Angélique Kidjo On Hosting 2020’s globalFEST With Tiny Desk Concert, Bridging These Difficult Times

Angelique Kidjo

Angélique Kidjo, who is hosting the 2020 iteration of globalFEST with Tiny Desk Concert Jan. 11 – 14 seen here performing in 2016 at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park (Photo by Al Pereira/WireImage)
Angélique Kidjo is the perfect host for 2021’s Tiny Desk Meets globalFEST,  which runs online Jan. 11–14  and features 16 performances from across the world. For one thing, she performed at the inaugural globalFEST in 2004, which now runs every January and is exquisitely timed to the Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) Conference. The confab brings music buyers from performance art centers and other venues from across the country to New York City looking for talent to fill out their calendars. Additionally, the 60-year-old global superstar has performed with major talent at major venues across the world over the the course of her illustrious career.  Here, Kidjo discusses this year’s festival, how she’s staying grounded during these trying times and recent collaborations with Sting, Peter Gabriel, Josh Groban and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig.

Pollstar: Great to hear your voice, where are you? 

Angelique Kidjo: I’ve been stranded in Paris since March. I just want to go home. I miss New York so much.

It’s been a very strange time here, we’re going through some crazy things in this country, like nothing we’ve ever seen before.
It’s everywhere. It’s crazy everywhere. I tell you.  I just have to keep my head above water. I thank God I have music for that.  I don’t know what people do without a passion today. You got to hold yourself tight not to just hang yourself. It’s just that crazy.

Our country seems to be at another low point among so many low points, something really bad seems like it was unleashed into the world.
I’ve been watching this. But at the same time that it’s really bad, it shows the strength of our system and it shows also the strength of the American people. If it was in another country, we’d be talking about something else right now. Somehow, I still have hope that the rule of law will prevail and the Democracy will survive this. It’s a wake-up call for us. We just have to think about the fact that our freedom, our democracy, nothing is set in stone, that we have to fight for it every day, every second. 

I fled my country [Benin] because of a communist dictatorship. I never ever, even in my worst dream, thought that this was going to happen, because we feel comfortable about everything we have, the freedom, the joy, and the privilege that we have every day. We never wake up one day thinking, “This can be taken away from us.” It happened to me. I’m always positive, but there is always somewhere in the back of my mind when I’m speaking to people and trying to tell people, “Hey, be careful.” I’ve been hearing people talking about revolution many times in America. I’m like, “Yeah. Revolution is easy, but how do you build?” Building is more important than breaking things up. Breaking things up doesn’t take much courage but building a society where everybody can have different opinions, live together, is the hardest thing ever.

This is a good segue to Tiny Desk Meets globalFEST because one of the most important things that can help bring people together is travel and seeing other cultures and countries. One of the greatest things about globalFEST is you can walk into a room and there is somebody from Tasmania or Indonesia or Bolivia and it’s this wonderful experience. Even if you’re somebody who’s never left their town, you can relate to the music and watching everybody around you lose their minds to it.
That’s why I think that globalFEST should be [throughout] the entire territory of America, not only in New York. We don’t have many people to convince in New York or L.A., because you have many people that travel. I mean, it’s just another privilege that we keep for ourselves. As I was hosting it, I was thinking about exactly what you said. Traveling gives you a different perspective on your own life, the future you want to build for yourself or your family, and you see people differently. Then your biases start shifting, start crumbling, because what you are seeing is pretty much the same but in different ways somewhere else. And music has the ability to bridge this gap. 

The strength of globalFEST to [accomplish] that … it should be everywhere in the 50 states. We have the technology today to have a screen for us to see the different places where people are playing. Having four bands in 50 cities, we can do this. Because at the same time, we can bring the culture of the world to people that don’t even have the appetite to travel.

Or the means. The great thing about travel, though, is you go somewhere, and you realize, you’re lost, and you’re in wherever, Eritrea, and it’s like, “How do I get to the corner store to get a drink?”  And then somebody’s just really kind and they help you and there’s something so great about that.
And also, the food you eat. Suddenly, you’re taken out of your comfort zone of what you eat in America. It tests your capacity to go out of your safety and comfort zone to say, “The heck with it. I’m going to try it. Even if I don’t like the taste,  I’m giving it a try.” The first time, you might not like it, the second bite you take, “Mmm, that is kind of interesting. I’m going to eat more of this.”

What does being the host of Tiny Desk Meets globalFEST mean in this format?
Since the pandemic I’ve been doing some virtual stuff. At the beginning I got excited and at one point — I mean don’t want to get really used to this, but for now, that’s what we can do — but in September I did five shows and I just loved it. The thirst and the hunger of the public for performances, I mean, those five shows was the moment where it really really hit me as a performer the power and the strength that music and art in general gives to people. … I never take the public, for granted. And when I was doing the Tiny Desk globalFEST concerts, it brought me back to the memory of the first edition I played.

Angelique Kidjo

Angelique Kidjo

That’s right, you played the first one in 2004.
I walked into Webster Hall. It felt like a village that you walk into in my country, but everybody’s just out. They’re talking … eating and playing music. And then step by step I’m like, “Oh, this music I know. I’ve heard it well. I was in Mexico, I heard this.” [laughter.  You find yourself on the globe. Like the globe is turning around under your feet. Wherever you turn, you see different people. You’re hearing different sounds. Even though I am a savvy traveler, it always amazes me what globalFEST is able to do in four days. It’s amazing for people and a privilege to go to globalFEST to see so many musicians from around the world with different languages and instruments. 

So you said you did five concerts, were those for globalFEST or was that some other event?
No. The virtual concert we’re doing for globalFESST we recorded all the shows. I introduced them and talk about the collaboration of globalFEST and Tiny Desk. And as I was looking at the video and listening to the stuff it just brings me back …

Do you interview the artists or do you just set them up and give information about the groups?
I just set them up and introduced them through the video. It’s even more powerful not to speak to them because they don’t have to explain anything to you — you can make up your own [connection to the music]. … It’s amazing to see that even behind a screen, the energy they exude is amazing.

What’s interesting about Tiny Desk is it’s literally just Bob Boilen’s desk with all the people who work in the cubes next to him watching the show. Where are the performers broadcasting from? Is it in their living room or a studio?
Some of them are in their studio, in a basement, sometimes it’s in a garden, whereever they can do it. That’s the beauty of it. They did a great job. The thing about being a human being, that is really amazing to me, is to witness our capacity to adapt to circumstances and still create wonder. We have a capacity to be resilient in every circumstances and if we can put that at the service of our diverse humanity, the world will be a wonderful place to live in.

Minyo Crusaders

Minyo Crusaders

Absolutely. What have been some of your favorite performances so far?
Well, all of them because they’re all different. I mean, you can’t ask me as a musician to choose [a favorite], I won’t. The Japanese one (Minyo Crusaders), Tunisia (Emel Mathlouthi), the Malian (Rokia Traoré), the Algerian-Canadian band (Labess) … I mean, there’s so many that I’m like “Oooooooh I want to be there, I want to be there!”

You know what’s interesting is you mentioned the country more than the band.
Yeah, because they’re behind the music for me. That’s the thing.

So do you think about the geography of the music when you see artists?
No, I just think about the music because the thing that’s interesting to me is why I’m talking about countries: because we cannot travel. We cannot go anywhere and because those collaborations are done virtually. You see how music just makes the miles disappear. That was the first thing that comes to my mind. I think, in a normal time, they would all have traveled to New York. But they didn’t, but yet they still managed to do it. So how cool is that?

What’s also interesting about this year, is the potential that the 2021 audience could be exponentially bigger than the regular globalFEST – there could be hundreds of thousands maybe.
Exactly. I wish people will go online everywhere to see it. The dream I was having, if this goes everywhere, on radio or on TV, on a screen, then the American people can travel like that, too. That might give a little bit of comfort in this COVID era.

Hit La Rosa from Peru who are performing at this year’s Tiny Desk Meets globalFEST event.

Are you performing?

Oh, this time for globalFEST? No, I didn’t.

That’s crazy, why not?

Well, sometimes you’ve got to leave the limelight to other people. I like to share. I really like to share. That’s the way music is. If you can’t share, don’t do it.

One of  the interesting things about globalFEST, and the other festivals like Winter Jazz Fest, is that around this time of the year is the Association of Art Presenters  (APAP) conference, where people who book performing art centers and different buildings in America and even outside of America come. So sometimes they are scouring for performers for next year or the 2023 or 2024 calendar and this festival can really help artists.
Yes, that’s what is interesting because it’s very smart to combine globalFEST and APAP because you have the artists and instead of just booking them and not knowing about them or reading about them on Wikipedia or what a record company tells you, you see them, so you know what you’re buying.

So when you played the first GlobalFest in 2004, did that help your career?
Certainly. After that, I did a lot of concerts in places I’d never been before. At that time, I was already in America and my album was out and the places I played followed. I went to California. I went to Boise, I’d never played in Boise before and places I haven’t been in America and that’s what I love about it.

It’s such a difficult time for artists, I  wonder if some of the venue bookers may book some of this year’s Globalfest livestreaming acts?
I hope so. I did that and was filmed in the eastern part of France because the promoter didn’t want to cancel. He said, “I’m going to find a way to have a TV channel that wants to play it on TV.” So we did it without the public, and the setup was I was facing the musicians. It was good to do, but it was kind of a weird feeling turning my back to the public. I sing to the public, and now I have to look at my musicians. And that was really hard for me. But I guess we’re going to get used to it, if that’s going to be the norm now, playing empty venues. The only way I could achieve my 90-minute concert was to imagine the public in the place, that helped a lot.

Angelique Kidjo with Ezra Koenig

What was the venue?
It’s called La Filature. It’s in Mulhouse, France, and it’s a huge venue. They do a lot of classical stuff, too. I’d been there like 10 years ago, so the promoter said, “I cannot not do this because the public will be asking for you [to come] back because it has been a long time since you’ve been here.” So I’m like, “Oh, if that’s the case, then I will suck it up and go for it now and do the concert without the public.” And it was a great experience. I had a lot of fun because I interacted with my musicians. It was really fun being on stage, but I miss the public so much.

And that showed up on television afterward?
Yes. They played it on France Channel 3 and also Channel 5, TV5. They showed it twice, right after Christmas and before New Year’s Eve.

What else have you been doing or working on? How are you getting your creative outlet to express yourself?
I’m using this time to prepare my next album and to take some time. For the first time in my entire career, I was able to sit at my house for more than three months in a row. It’s been pretty much a year now and that’s never happened. So it was a moment also of resting my body and mind and taking a step back and looking at what I wanted to do and taking the time to do an album and not having the deadline to rush to do my stuff. So it was good. Also, I started gardening, and I did a lot of virtual concerts. Because my show at [Carnegie Hall] on March 14 [2020] that was canceled, we did a virtual one with couple of the guests that I had ready. And I’ve been doing a lot of virtual concerts. I’m just finishing one for Abu Dhabi.

Oh, with Bill Bragin, who co-founded globalFEST (and is the founding executive artistic director at of the Arts Center at New York University Abu Dhabi). But you’re in Paris now, right?
In Paris.  I’m still here. I have a keyboard player here and my percussion player is in Los Angeles. So technology allowed us to do the show, but it’s not the same dynamic. I will probably do the Tibet House virtually. And I did also “Meditate America,” a duet with Sting on that, “One World,” a Sting song. The band is based in New York. Steve Jordan on drums, and Rob Mathes was the conductor. It was great and I’ve also done a duet with Peter Gabriel for “Playing for Change.” And I did a duet with Josh Groban and Ezra Koenig from Vampire Weekend. I mean, I do a lot.

You’re busy [laughter]. Who’s your agent in America?
I work with Partisan.

How do you recommend consuming GlobalFest?
You just go online [ from 8:00 p.m. Eastern time]. Just sit and watch the world come to your home. You don’t have to move. We bring the world to you. And then, you can discover some new sounds. You can do your research about the concert or where the group comes from and plan for your next vacation to go to those places.