17 Jul 2018

The Sampler: Remain in Light by Angelique Kidjo

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 17 July 2018

Benin-born singer Angelique Kidjo pays tribute to an African-inspired classic by Talking Heads.

Angelique Kidjo

Angelique Kidjo Photo: supplied

At the time of their great album Remain In Light, Talking Heads’ David Byrne spoke a lot about the influence of African music on the album’s rhythms and textures.

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Photo: Supplied

But what did African musicians make of Talking Heads? It’s been a long time coming, but one answer arrived with the latest release from Benin-born singer Angelique Kidjo.

She’s redone the entire album.

It wasn’t long after Kidjo moved from her native Benin to Paris in the early 80s that she first heard ‘Born Under Punches’, the opening track on the Heads’ classic, and noted something intrinsically African about it. Later, having successfully launched a career with her own blend of African roots and slick European dance music, she would meet and even collaborate with David Byrne.

Yet it would still be decades before it occurred to her to cover the song or even listen to the rest of the album from which it came. Once she did, though, she listened hard. And the things she heard – things western listeners may have given little thought to – struck her deeply.

Coming from a country that had experienced first colonialism, then dictatorship, that phrase ‘born under punches’ gains a fresh clarity. As for the ‘hands of a government man’ or the plea ‘all I want is to breathe’ – lines that seemed abstract in Byrne’s quirky, nervous original - these are now only too literal. 

One of the eeriest tracks, on both the original and Kidjo’s remade version of Remain In Light, ‘The Listening Wind’ tells of Mojique, a quiet villager from a nameless colonised country, whose alienation drives him to action.

Though Kidjo creates her own arrangements for these songs, and these are delicate and beautiful, she has patterned her album exactly after Talking Heads’ one, which means that its second half finds the tempos receding, through the sombre pulse of ‘Listening Wind’ to the almost-floated beat of the final track ‘The Overload’. At this point, in Talking Heads’ version, the African influence seemed to slip away, yet Kidjo overlays African cross-rhythms and even African lyrics on the song to weave a brooding otherworldly atmosphere of her own.

David Byrne & Angelique Kidjo

David Byrne & Angelique Kidjo Photo: supplied

On the way, there are tracks that defy you to keep still, particularly the ones that involve drummer Tony Allen. A veteran of the late Fela Kuti’s group, Allen is a true legend; the man who could be credited, if anyone can, with inventing what’s come to be known as Afrobeat. In his playing there always seem to be several patterns running simultaneously, and yet the effect is as driving and unstoppable as a James Brown jam. He’s at his most rattling and remarkable on ‘Houses In Motion’.

I wonder if David Byrne ever imagined his African borrowings would someday come a full circle like this? Either way, Angelique Kidjo’s Remain In Light is a powerful piece of work, both on its own terms and for the ways it makes one think again about the album that inspired it.