Soundbite of song, "Acha Houn")

Ms. KIDJO: (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. KIDJO: My mom and dad say to me, that I start singing actually before speaking. And I think because of the music I was listening to and hearing around me, make it easy for me to be the singer that I become today.

MONTAGNE: It is interesting how many Western artists show up on this CD that is, in a sense, remembering your own childhood in Benin. And, you know, it's lovely in these songs, is you move in and out of English.

Ms. KIDJO: Because I've always tried to put lyrics on those, because I love those songs so much and I wanted to sing them. The James Brown song where I don't understand nothing about what he said, I would just go, wow!

MONTAGNE: Well, we can't let that go without playing a little of your version of James Brown.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: "Cold Sweat."

Ms. KIDJO: Oh, my God.

(Soundbite of song, "Cold Sweat")

Ms. KIDJO: (Singing) I don't, I don't care... Wow!

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Now, did you get like a cape thing going and everything?

Ms. KIDJO: No. You know what was funny about James Brown is that we cannot have any party without James-wannabes.

MONTAGNE: You must be the only girl James Brown wannabe.

Ms. KIDJO: Thats what I said to my mom. My mom is like, what are you doing. I said, Mom, Im trying to be James Brown.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KIDJO: She looked at me and said, you're trying to be James Brown, come on. Come and do your homework. Come on right now.

(Soundbite of song, "Cold Sweat")

Ms. KIDJO: (Singing) I'm gonna break out in a cold sweat.

(Soundbite of song, "Samba Pa Ti")

Ms. KIDJO: (Singing) Oluwa funmilayo...

MONTAGNE: There is another song on this CD that would take you back to your childhood and that is the song "Samba Pa Ti."

Ms. KIDJO: Oh, yes. "Samba Pa Ti" is written by here, Carlos Santana. It was not - there were no lyrics. It was only guitar. And my father and mother loved that song. My father sometimes would come home, and we'd be playing and my mom would be cooking. And my father will say, Yvonne, can you join me for a couple steps? We, let's dance to this. And you'd hear my mom going, You fool, my food will burn, I can't leave this. And my father would go, Don't worry. If it burns, we do another one. Come on, let's dance a little bit. And we'd be like, Dad, can you leave Mom now? We want to eat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Samba Pa Ti")

Ms. KIDJO: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: Now, this is Santana's song but you wrote the lyrics.

Ms. KIDJO: Yes. I said the Almighty have given me freedom. The Almighty have given me joy. Whoever gives you love, peace and joy, thats the person you should be with.

MONTAGNE: Everyone knows that American music has been influenced by African music.

Ms. KIDJO: Oh, yeah.

MONTAGNE: Many people know the music left Africa and came back...

Ms. KIDJO: Yes, it did.

MONTAGNE: ...loaded with all kinds of tragic and wonderful things.

Ms. KIDJO: It does. You have Negro spirituals. You have gospel. You have blues. Without the blues there's no rock and roll, without the music brought to this country by the slave.

When you see pictures of Jimi Hendrix with a big afro on the cover, you said to yourself, but this guy is African. And my brother said, No, he's African-American. And I was nine years old and I turned around. Im like, you think Im stupid? How can you be African and American at the same time?

So the whole history come to me through history. Music have been my breath, my backbone, everything. Because music gives you that kind of strength that nothing else can do.

Ms. KIDJO: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: That's Angelique Kidjo. You can hear a full concert and more songs from her new album, "Oyo," at NPRMusic.org.

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