"I don't limit myself (musically), and that's why I hate the label 'world music,'" she says in a recent phone interview. "World music means that the music we are doing is not the music of the rest of the world. Who decides so?
"I just want people to listen with no preconceived ideas and let themselves be taken by the love and the joy of that music, because we need joy," Kidjo says. "We need love. Everybody needs love. I don't think we can live without love."
Given that mission statement, it's no surprise that all seven of the albums Kidjo has released since arriving on the international scene in 1988 are built around nurturing themes. Black Ivory Soul, her most recent CD, is no exception.
Black Ivory Soul draws on Kidjo's roots. In 1999, she visited Brazil's Bahia, a cultural melting pot of a city where people of African, Brazilian and Portuguese descent live together. The visit inspired Kidjo, who left West Africa's Benin, her homeland, for Paris in 1998 to escape the restrictions of communist rule, to bring a strong mix of African and Brazilian styles to Black Ivory Soul. Many of the themes on the CD reflect the cultural harmony that exists in Benin. The opening song, "Bahia," centers on the importance of having a sense of community, friendship and love for each other, while the title song expresses feelings of inner freedom and self-determination, with its lyrics proclaiming, "No one can take away from me what's inside my black ivory soul." The song title "Ominara" means freedom in the African language of Yoruba.
Although Kidjo sings many of the songs on Black Ivory Soul in Yoruba or Fon (the native language of Benin), American listeners can feel the CD's uplifting messages in the pulsing, up-tempo instrumentation.
Mixing a strong knack for pop melody with spirited interlocking rhythms from Africa and Brazil, songs like "Iwoya" (featuring guest vocals from Dave Matthews, with whom Kidjo toured for two years), "Tumba" and "Refevela" are festive and joyous cross-cultural excursions, while mid-tempo songs like "Bahia" and "Lemanja" radiate warmth. For Kidjo, having a strong thematic thread in her songs is essential.
"For an African artist, the music in my society is not only to understand people, it's to bring a message to people, to talk to people, to make them realize in this society where we are living there might be something wrong that we have to fix. There might be something right that we have to be proud about, and not forget about the trouble it took us to get that," she says. "That's why when I write my music, in all my lyrics, you have a message. That's my culture. That's how I was raised. Music has to bring human beings together. And that's my goal."
Black Ivory Soul is the first new studio CD for Kidjo under a deal with Columbia Records, and Kidjo clearly believes that it is one of the strongest albums of her career. Part of her passion for the album comes from fulfilling her longtime goal of recording her music live in the studio with a backing band.
"I was not able to do that before because the different projects I worked on weren't from that direction," she said. "It was not easy for me to find at the beginning, when I started doing my music, people who could understand the concept of my music and play it the way I want to. It took years to get to that knowledge, that understanding, to be able to do that."
The musicians Kidjo hired for Black Ivory Soul came from regions as diverse as Africa, Brazil and the West Indies, but language barriers didn't interfere with the album.
"It was not difficult at all," Kidjo says of the recording process. "I had it all in my mind. When the time comes for things, it is just clear in your mind. I just put everybody together in one room and it happened. Because one thing that is the power of music is that language is not even a boundary."