mu­sic Same As It Ever Was

An­wen Craw­ford on Angélique Kidjo’s ‘Re­main in Light’

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS -

“All I want is to breathe,” sings Angélique Kidjo on “Born Un­der Punches”. A pel­lu­cid, high-pitched gui­tar riff cir­cles closely be­neath her. “Won’t you breathe with me?” Syn­the­sis­ers break through the mix like minia­ture wailing alarms, and back­ing chants weave around Kidjo’s lead vo­cal; an ar­ray of per­cus­sive in­stru­ments, in­clud­ing conga drums, com­petes for as­cen­dancy. Every avail­able space within the song feels crammed with sound – it’s a pres­sure that the mu­si­cians are at once cre­at­ing and with­stand­ing. “Take a look at these hands,” sings Kidjo. “Pass­ing in be­tween us.” Her tone makes it hard to know whether she’s demon­strat­ing force or de­scrib­ing a ges­ture of sup­pli­ca­tion. Maybe she’s telling us that cer­tain mo­ments bring these things to­gether: power and mercy, threat and de­liv­er­ance. “Born Un­der Punches” is the open­ing track to Kidjo’s whole­sale re­make of Re­main in Light, an al­bum orig­i­nally recorded by New York band Talk­ing Heads. Re­leased in Oc­to­ber 1980, a few weeks shy of the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion that swept Ron­ald Rea­gan to vic­tory, Talk­ing Heads’ Re­main in Light was a pol­y­se­mous, polyrhyth­mic mu­si­cal achieve­ment, which, in its sur­real com­plex­ity, re­futed the re­gres­sive fan­tasies of Amer­i­can neo­con­ser­va­tives al­most be­fore the fact. It was the group’s fourth al­bum, and was pro­duced, as their pre­vi­ous two al­bums had been, by Brian Eno, a close col­lab­o­ra­tor of Talk­ing Heads’ front­man and lyri­cist, David Byrne. These mu­si­cians drew heav­ily upon con­tem­po­rary Afrobeat, in par­tic­u­lar the work of Nige­rian band leader Fela Kuti, in or­der to craft their own anx­ious, stut­ter­ing ver­sion of funk, in­flected by their ori­gins in punk. Like the Bri­tish punk groups be­fore them, whose dread fury – partly learnt from reg­gae – had un­can­nily fore­shad­owed the ruth­less­ness of the Thatcher years, Talk­ing Heads sensed the zeit­geist and gave it sound. “Facts just twist the truth around,” sang David Byrne on “Crosseyed and Pain­less”. “Facts are liv­ing turned in­side out.” Vi­brant, dis­turbed, ironic, sin­cere, hys­ter­i­cal, cen­so­ri­ous, part knees-up and part night­mare: that was Re­main in Light, ver­sion one. An al­bum so much con­cerned with the un­re­al­ity of re­al­ity was per­haps bound to res­onate to­day. Kidjo’s ver­sion of Re­main in Light draws upon her for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ence of ide­o­log­i­cal per­ver­si­ties: she was born and raised in Benin when that coun­try was un­der one-party rule. “Born Un­der Punches”, she re­cently told mu­sic web­site Pitch­fork, is, for her, a song about cor­rup­tion (“man, it means noth­ing to you Amer­i­cans”). But she also turns these songs into re­flec­tions upon our post­colo­nial present. Her Re­main in Light is fluid, con­fi­dent, frank and haunted. Kidjo’s ar­range­ments give promi­nence to horns and per­cus­sion, both cen­tral com­po­nents of the Afrobeat sound. Melodies that Talk­ing Heads played on gui­tars and syn­the­sis­ers are now taken over by trum­pets and trom­bones. Most of these songs in­clude vo­cal in­ter­po­la­tions in African lan­guages, set­ting up a call-and-re­sponse that is not only mu­si­cal but also tex­tual. (Kidjo her­self speaks four lan­guages: Fon, Yoruba, French and English.) “Fire can­not hurt a man / Not the gov­ern­ment man,” sang Byrne on Talk­ing Heads’ ver­sion of “Born Un­der Punches”. “And you can­not play with fire if you don’t know how to han­dle fire,” adds Kidjo and her back­ing singers, in Fon. But it’s the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the two ver­sions of Re­main in Light that un­der­line Kidjo’s larger point: the dis­tinc­tion be­tween African mu­sic and Western pop is mostly spu­ri­ous. Afrobeat it­self arose in the ’60s as the re­sult of dis­parate in­flu­ences – jazz, funk, pop, high­life – that were both African and African Amer­i­can. Did James Brown copy his funki­est moves from Fela Kuti, or was it the other way around? In turn, Talk­ing Heads’ Afrobeat was an Amer­i­can post-punk ver­sion of African funk that had it­self been par­tially in­spired by pop­u­lar African-Amer­i­can mu­si­cians. And Talk­ing Heads were hardly alone among their peers in draw­ing upon dis­parate in­flu­ences. For New York mu­si­cians in par­tic­u­lar, the late ’70s and early ’80s were a time of pow­er­ful cross-cur­rents and crossovers: hip-hop and post-punk, down­town and up­town, live in­stru­ments and elec­tron­ics, all com­min­gling. Re­main in Light is a part of the cul­tural mo­ment that led Deb­bie Harry to rap on Blondie’s “Rap­ture” (1981), and Afrika Bam­baataa to ref­er­ence Kraftwerk on his elec­tro-funk trea­tise “Planet Rock” (1982). In 2016, the Li­brary of Congress chose Re­main in Light for in­clu­sion on its na­tional reg­istry of cul­tur­ally sig­nif­i­cant sound record­ings, along­side Judy Gar­land’s orig­i­nal 1939 ver­sion of “Over the Rain­bow” and N.W.A’s land­mark hip-hop al­bum Straight Outta Comp­ton (1988). That’s just the kind of in­con­gruity that Talk­ing Heads de­lighted in. Kidjo, too, has al­ways been a cross-cul­tural in­no­va­tor. Over the course of 15 al­bums she has brought var­i­ous kinds of African mu­sic – from Benin, Kenya and else­where – to the at­ten­tion of lis­ten­ers around the globe, while also in­ter­pret­ing Amer­i­can pop, in­clud­ing songs by Jimi Hen­drix and Aretha Franklin, on her own terms. She has cred­ited her fa­ther, a postal worker who loved James Brown, for en­cour­ag­ing her, from an early age, to keep an open mind. She in­sists upon the in­ter­con­nec­tion of dif­fer­ent mu­si­cal tra­di­tions, re­call­ing to Pitch­fork how she first en­coun­tered Re­main in Light via its cel­e­brated lead sin­gle, “Once in a Life­time”, while she was liv­ing in Paris dur­ing the early 1980s. She im­me­di­ately recog­nised its ori­gins. “I said, ‘This is African!’ They

said, ‘No, you are not so­phis­ti­cated enough in Africa to un­der­stand and do this kind of mu­sic.’ But I was hum­ming, singing along with the cho­rus. It seemed nat­u­ral.” The song was Kidjo’s start­ing point for this re­make project. It’s a daunt­ing cover to un­der­take, given how recog­nis­able the Talk­ing Heads ver­sion is, and how com­plete unto it­self – the re­sult of painstak­ing work, built up from long im­pro­vi­sa­tions and re­fine­ment in the stu­dio. Kidjo dis­penses with the syn­the­siser that runs like ner­vous chat­ter all the way through the orig­i­nal, mak­ing the song at once an­tic­i­pa­tory and ex­hausted. But while Kidjo’s ver­sion feels more cel­e­bra­tory – con­gas som­er­sault­ing, brass shin­ing – it also re­an­i­mates the ex­is­ten­tial ques­tions at the heart of the song. What might it mean, after all, to find your­self one day in the mid­dle of a life that you scarcely recog­nise? “This is not my beau­ti­ful house!” yelped Byrne. “This is not my beau­ti­ful wife!” In Kidjo’s hands, “Once in a Life­time” also be­comes a story of di­as­pora and ex­ile, and of the dra­matic turn­abouts in for­tune that so of­ten ac­com­pany those ex­pe­ri­ences. “Into the blue again,” she sings, “after the money’s gone.” Kidjo’s voice, so much stronger and stead­ier than Byrne’s, brings a grav­i­tas to songs that were pre­vi­ously de­fined by Talk­ing Heads’ self-con­scious ar­ti­fice. Take her ver­sion of “Seen and Not Seen”, the sixth of eight songs on the al­bum. (Kidjo has re­tained the orig­i­nal track se­quenc­ing.) It’s a spo­ken-word song, and on Talk­ing Heads’ al­bum it alighted like a day­dream, al­beit an un­easy one. “He would see faces in movies, on TV,” nar­rated Byrne, as in­stru­ments twin­kle. “He thought that some of these faces might be right for him.” For Talk­ing Heads, “Seen and Not Seen” was an ex­plo­ration of con­sumer alien­ation and the in­sid­i­ous pres­sure to turn one­self into an ap­prox­i­ma­tion of that pow­er­fully en­tic­ing prod­uct: celebrity. Kidjo re­tains that mean­ing, but gives it a new and spe­cific in­flec­tion. With­out al­ter­ing Byrne’s lyrics, her “Seen and Not Seen” also be­comes a de­scrip­tion of the dam­age done to black peo­ple by dom­i­nant ideals of white beauty. “Grad­u­ally his face would change its shape,” she says. “Wider, thin­ner lips … He imag­ined that this was an abil­ity he shared with most other peo­ple.” The fol­low­ing song, “Lis­ten­ing Wind”, was the only one on Talk­ing Heads’ Re­main in Light that ex­plic­itly ad­dressed Africa in its lyrics. “Mo­jique sees his vil­lage from a nearby hill,” sang Byrne. “Mo­jique thinks of days be­fore Amer­i­cans came.” It’s a song about vi­o­lence beget­ting vi­o­lence; colo­nial plun­der stok­ing the de­sire for re­venge among a colonised peo­ple. Mo­jique turns to ter­ror­ism, plant­ing “de­vices in the free trade zone”. Talk­ing Heads’ ar­range­ment is re­verb heavy; gui­tars wail like ghosts. A syn­the­siser rises and falls through Kidjo’s “Lis­ten­ing Wind”, and nu­mer­ous singing voices in­ter­lock. Her song is dense, not just with sounds but with si­mul­ta­ne­ous his­to­ries: the days be­fore Amer­i­cans came are days prior to the slave trade, as well as to their mod­ern in­cur­sions. Mo­jique is an avatar of both his­tor­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary Africa. The conga drums move like foot­steps. Theft shad­ows Kidjo’s al­bum; ex­change an­i­mates it. But was Talk­ing Heads’ Re­main in Light also a theft, a form of lat­ter-day colo­nial­ism? Did they steal this mu­sic from its right­ful play­ers? “Ac­knowl­edge­ment has al­ways been part of the prob­lem of cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion, so if you take some­thing from some­one, just ac­knowl­edge it,” Kidjo told Rolling Stone. “And [the Talk­ing Heads] were open about how Fela [Kuti] in­spired them.” In re­turn­ing Talk­ing Heads’ ver­sion of Afrobeat to Africa, Kidjo shows us that this al­ways was “world mu­sic”: the re­sult of mixed in­flu­ences, com­plex his­to­ries and alert lis­ten­ing. “Di­vide and dis­solve,” she sings on “Houses in Mo­tion”, a song she turns from fret­ful to poised. Keep cross­ing the lines.

Angélique Kidjo. Photo by Danny Clinch

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