Remain in Light by Angélique Kidjo
Those who know about these things may find it debatable as to where rock ’n’ roll began, but they all agree that the roots of rock ’n’ roll are a combination of African musical tradition with European instrumentation. White musicians have appropriated African rhythms into their music since before the dawn of rock ’n’ roll in the mid-1900s. And a few of those musicians have done so to their own great benefit, namely the Talking Heads in the late 70s / early 80s (and David Byrne beyond), Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel in the 80s and 90s, and all the way up to Vampire Weekend in the late 2000s / early 10s.
Enter Angélique Kidjo, a three-time grammy-winning Beninese (via-Paris and finally New York City) singer / songwriter. After a long and fruitful career of writing her own music (starting in 1981 with her debut Pretty) Kidjo has taken her music in a new direction, latching onto the seminal Talking Heads album Remain in Light and recording a track-for-track remake, pulling what was a rock ’n’ roll album back over to the African roots it always hinted at. If you didn’t recognize the David Byrne lyrics in these songs, you would most definitely be fooled into thinking these songs began with Kidjo in Africa.
According to Pitchfork, Kidjo first heard “Once in a Lifetime,” the big hit from Remain in Light, at a college party after escaping Benin for Paris in 1983. The song lodged itself in her brain, but only 35 years later did she seek out its source (even after having been championed by David Byrne in the 90s). She heard the full album and was moved by its continued political relevance, 30+ years after its debut. So she spun it for herself, and created this masterpiece.
It’s exciting to hear these songs in a brand new way. Remain in Light is one of my favorite all-time albums, and Kidjo’s renditions breathe new life into it. While this was my first exposure to Kidjo, I feel that’s a result of me not paying attention. For instance, here’s Kidjo with Ezra Koenig on stage at Austin City Limits during her 2014 PBS special, performing Vampire Weekend’s “I Think Ur a Contra”. Brilliant. Give this album a listen, whether you’re familiar with the original or not. You will not be disappointed.