Angélique Kidjo On Recording the Songs of Celia Cruz: 'The World Cannot Forget Her'

Laurent Seroussi
Angelique Kidjo

Kidjo’s album 'Celia' celebrates the African heritage of Cruz.

“As an African girl, when I first heard Celia Cruz sing 'Quimbara,' it just struck a chord,” Angélique Kidjo tells Billboard of the salsa classic that Cruz recorded with Johnny Pacheco for the 1974 album Celia & Johnny. “Everybody knows that salsa is a very male-dominated business,” Kidjo adds. “And in that business with a very male mentality, a female artist is hard to find. So here comes Celia, and she just settled it. She said, 'Well, if you guys can do it so can I.' And that song 'Quimbara' is a very strong statement of what you can do as a woman -- you can take it to another level.  From the first time I heard it, I heard Africa in it. I just felt it in my gut.”

Kidjo included “Qimbara” on her recently released album, Celia, whose 10 reinterpreted tracks amplify the Afro-Cuban roots of the singer who came to be a Latin cultural icon, recognized the world over as the queen of salsa. 

“Africa is there all the way in Celia’s music,” says Kidjo, the multiple Grammy winner known for forging new definitions of Afro-pop and her uninhibited embrace of musical styles. For her previous album, she covered Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, and she performed as a soloist in Philip Glass’ recently premiered symphony “Lodger,” which incorporates lyrics from that David Bowie album. The social messages of Kidjo’s music syncs with her work as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, and her own foundation, Batonga, promotes the education and empowerment of adolescent girls in Africa.

Kidjo had no fears about reworking the hits of Cruz, which include some of the best-known songs in the history of Latin music. Along with her producer and arranger David Donatien, and collaborators who include Tony Allen and Meshell Ndegeocello, she doesn’t tread on hallowed ground -- she dances on it, together with the spirit of Cruz, who died in 2003. The album includes “Cucala” and “La Vida Es un Carnaval,” but also “Elegua” and “Yemeja,” calls to the Afro-Cuban saints that Cruz recorded for an album of ceremonial Santería music in the 1950s. 

Omer Pardillo-Cid, the executor of the Celia Cruz Estate and director of the Celia Cruz Legacy Project, lauds Kidjo’s album, saying it could introduce new listeners to Cruz’s songs. “This album gives a wide audience the chance to remember Celia’s music,” he tells Billboard, adding, “I’m sure that Celia has really enjoyed it.” The notched No. 6 on Billboard's Latin Album sales chart, and rose to no. 8 on the World Albums chart (on the charts dated May 4).

Kidjo, who will perform the songs from Celia on June 8 at the Hollywood Bowl as part of an international tour, spoke to Billboard about the project. In September, she’s set to open for Vampire Weekend at Madison Square Garden. 

The voice of Celia Cruz is so intrinsic to these well-known salsa songs that re-imagining them and re-recording them was a courageous undertaking. How did you go about it?

With the producer, David Donatien, we both were adamant that it had to show the African side of Celia Cruz. Our way to pay her tribute is to make her travel to Africa, throughout Africa, musically. You have Ethiopia in there, you have Mali in there…all those sounds and all of those musicians that I put together is to say we love salsa and we celebrate salsa today in Africa because of somebody like her. 

In addition to some of her best-known hits with the Fania All-Stars, you included your versions of two much lesser-known tracks from the 1950s that first appeared on the album Santero. They are calls to the Afro-Cuban saints -- the orishas -- Elegua and Yemaya.

It’s our shared history, because I come from the country where the orishas are originally, in Benin. For me, it is the fire of memory when she starts singing those calls to the orishas. It was important for me for somebody to take a stand like that, after all the darkness that people put on those type of religions. 

Throughout the record, your versions of Celia’s songs highlight her identity as an Afro-Cuban woman.

She never shied away from who she was and that is one of the things I admire about her. The thing is, people call you all kinds of names, when you have to suffer from racism, if you are not going to have a bitter life, you have to find a sense of humor in that. Her answer to all of that was “azucar.” Azucar, which means sugar – azucar was the word that she used to invite people to celebrate life. 

You shout “azucar” on your album. Was that daunting for you, to repeat that word so associated with the voice and identity of Celia Cruz? 

I had to say “azucar”. “Azucar” for me is empowerment. She would never say “azucar” for her to be the only one saying it. It’s a response to racism, and [call] to the empowerment of people, to see who they are, to love who they are, for them to be able to live their life. Because if she had sat there and whined and complained about the way people treated her, she never would have had a career. 

What do you remember about seeing Celia Cruz in concert for the first time?

She came to Benin. It was after she performed [with the Fania All Stars] in the Democratic Republic of Congo [then Zaire] at the boxing match [in 1974, between George Forman and Muhammed Ali]. I knew about that because I heard it on the radio. About two years later, she came to Benin -- I saw the poster and I said I have to go. I went with some friends. She came out and shouted “azucar” and the crowd went wild, they went berserk. My mouth was hanging open; about halfway through I knew that was what I wanted to do…it was the first time I was seeing a powerful woman performer on a stage.   

Your collaborators on this album include Tony Allen and Meshell Ndegeocello, as well as Gangbé Brass Band from Benin, British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchins and his Sons Of Kemet trio. How did you connect them to Celia?  

We have a tendency to put things on different shelves -- it’s not like that. Celia is really one of those rare artists who a jazz musician knows, who R&B people know. Everywhere I go, people know who she is. This woman has done so much for us. The world cannot forget her; I can’t allow that to happen. I wanted new generations to understand how she impacted the artists of today.

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