Angelique Kidjo – Remain in Light (Kravenworks)
“And you may find yourself in another part of the world … and you may say to yourself, ‘Well, how did I get here?’”
The Talking Heads’ 1980 album Remain in Light marked the time when they dove in deep to their West African influences, particularly that of Fela Kuti. It was far removed from the punk and new wave scenes from which they were spawned. There was only one minor hit single from it: “Once in a Lifetime,” an oddball pop song with spoken verses, its success propelled largely by the then-innovative video. It was that song that Angelique Kidjo heard in Paris, in 1983, after she escaped a censorious dictatorship in her home of Benin. She immediately recognized its West African influence, though people at the party she was attending told her that there was no way that could be true, because African music wasn’t as sophisticated as Talking Heads.
Despite his fans’ ignorance, Talking Heads’ David Byrne was very clear about what was influencing him at the time. He became a major advocate of Fela Kuti in every interview he did. There were questions raised then, as now, as to whether he had a right to borrow from a culture supposedly alien to his own. But Kidjo never saw it that way. As an African who herself has often been told that her music is not “African” enough, Kidjo reveled in the way that Byrne and his band blurred lines and borrowed from her culture without claiming it as their own but instead creating something new. “I’m walking a line / divide and dissolve,” sings Byrne in “Houses in Motion.”
All of which leads up to this reimagining of Remain in Light as a whole, in which Kidjo covers the entire album. She does so by placing percussion and vocals at the forefront, and her commanding vocal delivery is, at the very least, an intriguing contrast to Byrne’s, which sounds meek in comparison. That doesn’t mean Kidjo strips the material down, however: her Remain in Light sounds very much like it was made in 2018, neither a throwback to the time the original was created nor to a period of ’70s African funk to which many Western “purists” insist on clinging. And just to give the cultural appropriation police even more to chew on, she employs the horn section from Brooklyn Afrobeat revivalists Antibalas as well as Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, with Fela Kuti’s drummer Tony Allen—who deserves as much credit as Fela does for pioneering the genre—doing what he does best.
Hearing a modern African woman sing Byrne’s lyrics is also revelatory. “Seen and Not Seen” is about someone who does not see faces like his in the culture around him, who fantasizes about changing the shape of his face in order to fit in. The haunting “Listening Wind” is about an African villager who plants a bomb to drive away the Americans who are colonizing his country. “Born Under Punches” makes perfect sense when talking about any country brutalized by both colonialism and corrupt governments. The line ““Changing my shape, I feel like an accident,” found in “Crosseyed and Painless,” could refer to any traveller or immigrant who must “code-switch” to fit into the dominant culture. Then, of course, there is “Once in a Lifetime,” in which life doesn’t always go as planned, in which the water underground connects us all. A common theme in much of Byrne’s early work is anxiety—this is the man who wrote “Life During Wartime,” after all (from Fear of Music)—and the world has never been more anxious than it is right now, no matter where you live.
What’s also striking about Kidjo’s work in 2018 is how much stock she places in Remain in Light as an album. She could easily have cherry-picked various Talking Heads songs from throughout their discography, but she chose these eight songs that are rooted in a particular period of transformation and discovery on the part of its composers, eight songs that form a cohesive whole. In a week when Drake has released yet another exhaustive and exhausting epic work that was consciously designed to spike his record-setting streaming numbers, Remain in Light is a reminder that concision and cohesion goes a long, long way. Decades, in fact, of illumination.
Stream: “Born Under Punches,” “The Great Curve,” “Listening Wind”