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Angélique Kidjo now has a pair of albums that are essentially covers of other artists, but interpreted with an African sensibility so majestic as to render the originals almost as source material.
On 2018's Remain In Light, Kidjo made the implicit African influences of Talking Heads' original vision explicit. Kidjo didn't channel New Wave, or even rock and roll, as a starting point; instead, she used West African polyrhythms to reinterpret the band's take on then-modern life in America. It was one of my favorite albums of last year.
Somehow Kidjo had the time to record a second tribute album, this time dedicated to an individual artist.
Celia refers to Celia Cruz, perhaps the most well-known vocalist to come from Cuba during any era. The ten tracks span several decades of Cruz's career, from before she left Cuba in 1960 to her groundbreaking recordings for the celebrated Fania Records label in New York in the 1970s, to "La Vida Es Un Carnaval," the 1998 song that became her late career hit and anthem. Kidjo's reinterpretations rearrange the molecules of songs that many of us know by heart. The results are glorious.
The tongue twister "Cucala" becomes a rhythmic pattern for both guitar and hand drums as Kidjo sings the Spanish-language lyric that is an ode to joy of dancing. It's a brilliant take on a song that I honestly thought couldn't get any better.
Cruz never shied away from the island's African culture, especially on songs like"Yemaya" and "Elegua." These two tracks on Celia strip away the classic, horn-driven guaracha feel of La Sonora Matancera's 1950s-era orchestrations and become deeply emotional prayers to the two Afro-Cuban deities.
"Quimbara," one of Cruz's most well-known anthems, serves as Celia's mission statement. The original was based on guaguancó, which was a bold move at the the time. Why? Mambo and cha-cha-cha were the ruling Latin dance rhythms of the day, and here was an Afro-Cuban folkloric beat. On Celia, Angélique Kidjo changes the rhythm from a solid 4/4 to a languid, yet powerful 6/8. Afrobeat-style guitar approximates the West African koraand punctuates it all with a funky, horn driven, stop-time statement of its massive chorus.
What puts the song over the top is the call-and-response improvisation of the title. It's done at twice the speed of the rhythm underneath (what musicians call double time) and it never clashes. Kidjo has so expertly tied the original guaguanco to her 6/8 that it serves as a point of cultural pride that Africa could claim Celia Cruz as one of their own. And that is the point of every track of this album.
Celia Cruz's music and her entire being was a reminder of the presence of Africa in Cuba. Angélique Kidjo's Celia musically closes that circle with reverence and more than a little love.