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It's all about Eve as album celebrates womanhood

'If you want me to be traditional why don't you put me in a museum?" Angelique Kidjo is, not uncharacteristically, getting all fired up over questions of cultural identity and authenticity.

MUM'S THE WORD: Angelique Kidjo is a firm believer that music has the power to deliver social change.
MUM'S THE WORD: Angelique Kidjo is a firm believer that music has the power to deliver social change.

The 53-year-old Beninese singer-songwriter may be one of the giants of African music, but both personally and musically she is all about channelling - and more often challenging - the past in order to create a new future.

Kidjo is not just a busy woman, but a woman of the world. She spent Christmas in France with members of her family, and New Year at her home in New York, which she shares with her husband and daughter. Her new album, Eve, was recorded in San Francisco, Paris, Luxembourg and Cotonou, and features collaborations with everyone from the Kronos Quartet to Dr John. On her previous album, Oyo, she covered the songs of James Brown, Otis Redding, Santana and Curtis Mayfield. For some critics, all this continent-hopping cross-fertilisation is a betrayal of some nebulous idea of "roots". Naturally, she's having none of it.

"The traditional music in Africa evolves," she says. "One thing I learned from the traditional musicians in my family is that this music has been here for centuries but we have to adapt it to our own meaning. I was taught to be open to other music, that anything I like I can incorporate into my own music - and here I am now with people telling me I can't do that! It's out of ignorance. Where does western music come from? The blues comes from the slaves, and blues is the bedrock of rock and roll. R&B, hip-hop, soul music, you can link it all back to Africa."

Kidjo's fierce blonde crop and forthright manner are the most obvious signifiers of a fiery spirit that runs deep. She recalls with a laugh that "my nickname in my village as a child was When Why How - I never had enough answers," and her desire to rattle the chains of tradition goes far beyond musical curiosity. She was brought up by her father to question the ingrained cultural acceptance of female subjugation, and has followed through in her actions. A Unicef goodwill ambassador for the past 12 years, she is a tireless campaigner on any number of health and humanitarian issues, from education to female genital mutilation and polygamy.

You might think that Kidjo's activism would prove a distraction from her day job as a musician. In fact, she says, the two are mutually sustaining. "The activism feeds the music, absolutely. Every album I've written has been a storytelling concept, about different issues that I've had to face. So for me, activism is telling the story of Africa: of love, of joy, of peace, of war, of pain. Our history is oral, and there is so much underlying stuff that the coloniser never got because they were only interested in the superficial. Our culture is rich and telling the story gives us an identity."

Does she think that the West is beginning to better understand Africa in all its diversity? "A little bit, but we need to get rid of the clichés. There are two things the West always sees from Africa in the media: African people dancing around and smiling stupidly, or war and poverty. These stories are told for the interests of the rich countries."

On her new album, Eve, it is almost impossible to unstitch the music from the message. Named after her mother, the album is a celebration of womanhood, conceived after Kidjo was approached in 2012 by the Italian ambassador at the UN to put together a concert for the General Assembly protesting against the issue of female genital mutilation. "People were tired of being lectured about it by old white men," she says. "From that, I decided I wanted to write about issues surrounding women, not only in Africa but around the world."

A firm believer that music has the power to deliver social and political change, Kidjo calls upon the memory of the recently departed Nelson Mandela. "Look how we all gathered together years ago when politics failed to free Mandela," she says. "Music brought the issue to the face of the world and involved young kids who until then didn't know who he was. It put on so much pressure. Music has always been able to gather people together and galvanise them to say, 'Enough of this nonsense'. That's the power of music. It reminds people of freedom, and freedom is what we cherish the most."

Well aware that music has given her a busy but blessed life, since her father's death in 2008 Kidjo has, she says, become more attentive of her roots. Though she left Benin 30 years ago, to live first in France and then America, she is "taking more and more time to go back to Benin and see my mother. I want to be there as much as I can." One tangible result of this period of reflection is her memoir Spirit Rising, which pays tribute to both of her parents and their unwavering dedication to female empowerment.

"The book and the album really go hand in hand," she says. "It was not really meant to be like that but who has any control over inspiration? My father's passing away brought me to realise that if there is something to say, say it now. If there is anything to do, do it now."

Eve is released on January 27 on 429 Records. Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music is published by Harper Collins on January 30

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