African world music star and recent Grammy winner Angélique Kidjo performed Saturday night at Soka Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo. But the main event on the campus of Soka University of America that night appeared to be a prom.
Set List: Angélique Kidjo Concert, April 2, 2022
“Crosseyed and Painless”
“Africa, One of a Kind”
“Take It or Leave It”
“Once in a Lifetime”
“Meant for Me”
“Free and Equal”
Indeed, Summit High School from Fontana took over the center of campus with its annual fancy dinner and dance celebration. Soka is a nice and appropriate venue for such an occasion, with its distinctive and classy Founders Hall, impressive Peace Lake and Fountain and multiple walkways along the water.
So this reviewer, not having been to Soka University in a while, had to walk through a phalanx of prom dresses, rented tuxedos and a rented band to get to the Kidjo concert. Talk about a flashback.
Kidjo performed inside the beautiful 1,032-seat concert hall, whose acoustics were designed by renowned acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, who also did the acoustics for Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A. and the Musco Center for the Arts at Chapman University.
The Soka venue primarily hosts classical music acts, so Kidjo and her band were a little bit of an exception — yet a welcome one during the center’s ongoing 10th anniversary season. (The hall is actually 11 years old, dedicated on May 27, 2011.)
Kidjo, who hails from the small West African country of Benin, primarily presented songs off her latest album, the freshly Grammy-winning “Mother Nature,” released in June 2021. She brought a four-piece band with her that consisted of a veteran guitarist, bassist Michael Olatuja from Nigeria, a drummer from Chile and an African percussionist.
A five-time Grammy winner, Kidjo is an amazing singer who knows how to project and engage audiences large and small. The Soka Performing Arts Center hall was a bit more than half full Saturday night, but Kidjo seemed to connect with nearly everyone, bringing listeners to their feet multiple times and delivering a number of call-and-response passages.
Her latest album utilizes English primarily, and Kidjo offered a number of stories and introductions in flawless English. But this Pan-African vocalist can also sing in French, Fon, Yoruba, Gen (Mina) and Swahili.
For Saturday night’s performance, Kidjo wore a green and white dress with cropped blond hair and some sparse and tasteful jewelry. She is a singer with a mission and a message: Many of her songs address climate change, social injustice, war, poverty, police brutality and African unity. She is unabashedly a voice for our times.
And she is a terrific dancer, even at 61 years old. Kidjo tore up the stage with energetic moves that she’s obviously been practicing and delivering for decades.
Kidjo has a solid band backing her on this tour, which will take her to Seattle, Tuscon, Scottsdale, and then back to Southern California for a stint doing her “Yemandja” musical theater production at The Broad Stage at Santa Monica College, April 14-16.
At one point midway, bassist Olatuja sounded off-mark, causing Kidjo to stop singing altogether. There was an awkward pause, and Kidjo joked that perhaps Olatuja had been “smoking the stuff.” She let him start again, and he was back on key, back on rhythm, and so was the show.
Even though she only had four instrumentalists behind her Saturday, Kidjo sounded like she had many more. In fact, on songs such as the title track “Mother Nature,” it clearly sounded like she had saxophones and other (female) vocals behind her. Where were they coming from? There wasn’t a horn to be seen in the building. So one had to conclude that these were pre-recorded tracks coming from the soundboard. A little disappointing for the purist, but they did add texture to the songs.
Highlights from the concert were the songs “Dignity,” “Choose Love,” a lively cover of Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” the aforementioned “Mother Nature,” “Free and Equal,” and a cover of the Miriam Makeba classic, “Pata Pata.”
About that song, she said, “If you don’t know this song, you are not living on planet Earth.” She apparently says this phrase at every concert, as evidenced by this video from Austin City Limits. Kidjo also punctuated this song with some athletic and awesome dance moves.
Kidjo’s encore consisted of “Flying High,” the closing track from the new album, “Malaika” and “Batonga.” She sang with high energy, and at one point, I felt as if she was looking directly at me and trying to engage with me, get me to stop scribbling and urging me out of my seat. You could call that “the Kidjo Effect,” and it was compelling.
With lyrics such as “We need each other, now” (from “Mother Nature”); “I don’t care if you’re rich or poor … I don’t care about your DNA, all I know is you’re meant for me” (from “Meant for Me”); and “We have to live together, life is so beautiful” (from “Flying High”); Kidjo is offering a positive, optimistic message to the people.
You can take it or leave it, but Saturday night, her audience was taking it, without hesitation.
Richard Chang is senior editor for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Classical music coverage at Voice of OC is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism. Voice of OC makes all editorial decisions.