Since she began releasing solo recordings in 1981, Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo has illustrated the reliance of Western popular musics on African traditions for inspiration. In 2018, the vocalist enlisted an all-star cast that included Nigerian drum master Tony Allen and some American indie rockers to display the coat of many colors that lies in the grooves of the Talking Heads' Remain in Light by revisioning the entire album through that lens. Kidjo is at it again with Celia, her album-length tribute to the queen of salsa, Cuban singer Celia Cruz. This time the connection is seamless. Kidjo began listening to Cruz's music in 1974, after seeing her perform in Benin as part of an African tour. Cruz readily acknowledged the African influence in her music and has sought to draw attention to it throughout her career -- especially after her exile from Cuba in 1959 -- by singing Yoruban songs exported during the slave trade some 400 years previously. Kidjo's affinity for the salsa pioneer grew deeper after being exiled herself from Benin when a Marxist/Leninist government took power during the '80s.
On Celia, Kidjo delivers ten tracks Cruz recorded and performed at various points in her career (but focuses mainly on the '50s when she fronted La Sonora Matancera), revisioned through a rainbow palette of African sounds without sacrificing their Latin grooves. Allen returns on drums, while Meshell Ndegeocello appears on bass alongside saxophonist and renaissance man Shabaka Hutchings and his Sons of Kemet tuba boss Theon Cross (the entire quartet performs on "Bemba Colora"), Kidjo's longtime guitarist Dominic James, the Gangbé Brass Band from Benin, Togo guitarist Amen Viana, and others. Recorded in New York and Paris, the set commences with "Cucala." While its ringing guitars are drenched in Nigerian high life, the horn chart is drawn from South African jive while Allen lays down meaty, propulsive Afrobeat rhythms. On "La Vida Es un Carnaval," a late hit for Cruz, Kidjo and the band weave through Ethiopian jazz and Senegalese funk. The singer employs cello, bass, marimba, percussion, piano, and organ on a reading of Tito Puente's "Sahara" that transitions from Berber-esque desert drones to Afro-Cuban son and rhumba. "Elegua" and closer "Yemaya" are both rooted in the Santeria chants Kidjo loved as a child. They are included as reflections of Cruz's deep commitment to African traditional music. Kidjo's chart peels away the horn-driven guaracha feel of Cruz’s recordings with La Sonora Matancera to reveal their profound spirituality. The classic "Quimbara" transforms its standard-time guaguancó rhythms through Allen's 6/8 Afrobeat charge above a small army of percussion instruments and snaky guitar lines from Viana, who beautifully evokes a griot's kora. "Bemba Colora" is a proto salsa tune originally delivered by Cruz on 1966's Son con Guaguanco. It's offered somewhat straight here, though its textures and dynamics are more frenetic thanks to Sons of Kemet, Viana's guitar, and Vane's Farfisa. Kidjo succeeds on Celia because she not only pays revelatory tribute to a prime influence, but channels that very spirit of inspiration to deliver a high-water mark in her catalog.