West African Angelique Kidjo Celebrates Cuban Celia Cruz : Alt.Latino The West African vocalist talks about bringing out the Afrobeat in Celia Cruz's rich Cuban catalog with the tribute album Celia.

How Angélique Kidjo Brings Out The Africa Of Celia Cruz's Catalog

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ANGÉLIQUE KIDJO: (Singing) Todo aquel que piense que la vida es desigual, tiene que saber que no es así, que la vida es una hermosura, hay que vivirla. Todo aquel que piense que está solo ...


From NPR Music, this is ALT.LATINO. I'm Felix Contreras. This week, we're going to feature the music of Celia Cruz, the most well-known singer to come from Cuba and everyone's favorite Cuban tía. But we're going to do it by playing music from an album by West African vocalist Angélique Kidjo. She's recorded an album called "Celia," and on it she embraces some of Celia's most well-known songs. Through an album's worth of brilliant arrangements and musical vision, Angélique Kidjo doesn't just recreate the song, but instead recovers the African roots of Celia's music, as heard from a very distinct West African musical perspective. And the results are so powerful and full of life that I have no doubt that this will be one of my favorite albums of the year. Angélique Kidjo joins us this week from our NPR bureau in New York. Angélique, it is an honor to have you on ALT.LATINO, and thank you for being with us.

KIDJO: Oh, you are welcome. Thanks for having me. I can't wait to hear what you have to say.

CONTRERAS: I - you know, that's funny because I feel the same way.

KIDJO: (Laughter).

CONTRERAS: Can't wait to hear what you have to say. You know, there's lots to talk about, lots of things. I have a ton of questions for you. But I think we're going to start with some music, and we're starting with one of her more famous tracks, "La Vida Es Un Carnaval." Tell us just a little bit of why you chose this song.

KIDJO: I chose this song because not only of the message that it holds, but it makes me feel really want to celebrate life. Everything about that song is uplifting. And today, more than ever, we need those kind of uplifting songs. We have to remind ourselves every day that life pass by so quick. The day we wake up in the morning, we already almost noon, and a lot of things has happened. We have to celebrate every second, every moment and every minute. That's what life is about, and that's what Celia was about. Her joy, her passion, her generosity, her azúcar. - it's all about it.

CONTRERAS: (Laughter) OK, let's hear it in the song. This is "La Vida Es Un Carnaval" from Angélique Kidjo from the new album "Celia."


KIDJO: (Singing) Se van cantando.

CORO: (Singing) Carnaval.

KIDJO: (Singing) Es para reír.

CORO: (Singing) No hay que llorar.

KIDJO: (Singing) Para gozar.

CORO: (Singing) Carnaval.

KIDJO: (Singing) Para disfrutar.

CORO: (Singing) Vivir cantando. Carnaval.

KIDJO: (Singing) La vida es un carnaval.

CORO: (Singing) No hay que llorar.

KIDJO: (Singing) Todos podemos cantar.

CORO: (Singing) Carnaval.

KIDJO: (Singing) Ay, señores.

CORO: (Singing) Hay que vivir cantando. Carnaval.

KIDJO: (Singing) Todo aquel que piense que la vida es cruel, nunca está solo. Dios está con él. Para aquellos que se quejan tanto. Para aquellos que solo critican. Para aquellos que usan las armas. Para aquellos que nos contaminan. Para aquellos que hacen la guerra. Para aquellos que viven pecando. Para aquellos que nos maltratan. Para aquellos que nos contagian. ¡Wa!

CONTRERAS: If that song sounded familiar, it's a Celia Cruz song done with a little bit of a different arrangement, and we're talking to Angélique Kidjo about that today. First of all, let's talk a little bit about how you discovered Celia Cruz because you're from West Africa. Tell us what country you're from and how you heard Celia Cruz for the first time.

KIDJO: Well, I'm from Benin, and the first time I heard Celia Cruz was on album, the album with Johnny Pacheco, the blue album where "Quimbara" was on it. And then it hits me that women can do salsa and can sing salsa, too. So she came to perform in Africa, and I happened to be one of the few that went to see her because I wanted to see with my own eyes that it was a woman. Because till then, for me, salsa has always been a male endeavor. Because in Africa, we love salsa, and every salsa group was only male guy.


KIDJO: So for me, it was like a woman singing salsa - I want to go see for myself. So some of my friends, they dared me. They say, you're stupid.

CONTRERAS: (Laughter).

KIDJO: A woman singing salsa - she's just going to be a backing singer. She's not going to be a real front-runner singer. I say, I don't care. She's on a billboard. I'm going to check it out. So we make a bet. And my friends say if she's a backing singer, you do our homework for six months. And I say, if I win, you do my homework for six months, and you pay me on top of it.

CONTRERAS: (Laughter).

KIDJO: So we get to the show. And of course, she was with Johnny Pacheco. And here comes Celia. I go, azúcar. I'm like, hey, girls, start paying me right now.

CONTRERAS: (Laughter).

KIDJO: My homework, I'm going to lay it on your desk from now on (laughter). And they're like - they're looking at me like their eyes open because they call me smarty pants because I'm always like, women can do everything. They are like, where do you come from? Women can't do everything. You don't - don't you see where we live in, the city we live in? I say, yeah, I don't care. My father said to me that success or failure or anything is not gender - has no gender. So I'm going for Celia.

CONTRERAS: So this is in 1974, when she went to perform with...


CONTRERAS: ...The Fania All-Stars in Zaire...

KIDJO: Yeah.

CONTRERAS: ...Which was a very, very big deal for not just Celia but for the - all of the Fania All-Stars 'cause they were taking - like you said, they were taking salsa, which has African roots - they were taking the Afro Cuban music back to Africa. And the reception when you see them - there is a film made of that concert. And when you see the reception, especially that Celia - it was like Africa was welcoming her.

KIDJO: Oh yeah, we love her so much in Africa. We love salsa so much. I remember when I was in Havana, when I did my trilogy of albums, tracing back the roots of slavery through music. I went to Havana, and I went to a salsa show. I mean, I went there, and I started dancing. People were looking at me like, where are you from? I said, I'm from Africa. They said, what? You dance salsa in Africa? I said, hey, dude, you don't even know what's going on - what is waiting for you in Africa. Go play salsa, then you'll see how they dance in salsa.

So, I mean, Africa has always been something really close to Celia. In her earlier career, she has never shied away from her African roots. That's one thing that I really love about Celia. She sung - and she sung better than anybody - very understandable Yoruba. And even though Yoruba have taken a different tone there - Yemoja has become Yemaya - all those things was very close home to me. It's the culture I grew up in.


KIDJO: (Singing) Quimbara, cumbara, quimba-quimbambá, quimbara, cumbara, quimba-quimbambá, quimbara, cumbara, quimba-quimbambá, quimbara, cumbara, quimba-quimbambá. Eh, mamá, eh-eh, mamá, eh, mamá, eh-eh, mamá. La rumba me está llamando. Bongó, dile que ya voy.

CONTRERAS: I can't tell you how enthusiastic I am about this, how brilliant this arrangement is. OK, so I have a ton of questions. And I want to talk over the song.


CONTRERAS: First of all, who did the arrangements on the record?

KIDJO: Well, I worked with a producer called David Donatien. And we both love salsa. I mean, and we love Cuban music. We love Latin music in general. And the first conversation we had is I told him, I want to bring this back to Africa because my first encounter with Celia's music was in Africa. And her African roots, she never shied away from it, and I want to celebrate that. I want the world to see the African side of Celia that I can show. So we start choosing the song, and I say, there is one song that I want to transform, really, is "Quimbara" because every time I'm singing "Quimbara," on the original version, I always have that feeling of 6/8 in it.

CONTRERAS: So when you say 6/8, for people who are not familiar with it, it's a way of counting when we listen to the song.

KIDJO: Yeah, yeah. It's the pulsing.

CONTRERAS: One, two, three, four, five, six. One, two, three, four, five, six.

KIDJO: Exactly. The pulse was always there, even for - the Celia one was on 4/4. But even in that, I could feel that 6/8 when I'm singing, when I'm dancing it, you know?

CONTRERAS: So this is where it gets really music geeky in a way because...

KIDJO: (Laughter).

CONTRERAS: ..."Quimbara" is a guaguancó.

KIDJO: Yeah.


KIDJO: Yeah.

CONTRERAS: And it's an Afro Cuban guaguancó. It's a traditional folkloric rumba rhythm, which was very groundbreaking at the time for them to have a pop - like, a dance song in guaguancó. Guaguancó comes from an African beat.

KIDJO: Absolutely.

CONTRERAS: And so then it's - what's fascinating to me is how you just elongated that. You took it out to the 6/8, but you kept the famous chorus - it's in 4/4.

KIDJO: Yeah, but it has to be.

CONTRERAS: It's in double time.

KIDJO: Yeah.

CONTRERAS: Oh, my God. It's...

KIDJO: But that's how it works.


KIDJO: I mean, the African rhythm - I say all the time. All the claves of every music, every beat in every music, you find it back in Africa.


KIDJO: (Singing) Quimbara, cumbara, quimba-quimbambá, quimbara, cumbara, quimba-quimbambá, quimbara, cumbara, quimba-quimbambá, quimbara, cumbara, quimba-quimbambá. Eh, quimbara, cumbara, quimba-quimbambá, quimbara, cumbara, quimba-quimbambá, quimbara, cumbara, quimba-quimbambá, quimbara, cumbara, quimba-quimbambá. Eh, quimbara, que quimbara, que quimbara, que quimbara, que quimbara, que quimbara, que quimbambá. Quimbara, cumbara, quimba-quimbambá, quimbara, cumbara, quimba-quimbambá. Ay, lo baila Teresa. Lo baila Juanito. Quimbara, cumbara, quimba-quim bajito. Quimbara, cumbara, quimba-quimbambá, quimbara, cumbara, quimba-quimbambá. Quimbara. Quimbara. Quimbara. Ay, quimbara, cumbara, quimba-quimbambá, quimbara, cumbara, quimba-quimbambá, quimbara, cumbara, quimba-quimbambá, quimbara, cumbara, quimba-quimbambá. Quimbara-quimbara, quimba, quimbara-quimbara, quimba, quimbara-quimbara, quimba, quimbara-quimbara, quimba, quimbara, cumbara, quimba-quimbambá, quimbara, cumbara, quimba-quimbambá. Quimbara-quimbara, quimba, quimbara-quimbara, quimba, quimbara-quimbara, quimba, quimbara-quimbara, quimba, quimbara, cumbara, quimba-quimbambá, quimbara, cumbara, quimba-quimbambá. Ay, cachín, cachán, cachán, cachuna, quimbara, quimbara, quimba-cum, la rumba. Quimbara, cumbara, quimba-quimbambá, quimbara, cumbara, quimba-quimbambá.

CONTRERAS: What really struck me about the record is everybody loves Celia Cruz and loves her with - like, she's somebody's - like your favorite aunt, right?

KIDJO: She is that person.


KIDJO: She is that generous person.

CONTRERAS: ...Mexicans, Cubans...

KIDJO: Absolutely.

CONTRERAS: ...Africans, Americans, African Americans.

KIDJO: Everybody.

CONTRERAS: Everybody loves her. And I would suspect that there are some people - whenever you're going to say, OK, we're going to redo some Celia Cruz music, there are some people who would say, no, don't touch it 'cause it's perfect all - it's perfect the way it is, right? But did you have any concerns about that going into this project?

KIDJO: No, because I never wanted to be Celia. I never wanted to be Celia. I wanted to give back what Celia gave me - the strength for me to be a woman in the music business. She gave me that strength. She gave me the endless possibility that what we women decide to do, we can do.

We're still talking about the #MeToo movement today. We're talking about women's right. We're talking about women empowerment. But we are our own worst enemy because we're always doubting our capacity, our possibilities, our challenges and our skills. Men don't question twice when you give them a position, a high position. They embrace it and take it. We're still in this position where - because we have been raised like that - to be subdued, to be wives, to be the one that cares but never think about ourselves to be at the forefront of any decision, of any managerial position or just lead the world. We always doubting our own power.

And Celia have said to me by going on stage and saying azúcar. The way she dressed, everything about Celia is self-determination and self-affirmation. You can be whoever you want to be, just have to have the courage to embrace yourself. Don't mind what people have to say. You got to be who you want to be because if you have to listen to everybody - my grandmother told me that if you let people talk about you and make you make decisions based upon what they are saying, you let them - defining you, you're never going to have a life. So Celia was me - for me, not just the talk that my grandmother gave me but the exemplification of it, the existence of define yourself. Tell your own story. Stand for who you are. Be proud of who you are, of your roots, and just move into the world. Walk elegantly. Walk with power. Walk with dignity. Walk with azúcar, with joy and panache.

CONTRERAS: I think the perfect song to follow that is a song called "Yemaya"...


CONTRERAS: ...OK? Tell people what Yemaya is.

KIDJO: Yemaya is the goddess of the sea. I come - I'm between Yoruba tradition and Fon tradition. My father is Fon. My mom and my mother's mother - they are from the Yoruba side. And in both, it has different name. In the Fon part, they call it Mami Wata. And the Yoruba call it Yemoja.

Yemoja is the goddess of the sea and the goddess of lovers. She's always looking for the perfect match for the people that they embody and that they claim as being their existence, their representer on Earth. And it's important for people to understand that the Santeria religion or the Candomble or the Orishas religion is nothing bad. It's just to find a lineage and a continuation. The Orishas are like sense of God. And they are represented by people, by being, that are the messengers that embody their values. And Yemoja is very complex, too. She's a woman. She's jealous. And she's giving. But if you do wrong, you don't choose the right person, she can make your life hell.

CONTRERAS: (Laughter) This is Angélique Kidjo doing "Yemaya."


KIDJO: (Singing in non-English language).

CONTRERAS: OK, let's hear Celia Cruz's version...


CONTRERAS: ...Just so folks will have an idea of the difference.



CELIA CRUZ: (Singing) Madre de agua, diosa mía.

CONTRERAS: So this is from probably 1940s, late 1940s...

KIDJO: Yeah.

CONTRERAS: ...With Sonora Matancera.

KIDJO: Yeah.

CONTRERAS: So it's a very different sound.

KIDJO: Yeah.


CRUZ: (Singing) Es para ti estos cantares que te brindamos, oh, madre mía. Yemayá, oh, viva Yemayá - (singing in non-English language).

CONTRERAS: How unusual was this for a popular singer like this to reflect the African heritage in Cuba in the late 1940s when this happened?

KIDJO: Well, you know, one other thing that is really important for us to remember here is that people's culture cannot be taken away from them. If you decide to forget it, a different story. But it's engraved in your DNA. And what happened with slavery is that people that engage in slave trade, in order for them to do what they were doing - they know very well when they started it that it was a crime against humanity. Therefore, they have to dehumanize us to turn us into merchandise that they can live with.

So for her to do that is just to say, I might have been brought here unwillingly. I belong to Africa, and the culture of my ancestor, I cannot be ashamed of, I can't shy away from because they gave me dignity. They hold me - head tall, and I can walk proud as a human being.


CRUZ: (Singing in non-English language).

CONTRERAS: We're talking to Angélique Kidjo here on ALT.LATINO, and we're talking about her album, "Celia," which is a tribute to Celia Cruz. And those profound thoughts reflect a lot of what people got from Celia Cruz, just from her being.

KIDJO: Yes, indeed.

CONTRERAS: OK, so let's play another track. This is a track - "Cucala." What's fascinating is the chorus - (singing) cúcala, cúcala - what you guys did with it is you built all of this percussion and guitar and rhythm underneath based on that phrase, cúcala.

KIDJO: Absolutely.

CONTRERAS: Oh, my gosh, it's so...


CONTRERAS: It's so - there is so much to appreciate in the nitty-gritty, in the nuts and bolts of this and the DNA of this music. It's just - I've been listening nonstop. And I hear something new each time.

KIDJO: I know.


KIDJO: (Singing) Cúcala, cúcala, cuca, cúcala, que ella sale. Cúcala, cúcala, cuca, cúcala, que se hace. Cúcala, cúcala, cuca, cúcala, que ella sabe. Cúcala, cúcala, cuca, cúcala, que ella sale. Está moderna. Es un tormento. Sabe de todo. No pierda tiempo. Cúcala, cúcala, cuca, cúcala, que ella sale. Cúcala, cúcala, cuca, cúcala, que se hace. Cúcala, cúcala, cúcala, que cuca, cúcala, que ella sabe. Cúcala, cúcala, cuca, cúcala, que se hace. Ay, está moderna. Te juro, mi negrito, que ella es un tormento. Tú sabes. Yo te juro. Sabe de todo. Esa negrita no come cuento. Que sale azúcar. Cúcala, cúcala, cúcala. Ella sabe bailar. Cúcala, cúcala, cúcala.

CONTRERAS: Walk us through this. What are we hearing underneath? What kind of beat is this? Where did this rhythm come from?

KIDJO: Afrobeat - come from Fela.

CONTRERAS: What makes it Afrobeat? Like, the bass part, the drum part?

KIDJO: Oh, it's the drums. I mean, the Afrobeat drums is a rhythm that - you can have funk in it. You have - you can just deconstruct it because it's the mixture of a lot of rhythm from Africa, and it works perfectly with funk, too. So the main drum of Afrobeat is the big drum - (imitating rhythm). And then all the rest just fall into it. And the rest is like ornament, but it groove like no one else.



KIDJO: (Singing) Cúcala, sabe bailar. Cúcala, cúcala, cúcala, cúcala, cúcala, cúcala. Cuqui, sabe gozar. Cúcala, cúcala, cúcala. Negrito, ella es un monumento. Cúcala, cúcala, cúcala. Si tú le hablas, ella está asintiendo. Cúcala, cúcala, cúcala. Ella sabe gozar. Cúcala, cúcala, cúcala. Eh, azúcar. Cúcala, cúcala, cúcala. Cúcala, que cúcala, que cúcala para bailar. Cúcala, cúcala, cúcala. Se hace la tonta, y sabe gozar. Cúcala, cúcala, cúcala. Yo te lo juro. Ay, no pierdas tiempo. Cúcala, cúcala, cúcala.

Sabe de todo. Es un monumento. (Imitating music) Azúcar (imitating music).

CONTRERAS: We're getting a free concert here...


CONTRERAS: ...From Angélique Kidjo...

KIDJO: I can't help it.

CONTRERAS: (Laughter) ...On ALT.LATINO. We're not complaining, man.


KIDJO: Can't help it. She - I mean, she's infectious. Celia just put that in you. And if you start your day listening to Celia, you know your day going to be good, man...

CONTRERAS: (Laughter).

KIDJO: ...Because she just yank you out of that bed and that seat and go, come on. Go celebrate life out there. Come on. Go ahead.

CONTRERAS: You have been very, very prolific with your collaborations with people like Dave Matthews, Carlos Santana, Alicia Keys, Branford Marsalis, all kinds of people. You know, what do you do to - when you go to these collaborations, how do you approach the collaboration so that there's always a little bit of Angélique and a little bit of Africa in these collaborations?

KIDJO: Well, the collaboration for me is always in the mindset of allowing people to come together and tell the story and to see and celebrate what we have in common. And it's not about ego or none of that. It's just music has allowed me to understand that if we build a jail cell of fear for ourselves, we have everything to lose. Music is free outlet. It's only 12 notes that have allowed the whole world to have different type of music. But the music is there as a language. It's the core of who we are. Imagine a world without music.

So collaboration for me is opening up, building bridges and opening the door for people to come in and say, hey, I know this. I can do this. I can sing this. I can take this and take it to the next level. It's always about being open to the world, having a conversation about our differences as a blessing, not as a threat and not as something that we should reject.


KIDJO: (Singing) Toro mata y toro mata. Toro mata, rumbambero. Ay, toro mata, toro, torito. Toro mata y toro mata. Toro mata, rumbambero. Ay, toro mata. A color no le permite hacerle el quite a pichinche. Ay, toro mata, toro, torito. A color no le permite hacerle el quite a pichinche. Ay, toro mata, toro, toro. Toro mata y toro mata. Toro mata, rumbambero. Ay, toro mata, toro, torito y toro. Toro mata y toro mata. Toro mata, rumbambero. Ay, toro mata. Toro viejo, se murió. Mañana comemos carne. Ay, toro mata, toro, torito. Toro viejo, se murió. Mañana comemos carne. Ay, toro mata, toro, toro torito. Toro mata y toro mata. Toro mata, rumbambero. Ay, toro mata, toro, tororo, torito. Toro mata y toro mata.

CONTRERAS: How much fun did you have making this record?

KIDJO: I can't even tell you.


KIDJO: You don't even want to know.


KIDJO: I was wild in the studio. My - David was like, OK, can you stop dancing two seconds? We've got to finish the song. I said, I'm already done.

CONTRERAS: (Laughter).

KIDJO: Go listen to it. He'd go, oh, OK, next, then. I said, yeah, next (laughter).

CONTRERAS: And it comes out. You can feel it on the record.

KIDJO: Oh, God, I had so much fun. It was fun to do. And the funny thing and the spooky thing about this was when I was doing all the songs, I had the feeling nonstop that Celia was with me in my booth, right there, breathing on my neck, going, OK, yes, that's good. And then if I was unhappy, she was not happy either (laughter).

CONTRERAS: How do you think she would like this record?

KIDJO: Oh, my God, she would love it. And we - we would be, I mean, onstage, killing it.

CONTRERAS: (Laughter).

KIDJO: We would be tearing apart. I tell you, man. No one would come to that show and go back - go out without being sweating from head to toe.

CONTRERAS: That would be amazing.

KIDJO: Man, Jesus, man.

CONTRERAS: Angélique Kidjo, I've had a really wonderful time talking to you about the album "Celia Cruz" (ph). Thank you so much for coming in to talk to us about this.

KIDJO: Oh, man, thanks for having me. It was a blessing in the (inaudible).


KIDJO: (Singing) Ay, puente a María, pondé Ay puente a María pondé ya. ¿Quién trajo a ese negro aquí? Ay, la pondé, pondé. Pondé, pondé, pondé, pondé. Ay la pondé, pondé, pondé, pondé, pondé, pondé, ondeye, ondeye, ondaye. Ay toro mata, toro mata, toro matai, toro mata, toro matai, toro mata. Ay, la pondé, pondé. Pero ya. Ay, la pondé, pondé. Pero ya, pero ya. Ay, la pondé, pondé, pero ya. Pero ya. Ay la pondé, pondé. Ese negro no es de aquí. Ay, la pondé, pondé. Al otro lado de Manatí. Ay, la pondé, pondé. pondé, pondé, pondé, pondé, pondé. Ay, la pondé, pondé. Ondé, ondé, ondé, ondé, ondé. Ay, la pondé, pondé. Ondé, ondé, ondé, ondé, ondé. Ay, la pondé, pondé. Ay, la pondé, pondé.

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