On their 1980 album Remain in Light, Talking Heads thought and acted global. Over the course of their previous three albums, they had made the transition from art-school weirdos to acclaimed rock band. Now, as darkness dawned in Reagan’s America, they wanted to do something truly historical. They thought big, expansive, the foundation of humanity. They thought Africa.
On Remain in Light, an album on the Library of Congress registry, the rock quartet gathered musicians and sounds. Inspired by Afrobeat artists, specifically Fela Kuti, they played with polyrhythms, long jams, horns, backup singers. Most critics and listeners loved it. But even that many years ago, some denounced the white Americans for cultural appropriation. This is what makes Angelique Kidjo’s reinterpretation, or reappropriation if you will, of this seminal album so interesting.
Kidjo is from Benin, West Africa. As a young singer recording her first album in the early 1980s, she enjoyed considerable less cultural freedom than Talking Heads. In fact, in ‘83, she fled the country’s military-controlled government for Paris, not wanting to be pressed into civic service (a story remarkably similar to Celia Cruz’s flight from Havana to the U.S.). In the decades since, she has become a global pop star, famous for her powerful voice, Afrocentric anthems, and irrepressible dance moves. A few weeks ago, she staged a concert-cum-revival at the Theater at the Ace Hotel, mostly playing all the songs from Remain in Light, but also leading the audience — and Talking Heads guitarist Jerry Harrison — in a conga line around the venue for some of her own classic hits.
I love the original Remain in Light; it lived on my turntable when I was in college. But Kidjo makes the songs her own, digging into their juju and finding new resonance in David Byrne’s famed lyrics of alienation — “this is not my beautiful house,” the colonized female sings the colonizer male’s words. Vivien Goldman says Kidjo “triumphantly re-claimed the album for her continent” in her essay on the musician for Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl, the anthology I edited (hitting stores October 9). As you can see from the video above, when Kidjo sings “Born Under Punches,” it’s not a metaphor.
The show was great, phenomenal. But the one thing I missed from the original version were the backing vocals. The interplay between the awkward Byrne in his Tom Wolfe-esque white suit and the grooving singers (Edna Holt and Lynn Mabry) was one of the elements that made the live shows captured by Jonathan Demme in the film Stop Making Sense both sweet and transcendent, hilarious and delirious. Fortunately the backing vocals are more prominent on Kidjo’s album version, which drops June 8. But also, the singer brings front and center what the Heads placed 20 feet from stardom, as the saying goes: #BlackGirlMagic
I hear from reliable sources (my brother and St. Vincent) that David Byrne’s current tour is also incredible, which I don’t doubt. I watched Stop Making Sense for the first time in years last weekend; it’s an important document of a band in transition. (Though you do have to wonder what everyone was on that allowed them to perform at that speed and intensity — ah, the ’80s.) Check out the mixture of aerobics and modern dance in “Life During Wartime” from Stop Making Sense.