Africa-rooted American and Caribbean musics have often echoed back across the Atlantic, where blues, reggae, rumba and other styles have been adopted and adapted. Few African musicians have explored this cross-fertilization so diligently as Angelique Kidjo, who performed Tuesday night at Wolf Trap. The Benin-born New Yorker has covered songs by performers as diverse as James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Sidney Bechet. She’s touring her latest project, a reimagining of Talking Heads’ fourth album, “Remain in Light.”
Released in 1980, six years before Paul Simon found his way to “Graceland,” the polyrhythmic “Light” was heavily influenced by Nigerian Afrobeat innovator Fela Kuti, as well as by American funk and hip-hop. Kidjo recognized the African influence when she first heard the album’s best-known song. “Once in a Lifetime,” in 1983. But she didn’t listen to the entire record until after the 2016 election, when she found the music’s least African aspect — David Byrne’s fractured, alienated lyrics — apt to the moment.
Kidjo opened the 75-minute show with “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” and ultimately played all but one of the album’s eight tracks. The songs were rearranged and featured partially rewritten lyrics, some in West African languages. With Kidjo backed by a five-piece band, such tunes as “Houses in Motion” sounded starker than when recorded by the Heads, whose minimalist early style had expanded significantly by 1980.
Interspersed were more direct and upbeat songs, including a version of “Pata Pata,” a 1967 international hit by South Africa’s Miriam Makeba. If the “Light” material was intriguing, the crowd-pleasers were such familiar Kidjo numbers as “Afirika” and the show-closing “Tumba.” For the former, the exuberant singer worked her way through the audience; for the latter, she invited some 30 people on stage to dance. In either crowd, Kidjo appeared not at all alienated.
First up was Femi Kuti, Fela’s son, and his 11-member band, Positive Force. The Nigerian performer, who has often toured with Kidjo, played just as long a show as the headliner. The set emphasized his new album, “One People One World,” whose songs are stronger on slogans than hooks. So that no one missed the message of such numbers as “Evil People” and “Best to Live on the Good Side,” Kuti often held his backing musicians in check as he talk-sung the lyrics. The sentiments were strong, but the grooves were underdeveloped.