Angélique Kidjo Transforms the FAC Into a Global Village (with a Dance Hall)

University of Massachusetts Amherst Fine Arts Center
October 30, 2014

Angelique Kidjo
Miriam Makeba died in 2008. So vast was her influence that she was dubbed "Mama Africa," and so firm was her grip on that title that speculation immediately raged as to whom could possibly assume her mantle. That debate is over. Benin-born, Grammy Award winner Angélique Kidjo now reigns and commands such global respect that she has been dubbed "Sister Africa." For once the Music Hype Machine got it right.

Ms. Kidjo brought her high-powered act to the University of Massachusetts Amherst Fine Arts Center on Thursday night and transformed the building into a swaying, dancing village. You needed to be there to understand what a feat this was. The FAC is a cold, unlovable venue–a cavernous, windowless expanse of Brutalist concrete slabs whose architecture is evocative of East Berlin under Stalinism. If you can make that place rock, you can pop open graves and get skeletons to dance.

Kidjo is now based in New York City and belongs to the world, not just Benin. Her style is suitably au courant­—a veritable mash of pop, jazz, blues, folk, carnivalesque zouk, and soukous. For those unfamiliar with the latter two categories, souk is lively party music that developed on former French Caribbean islands such as Martinique and Guadeloupe; Benin was also a French colony, and Ms. Kidjo is fluent in French (plus English, Fon, and Yoruba). Soukous is a Congolese variant of rumba. The word translates "to shake," and few can do so with the facility and electric excitement of Angélique Kidjo. She informed the nearly full FAC that dancing at her concerts was a "rule." A rule, mind, not an option. And what a spitfire she is–think a muscular in-your-face mélange of Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, James Brown, and the twirling, fight-like stances of West African dancers. Only Tina Turner rivals Kidjo for bodily attitude and insouciance. When Kidjo decides to spin, get out of her way–as she pointedly reminded her guitarist and bass player at several junctures during the concert when she nudged them to the parts of the stage to which she wished them to retreat!

As I mentioned earlier, Kidjo is now a global phenomenon, which means it's a mistake to see her music as Beninese village music. She's the sort of force that can and has played with Bono, Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, Counting Crows, Alicia Keyes, Cyndi Lauper, and Philip Glass. She's covered songs by Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and Miriam Makeba. If you must apply a label, the term Afropop is probably the best. Check out her smash hit "Africa," which got the FAC audience on its feet, and you can see how she fuses the germ of traditional styles with glittery pop.

With a voice such as hers, Kidjo could sing algorithms and you'd be impressed. As glorious as her visual show was, though, my favorites moments were when she slowed the pace, stripped down the instrumentation (guitar, bass, two percussionists, and programmed sounds), and just sang. Kidjo delights in singing across rhythms, sometimes on the off-beat, but there was a magical moment in which she visibly took a slow song down a notch because she needed to allow the reverberations of her voice to die down before the next blast, lest she unleash a concretized cacophony.

Kidjo is touring in support of her latest album, Eve, which is dedicated both to her mother (whose voice we heard on tape) and to women in general. Kidjo is also an activist for the rights of women and girls, messages she delivered in chat and song. Looking for a role model of a strong woman? There's this singer from Benin who can transform a room into a musical conversation…  Rob Weir


Me Before You an Unorthodox Story of Love and Social Class

Jojo Moyes
Penguin Books, 400 pp; ISBN 978014124544.
* * * *

Me Before You is a love story–of sorts. Two very improbable characters are thrown together by misfortune and tragedy: Louisa "Lou" Clark, a 26-year-old working-class woman, and Will Traynor, a 35-year-old upper crust high-flying London investor. Both lives take a dramatic turn–Lou's when she loses a café job that helps support her family, and Will's when he distractedly walks into traffic, is struck by a motorbike, and is left a quadriplegic.

Few people think about social class as much as the Brits like Moyes, who romanticizes neither the workaday proles nor the haute bourgeoisie. Lou lives in a shabby row house with her parents and single-mother sister, Katrina, in a Hertfordshire village that's about as exciting as watching the teakettle boil. Its sole claim to fame is Stortford castle, a place where tourists gather, but people like the Clarks visit only on school trips. Clark's family is too ineffectual to be dysfunctional. Everyone is just trying to make do–Lou's dad is on the dole and trying to pacify a wife who's a bit 'round the twist, Katrina coping by playing the victim/guilt/still going to be somebody role to the hilt, and Lou putting up with boyfriend Patrick, once pudgy-but-fun and now a personal trainer more concerned about his own body fat/muscle ratio than Lou's body.

On the other side of town, miles away physically and socially, Will sulks in his ruined body and in a home filled with money but devoid of passion or compassion. He is angry, unapologetic about his moral and intellectual superiority, and contemptuous of the notion that anyone should, as Lou has been doing, simply make do. She enters the unhappy Traynor household because she needs a job. Though she knows little of what she's getting into, Lou becomes one of Will's caregivers.

A relationship that begins with mutual contempt evolves into one of respect and love by a different name. Will considers his life over and has extracted a promise from his mother, Camilla that he will submit to caregivers for one year. If he finds no joy, Camilla has agreed to allow Will to go to a Swiss clinic and end his life humanely. Moyes employs the classic literary ploy of a race against the clock. (She cleverly juxtaposes Patrick's obsession with his running times with Will's count down.) Will comes to accept Lou, who is his match in irreverence and sarcasm. Over time, he finds himself oddly attracted to her bubbly optimism and plucky obstinacy. Mainly, though, it angers him that she's stuck in a town he calls a "placemat." He hates it in Hertfordshire and thinks everyone should.

We're not sure if Will is in love with Lou in his own way or simply living vicariously through her. For her part, Lou does everything she can to try to make Will consider that life is worthwhile, even when experienced from a wheelchair. Field trips become one of the ways through which their two worlds converge—Lou is elevated and Will voluntarily descends from a social perch he comes to see as shallow and hypocritical. Soon we don't know who is saving whom or from what. Both of our protagonists cling stubbornly to the belief that everyone has the right to live according to one's own terms, but each acknowledges that those terms are more fluid than once thought. The book's ending is morally ambiguous in a delicious way and will either be exactly as you'd predict, or completely the opposite. That either would be feasible and satisfactory is among the book's many charms.

Moyes is a much stronger storyteller than prose wizard, but her tale is so strong it will draw you in and make you care deeply about Lou and Will. I give the book kudos for doing something American novels seldom do any more–consider social class. Moyes deserves a second shout for how she handles the British class system. If in America we don't discuss class at all, in Britain, writers often do so by contrasting paste-up yobbos against twit-like toffs–neither with well-oiled brains. Me Before You shows characters with the capacity for self-reflection and growth, so much so that they can reinvent themselves here and in the hereafter.-- Rob Weir


For Halloween: Only Lovers Left Alive

Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Sony Classics, 128 minutes, R (brief nudity, language)
* * * * *

I’m pretty bored with the overdone vampire genre, but I give a hearty thumbs-up to the stylish treatment given by director Jim Jarmusch. There aren’t too many people who can do laconic ennui tinged with surrealism as well as Jarmusch. Want a film for Halloween season viewing? You won't find a better one than Only Lovers Left Alive, a film that disintegrated at the American box office like Dracula exposed to sunlight. Idiots! This German/British production is chilling, touching, and visually stunning.

It centers on two vampires who have been lovers for many centuries. How many? Well, their names are Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), and that’s Jarmusch’s first little inside joke. If you recall, Eve ushered in Paradise Lost when she took up the serpent’s offer to eat from the Tree of Wisdom. In some translations, that arboreal temptation is the Tree of Eternal Life. In essence, Adam and Eve found a way around God by becoming immortal vampires.

After all these millennia, Adam is so bored he’s suicidal. He and Eve have lived apart for many years, but she decides to travel from Tangiers, where she lives surrounded by books, to rescue Adam, who resides in a post-economic apocalypse neighborhood in Detroit, surrounded by vintage guitars. (All traveling is confined to night flights, naturally.) Where better to be a vampire than in the deadest of dead cities? Adam is fed up with everything, including moronic people he calls “zombies.” Call it the second joke--if there’s anything more overdone than vampires, it’s zombies! Adam has, for years, passed himself off as a moody musician, first as a punk rocker then as a reclusive avant garde art rocker, hence all those guitars. Nobody quite understands his music, which means to the walking zombies it must be brilliant. Eve gets him, though. Both are classy, highly sexed, discerning vampires that require Type O negative blood to avoid getting sick on their sustenance. Detroit is a great place to find it, a place scarier than any vampire could ever be. Adam simply buys his blood from Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright), who needs the cash more than he needs to know why his mysterious client, Dr. Faust, wants it. Call their names more inner jokes.

Eve and Adam adore each other and almost have a good thing going until Eve’s younger vamp sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska) drops in from Los Angeles and ruins a good thing.  Her LA demeanor is as trashy as Eve is classy; like LA, excess trumps restraint. She messes things up so badly that Adam and Eve must hightail it back to Morocco—at night, of course—to score some “pure” blood from Kit Marlowe (John Hurt). Another twist—he’s Christopher Marlowe, the real Shakespeare, who faked his death in 1593. Let’s just say not all goes according to plan. The film’s ending is both terrifying and beautiful.

This film is drenched in atmosphere—all of it tone perfect. There is a heart-wrenching scene involving a café singer (Lebanese star Yasmine Hamdan) that is positively otherworldly. The soundtrack, including music from Jarmusch’s own band, SQURL, rightly won an award at Cannes in 2013 and the film itself was nominated for a Palme d’Or.

You will walk away filled with doubt as to whether being undead might be preferable to being (semi) alive in Detroit and, of course, you will muse upon the question of whether transience is preferable to immortality. Hiddleston and Swinton have amazing chemistry together and, as usual, it’s almost impossible not to stare at Swinton when she’s on camera—her pallid complexion and icy demeanor jumping off the screen as all you’d imagine a vampire queen to be.  Only Lovers Left Alive is a small masterpiece whether you view it for Halloween or Arbor Day.
Rob Weir