When I am old and surrounded by my grandchildren, and they ask me to tell them another story, I imagine that I will peer into their eyes and say, “Listen carefully, my grandchildren, for this is the true story of the night when Angelique Kidjo came to Charleston and made Spoleto get up and shake its middle-aged bourgeoisie ass.”
Not that this was universally welcomed at TD Arena Thursday night, mind you. No, there was one carefully restored and expensively appointed couple three rows down from me who fled in horror when the dancing broke out, and I spotted several others head to the exits early, too. Perhaps they were late to another show.
But then again, this was a Spoleto event, and for all our big talk, Charleston’s premier arts festival is not generally an occasion for performers to invade the personal space of patrons. So yes, I imagine there may be back-channel complaints, not to mention muffled noises emanating from the grave of Gian Carlo Menotti.
But oh what a sight it was: A stage filled past capacity with women and men (well, mostly women), from kindergartners to grandparents, people of all hues and hairstyles, dancing under the alternately beaming and playfully critical gaze of the petite Kidjo, some hesitantly, some joyfully, some as wildly as if ridden by loa bent on their ecstatic exhaustion.
If you have seen, heard, or read about Kidjo before, then you already know the global popularity of her music, the power and clarity of her voice, the worldwide adoration afforded to her iconic stage persona. So yes, ditto, stipulated. But what none of that conveys is the experience of being in the presence of such a small but fearless human being. Because when I say that Kidjo made a Charleston audience get up and dance, I don’t merely mean that her music inspired them to do so.
I mean that she commanded it, explicitly, and there was really just no other alternative.
The show did not begin that way. Her first number was just an acoustic guitar, tuned that distinctively African way, and Kidjo’s compact vocals. She walked on stage wearing a colorful fabric headdress and seemed almost meditative at first. She followed that up with “N’Yn Wan Nou We,” which — though I have no clue what it’s about — sounds like the song you would hear on the last perfect day in the sidewalk cafe of your dreams. It elicited polite applause.
It wasn’t until the third song that Kidjo began engaging the audience. It wasn’t until the fourth that she invited them to dance and sing, launching into a story about getting sucked into shopping here and how she planned to break the news to her husband. The first audience dancer — a lovely young woman in a flowing skirt — came down to the floor during the fifth song, and by this time Kidjo had stripped off the hat, the guitarist had switched to electric, and the singer was prowling the stage in her lower register, stomping and spinning.
By the seventh song — and don’t ask me to name them, please, because Kidjo speaks seven or eight languages and sings in several others — the singer was aggressively working the crowd, and my hopes began to flag. She clearly wanted the audience to join her in musical celebration, but I’ve seen other performers encourage Charleston audiences to loosen up, only to slink away chastened by our rigid Southern propriety.
Plus, rather than turning the show into a rave, Kidjo kept shifting back into a lower gear, with some extended life-coach monologues about love and race and family and ritual abuse and domestic violence. Hard to dance to that. But a funny story about going to Bollywood movies in Benin as a child won the audience over, and somehow this segued into her Africanized version of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up.” At times she taunted the audience, a dangerous move by any performer.
And yet it worked. Brilliantly. Like a dam that leaks and then breaks, people began streaming down to the floor in ones and twos, and then the next thing you knew there were masses on the floor dancing, and people standing in their seats singing — and there was Kidjo on stage, reveling in it, triumphantly chicken-necking, James-Brown-sliding and syncopated-booty-swirling.
They sang with her, for her, and the 52-year-old diva ran through the aisles, dancing with her new Charleston friends, touching them, slapping one hand after another. Not satisfied, she called the audience back on stage with her, and once the stage was filled, she danced with each, then called out her Senegalese-American drummer to drive them each individually into a frenzy, her petite frame disappearing behind the swaying mass of ad hoc dancers, her voice filling the room.
Kidjo ended the evening with “Tumba,” her global dance hit, and left the stage with the band still playing and the audience still dancing. A true achievement in Charleston.
This was her only appearance in this year’s festival. But the good news is that Kidjo professed to be loving her first visit to Charlestons and promised to return.
Wear comfortable shoes.