"Mum, when I grow up I want to be James Brown!"

Angelique Kidjo and the Poly Rythmo Orchestra @Alfred Kidjo

Mum, when I grow up I want to be James Brown!

The one who speaks these words is me, a little girl of seven or eight dancing breathlessly under the paillote of the family home. This is Benin, Cotonou, West Africa, in the late ’60s. This morning, with a slightly trembling hand, I placed the needle in the groove of the vinyl record that my brothers brought home last night. The music that echoes from the speaker is compelling. I do not understand the words intoned by James Brown, but the rhythm is hypnotic and it reminds me of the drums at home, and of the trance they cause. I also discover unfamiliar sounds, from the bass, the electric guitar, the brass instru­ments that carry me to a wonderful new world. My now frantic dancing raises a cloud of dust and soon I hear my mother’s amused answer: “Angélique, come on, you know that’s not possible: you can’t be James Brown!
I frown and ponder her words. I go back to sift­ing through my brothers’ record collection and come up with another album with a sleeve I liked the look of. On it there’s a beautiful woman, her shoulders bare, with a smile that is both shy and determined. Her music’s pace is just as rapid as James Brown’s but her voice is clearly African. It is a voice that carries with it all the beauty and strength of my continent: it is Mama Africa, Miriam Makeba, singing Pata Pata. “Mum, when I grow up I want to be Miriam Makeba!
All these LPs, widely broadcast from the independence years onwards, opened a real window to the world for the Africa of my childhood. That’s where we discovered soul, salsa, the music of the Diaspora, and the indelible impression that Africa left on it because of slavery.
But mostly that’s were we discovered the music of our own continent, inspired by our traditions but also influenced by music from the Americas! A ceaseless back-and-forth between Cuban music and Congolese rumba, between jazz and High-Life, funk and Afrobeat... While feasting on the sumptu­ous cover art of each record, I become familiar with the great voices of African music and revel in a genuine musical Pan-Africanism: Franco, Tabu Ley Rochereau, Trio Madjesi, Eboa Lotin, Manu Di Bango, Bailly Spinto, Bella Bellow, Francis Bebey…
I must stop there: I can’t name them all. But... that is precisely the purpose of the book you’re holding in your hands! —

Angélique Kidjo
Préface African Records –  Zinsou Foundation