Sydney Opera House, March 8
The Talking Heads album, Remain In Light, along with the too rarely remembered album, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, made roughly concurrently by Heads’ man David Byrne and Remain In Light’s producer Brian Eno, brought together New York’s anxious post-punk, Middle America’s religious heart and West Africa’s rhythms and drive – particularly that of Nigerian Fela Kuti.
It wasn’t just exciting, physical music; for western music ears in 1980 it was as important as Paul Simon’s Graceland would be six years later (and Miriam Makeba, two decades earlier), in opening paths to exploring, understanding – and exploiting - some of the cultures on a continent too long ignored.
Nearly 40 years on, Benin’s most famous musical figure, Angelique Kidjo – who calls the South African Makeba her “musical mother” and found fame in the early ‘90s mixing traditional and Euro-dance styles - has reversed the flow somewhat, taking on Remain In Light in her own image, in a show which was only stopped from being a joyous all night dance by the slow-to-get-up-and-then-stay-up audience.
The upside of that may be that the album now comes with a more relaxed tenor (the tension-free Once In A Lifetime and a busy rather than urgent Crosseyed And Painless), some lighter rhythms (the almost gentle Born Under Punches, with a dancing rather than probing guitar) and a sense of celebration (The Great Curve, a nuanced paen to women and potential, and the best realised Talking Heads song of the night), augmented not just by Kidjo’s jubilant Afirika, celebratory Tumba and contemplative Cauri but her flair, vibrant dancing and connection to us.
The downside of that may be … all of the above.
Kidjo’s preference for lightness and simplicity over (emotional and musical) complexity makes it easy to go with the flow and be physically freed. But it removes most traces of the impulses behind the original songs. That’s why a bursting with life Pata Pata (a hit which Makeba incidentally called “one of my most insignificant songs”) could sit comfortably alongside Listening Wind, now stripped of its eerie portents. Why the subtly disturbed Burning Down The House (from the Heads’ 1983 album Speaking In Tongues) could just be a rave up in the first encore.
This was a cheery, pleasant experience and if anxiety displaced is what you’re after, Kidjo nails it. Not sure why she’d choose Remain In Light to do that though.
What would have been interesting to hear was the thinking behind the reimagining of this album. Was it a case of reclaiming some African culture from its western appropriation? An important album personally? A chance to complete the circle as it were, with newer African styles brought to bear on the western template? A way to reflect a less pungent socio-political environment?
Kidjo, who is fluent in multiple languages, chose not to say anything about that. It’s a shame.
(A version of this review previously ran in the Sydney Morning Herald.)