The first time African diva Angelique Kidjo performed her song-by-song version of the Talking Heads’ classic “Remain in Light,” she was headlining a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall in May 2017.
She was making her customary rounds through the audience — she sometimes she likes to sing from inside the crowd — when her husband, Jean Hebrail, grabbed her hand mid-song and told her David Byrne was in the house. They went up to the second floor, where the luxury box seats are, to try to find him. As her band vamped downstairs, Kidjo and her husband frantically searched for Byrne, at one point asking a man texting in the corridor for help. “We said, ‘Excuse me, sir? Do you know where David Byrne is?’ ” Kidjo remembers, in a phone call from Paris. He didn’t. Byrne was eventually located. “I walked into the box, his eyes lit up, and I said, ‘Would you like to come sing with me?’ ” Byrne said yes. “I got down those stairs faster than Bugs Bunny,” Kidjo says, and Byrne soon joined her downstairs for a disjointed but game version of “Once in a Lifetime.”
Almost a year to the day later, Kidjo released her own dramatically different, but still strangely faithful, version of “Remain in Light.” The original album was a trailblazing and esoteric art rock/Afrobeat hybrid heavily influenced by Fela Kuti; Kidjo’s version is earthier, powered by African percussion and chanting choirs. “Remain in Light” is in some ways a distinctly American rock album, but Kidjo figured that since rock was originally cobbled together from African musical styles like R&B and the blues, rock is essentially African, too.
Her version is both a reinterpretation and a reclamation project. “I wanted to bring rock-and-roll back to Africa,” she says, even if some Africans might prefer that she didn’t. “Africans say, ‘This is not a music we can move to. This has no beat.’ ”
Kidjo, 58, was born in the West African country of Benin, which came under Marxist rule during her childhood. “Suddenly, freedom of speech was taken away from us. We were not allowed to call our father ‘daddy,’ our mother ‘mommy.’ We had to call everybody ‘comrade,’ ” she says. “You don’t know who is spying on you. You don’t trust your parents, you don’t trust your brother. You don’t trust nobody.”
Kidjo immigrated to Paris in her early 20s and enrolled in school. She hadn’t heard anything but propaganda music for years. “When I arrived in Paris in 1983, I was kind of a junkie of music,” she says. “I felt like the whole world had passed me by, and I had to catch up.”
At a student party one day, lonely and homesick, she heard “Once in a Lifetime,” the disorienting, polyrhythmic semi-funk track at the center of “Remain in Light,” for the first time. It made her feel like she was home. “There’s something in [it] that brings me back to Africa, and was creating a lot of anxiety. I could not understand, because at that time I was not really speaking English the way I’m speaking it today.”
Kidjo eventually signed to Island Records and moved to New York City. When she played her first American show at the downtown club SOB’s in 1991, Byrne was in the audience. The record label had told her only that a famous rock star would be in attendance. She was skeptical. “I was like, ‘Me? I’m a nobody. How come my music came here before me?’ I thought it was a hoax.”
Kidjo knew little of “Remain in Light” beyond “Once in a Lifetime” and knew even less about Byrne, whom she met that night. He was at peak David Byrne-ness, professorial and shaggy-haired and awkward. She liked him. “I tend to let people be who they want to be, even if I don’t understand them at first,” Kidjo says. “Human beings, we are complex. I’ve seen so many genius musicians, the first time you meet them they’re rude or just weird. You start talking music with them, and you put a light in a dark room. Music has that power.”
Kidjo went on to become one of the most lauded African singer-songwriters of all time, a multiple-Grammy-winning powerhouse and UNICEF goodwill ambassador. When she finally got around to listening to “Remain in Light” all the way through, she recognized it as an unlikely kin to her own work, similarly influenced by the music of the African diaspora.
It’s difficult to imagine white musicians today taking on a project so indebted to African music without being accused of cultural appropriation, though Kidjo rejects the idea. “[Byrne] had a different take on it,” she says. “He doesn’t try to copy anything. He goes to where the music [is] without asking questions if it’s right or wrong. That’s the way we should do things.”
Lyrically, “Remain in Light” runs to slippery, often nonsensical stream of consciousness style musings that sometimes descend into paranoia or despair. It’s one of those albums that means nothing and everything at the same time, which is one of the reasons Kidjo likes it. “People keep on telling me, ‘How can you cover an album on which the words are so absurd?’ I was like, ‘Really? Are you listening to the same thing I’m listening to?’ ”
For her, “Remain in Light” conjures up a nameless dread that bridges decades, speaking as much to this moment in history as it does the dawning Reagan era into which it was born.
Perhaps most significantly, it evokes the raw-nerved unease of Kidjo’s childhood. “For me, every single song brought me back to Benin before I left my country, the anxiety that you feel when somebody is in power, and is destroying your ability to choose for your life, to be free,” she says.
Once she started thinking of it that way, making her own version of the album began to feel increasingly natural. “It became obvious to me that every song has to have a response from the traditional music of my country.”
When making her album “Eve” in 2014, Kidjo returned to Africa, where she made field recordings of the chants of local women’s choirs. “It was a trip that was joyful and at the same time very heavy to carry,” but she wanted the world to hear their voices. When she began recording her own “Remain in Light,” that was where she started.
Kidjo enlisted producer Jeff Bhasker (“Run This Town,” “Uptown Funk”) and reached out to all the ex-Talking Heads for their approval. The original recording sessions, helmed by Brian Eno, were famously fraught, marked by internal power struggles that the band barely survived. She didn’t want things to be weird. “All of them gave me their blessing,” she says, “which means the world to me.”
Kidjo’s “Remain in Light” is more optimistic and visceral than its source material, and working on it gave purpose to her previously free-floating sense of dread. In the upside-down world of 2018, doing something, especially something that made the world seem smaller and closer-knit, seemed better than doing nothing.
“I’m always optimistic, because no matter how hard the times are, in pain there’s joy,” she says. “If you live your life only seeing the limited part of it, you’re going to kill yourself, you’re going to get sick. I’m offering a solution: Listen to this as human beings. We are made to live together. If there’s no humanity, there’s no you.”
Angelique Kidjo performs Tuesday at 8 p.m. at Wolf Trap. wolftrap.org.