You would think the term “world music” would be broad enough to describe almost every performer.
But maybe not Angelique Kidjo.
The Grammy-winning singer from the tiny West African country of Benin doesn’t like labels, and she doesn’t like the competitive nature of things these days.
So when Kidjo talks about music, she talks about growing up hearing traditional songs about African culture and heritage, about hearing her postman father playing the banjo, and about listening to Otis Redding and James Brown on records.
Yes, those are forms of music from different parts of the world, but Kidjo never thought of listening to American music as “world music” because it was from another part of the world.
And she still doesn’t.
“All I know is, I have been surrounded by music since I was a kid and my aunts were singing to me in my mom’s belly. My father said I started singing before I began making phrases,” said Kidjo, 52. “My father’s way of explaining music was just listen, don’t judge. I’ve always wanted to explore music, all music.”
So instead of referring to Kidjo as a performer of world music, it might be more apt to say she’s a performer whose world is music. She’ll bring her world of music to Rockland on Thursday, where she’ll play a concert at the Strand Theatre.
If you are into so-called world music, you’ll find a lot of different parts of the world in Kidjo’s sound, from the West African traditional music of her youth to R&B, reggae, funk, samba, salsa, gospel, jazz and Zairean rhumba.
While performing around the world for some 30 years, Kidjo has also become known for her charitable work and as an advocate for various causes, especially those involving children and women.
She’s been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for more than a decade, has campaigned for the hunger and poverty relief group Oxfam, and has helped raise money for the education of girls and women.
She also founded The Batonga Foundation, which helps girls in Africa get a secondary school education and post-secondary education to help them become leaders of the future.
“I’m always working on my main goal of putting girls in school all over Africa. Women’s rights in Africa is a very, very important issue that is not easy for people to discuss there,” said Kidjo.
“Education was very important to my father. He told me, ‘You don’t go to school, you don’t sing. If you don’t go to school, how can you explain your art?’ “
Being from a French-speaking country, Kidjo speaks and sings in French, English and the African languages of Fon and Yoruba. While in her 20s, she went to Paris to study jazz, working various day jobs to pay tuition. She went from being a back-up singer in Paris bands to becoming one of the city’s best-known live performers.
Kidjo was signed by Island Records in 1991, which helped gain her fans around the world. Since then, she’s been nominated for several Grammy Awards, and her 2007 album “Djin Djin” won the Grammy for Best Contemporary World Music Album. Her latest CD is the live album “Spirit Rising,” released in 2012 on Razor & Tie Records.
Partly because of her combination of musical talent and advocacy for social causes, Kidjo has performed at some interesting events. She performed at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Norway in 1996; at the Peace Ball in Washington, D.C., for President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009; and at a Radio City Music Hall concert in New York for the Nelson Mandela Foundation, also in 2009.
Kidjo defies easy comparisons to other musicians because her music and her advocacy are so intertwined. Which is just as well, given that she thinks people think too competitively about music anyway.
“I really don’t like all the competition in music; people saying they like this person more or this person is better,” said Kidjo. “I think it’s because we live in a society where we praise money more than anything.
“But we shouldn’t. Money dwindles, but music has no end.”
Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: