The godmother of this year’s Nuits D’Afrique festival performed for free at Place des festivals on Friday night, demonstrating why she is the most famous African singer alive today. With her trademark buzz cut, and a bright red tunic, Benin-born Angélique Kidjo was dynamic, vivacious, and radiant.
“On va faire la fête, n’est-ce pas?” she addressed her joyful audience. Even in the more sombre moments, as in when she dedicated her performance to the victims of the Lac Mégantic tragedy, the performance was a celebration of life.
Kidjo, a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador since 2002 and founder of the Batonga Foundation, an organization that promotes secondary level education for girls, strives to remain positive in her work both as a singer and human rights advocate. As a young woman, she studied law in France with the intent of becoming a human rights lawyer, but realized she could make more of a positive impact through her music.
She weaves this passion for human rights into her music. Introducing “Kelele,” she talked about the importance of equal education for all young people, no matter their gender, economic status or country. Later in her set, she thanked her father, who passed away in 2008, for supporting this right. The seventh of ten children, Kidjo was raised by parents who believed she had just as much right to an education and opportunities as her brothers did.
She took on a more controversial human rights issue when she introduced “Petit Fleur,” alluding to the practice of female genital mutilation. She dedicated the lullaby-like song to all the women in the world, in the hopes that another woman or girl is never harmed for another man’s pleasure.
The huge crowd of seemingly Beninese-Canadians dancing and singing toward the front of the stage erupted in cheers with nearly every song, and laughed knowingly to her jokes and tales of growing up in Cotonou — most notably when she performed a song from a Bollywood movie that played in Cotonou’s only theatre from the time she was five until about college-aged.
It would be impossible to pick a stand-out track from her set. “Malaika,” “Mama Africa,” and “Agolo” all were sung with the passion and power Kidjo is famous for – although Malaika probably received the most exuberant response.
But it was perhaps her dancing that was most memorable. Kidjo danced throughout her set. Toward the end she went into the audience – flanked by security – and sang, weaving her way in and out of the crowds. Back on stage, she invited people – “African and Canadian!”- to join her on stage. About twenty people danced on stage together. Senegalese-Québécois singer Karim Diouf joined her percussionist with his djembe, and, one-by-one, little kids, audience members and Nuits d’Afrique staff who had the (mis?) fortune of being on the sides of the stage at the time were brought to the front of the stage by Kidjo to dance to the drum beats.
If you were at the show, you likely left feeling thankful – for a joyous performance, for the day’s torrential downpour having ended before the show, and for the chance to have seen one of Africa’s living legends.
Angélique Kidjo performed as part of the Festival International des Nuits d’Afrique (July 9-21), for which she served as this year’s godmother. For more information visit the festival website.