People danced in the aisles, rushed the stage and — of course — reached for their cellphone cameras when Angelique Kidjo came to town Sunday evening. It was one of the wildest book-tour appearances Washington has ever seen.
Actually, Kidjo didn’t mention her new memoir, “Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music,” during her Lisner Auditorium date. Instead, the Benin-bred singer focused on “Eve,” the new album that’s one of her best. A stirring state-of-African-women address, “Eve” is also a pan-African musical mosaic that deftly incorporates American styles.
Kidjo, who speaks a half-dozen languages, has lived her adult life in Paris and her current home, New York City. But she sings mostly in the tongues of her father (Fon) and mother (Yoruba). That necessitates long introductions in which the singer explains the messages of her songs, which extol education for girls while condemning arranged marriages, racism and homophobia. But Kidjo delivered her messages so exuberantly that these forewords barely slowed the nearly two-hour show. It helped, naturally, that the talks usually were punctuated by the beginning of another rollicking, polyrhythmic groove.
Like most of Kidjo’s albums, “Eve” features lots of guests and much overdubbing. Dr. John, the Kronos Quartet and Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij all appear. The most significant collaborators are the Beninese women’s choirs recorded in the field by Kidjo and her husband and co-composer, Jean Hebrail. At Lisner, however, the singer and her five-piece band didn’t attempt to replicate “Eve’s” layered style. Aside from a recorded vocal passage by the singer’s mother (whose nickname is Eve), the principal supplements to the group’s sound were audience singalongs.
As she regularly does in concert, Kidjo demonstrated that she doesn’t need all those studio embellishments anyway. Propelled by a band that featured three percussionists, such new songs as “Kulumbu” and “Cauri” were full-bodied and exhilarating. Guitarist Dominic James proved exceptionally versatile, shifting through African styles as well as funk, Latin, jazz and blues, all with as much economy as flair. Not that Kidjo’s lucid, piercing soprano needs much accompaniment, as she proved with one of her mainstays, “Malaika,” a gentle ballad whose trills sometimes begin as growls.
Before closing with the crowd-pleasing “Tombo,” Kidjo invited listeners on stage to dance, and more than 50 accepted the invitation. This is the traditional ending for African pop concerts, and it always works. When it’s Angelique Kidjo who’s swaying with her fans, however, the audience-involving gambit is more than just playful and lively. It’s also an expression of the communal spirit her music celebrates.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.