The African freedom-soul singer Angélique Kidjo is a sensual firebrand who moves freely between luxuriant detail and exultant minimalism in her music and agenda. On her exuberantly polished new album, Eve (429), Kidjo – who was born in Benin, in West Africa, but has been a star of the world since her 1991 album, Logozo – draws on Beninese folklore and the supporting voices of village choirs in original songs and adaptations about the African woman's daily fight uphill, through civil wars and traditional, social sanction. She also amplifies the resonance of those stories with an international store of colors. Her studio musicians include jazz bassist Christian McBride, percussionist Mauro Refosco of Thom Yorke's Atoms for Peace and New Orleans griot-pianist Dr. John. In one song, "Ebile," Kidjo sings against a swaying weave of rustic-tempered strings played by the Kronos Quartet.
But in her February 15th concert at New York's Town Hall, with a bare-necessities quintet of guitar, bass and percussion, Kidjo pressed her case in a straightforward dynamite of polyrhythms, lusty vocal declaration and punctuative, ecstatic dancing. She added speed and anticipation to Bob Marley's "Redemption Song." A pure-party revival of Miriam Makeba's 1967 hit "Pata Pata" – a pioneering blast of empowerment out of then-apartheid South Africa – marked the historical line running to and through Kidjo's strict-motion versions of Eve's "Kulumbu" and "Bana."
She called for a ladies' stage invasion during "Afrika" from her 2002 album, Black Ivory Soul – a euphoric, visual metaphor for Kidjo's message and methods. A quieter statement of result was her introduction of Leymah Gbowee, a women's-rights activist from Liberia and a co-winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. Gbowee smiled shyly as she held hands with Kidjo and edged away from the pack when the "Afrika" dance-off broke out. But that dignified reserve was the show's perfect exclamation point – definitive evidence of everything Kidjo seeks and believes possible in her mission, at home and abroad.
An Improbable Broadway Debut
As casting against type, k.d. lang's current stand, through March 9th, as a featured torch singer in the jazz-and-dance revue, After Midnight, at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre takes some beating. The show, which opened last fall with American Idol winner Fantasia in that role, is a 90-minute no-dead-air evocation of the music and body swing that filled the bill at New York's Cotton Club in the Twenties and Thirties. The house band, comprised of members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, blitzes through the score – more than two dozen nuggets from the Harlem Renaissance hit parade, all but a handful associated with the Cotton Club's breakout star Duke Ellington – with crisp exhiliration.
There is no slack in the rest of the company. In their cut-and-slither duel "Hottentot Tot," Julius "iGlide" Chisolm and Virgil "Lil'O" Gadson pay comic homage to the rubbery dynamics and proto-hip-hop invention of African-American dance teams such as the Nicholas Brothers. You may know Sippie Wallace's cautionary blues "Women Be Wise" from Bonnie Raiit's 1971 recording, but Adriane Lenox takes it way back and down home, in jittery-spitfire italics, with JALC brawn.
Lang has to follow that showstopper (after an instrumental breather). But her entrance, with the Jazz Age valentine "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," is also full-bodied romantic protest, lined with more elegant shiver. Lang is making her Broadway debut in After Midnight. But she has been ready for the standards in this gig, like "Stormy Weather," since her 1988 prairie-ballroom-covers breakthrough, Shadowland. And Lang gets laughs too. Her growling simulation of Cab Calloway in "Zah Zuh Zaz" isn't just funny – it's believable. (My measure for that: I actually met the great hipster.)
The original razzle and dazzle recreated in After Midnight was, in fact, a Broadway phenomenon. First opened uptown on Lenox Avenue, the Cotton Club was located, in its heyday, at Broadway and 48th Street, a block and a half from the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. It was also a segregated venue; The entertainment was black; the customers rich, white and curious about a culture they deemed immoral and inferior in daylight. In that sense, Lang – gay, white and an emigrant (from Canada) – is a natural for this show, singing from the outside looking in; a voice of exclusion, seeking comfort and acceptance and steeped in blues.