Born into a family of performers in Ouidah, a city on the coast of Benin in West Africa, Angélique Kidjo first heard the word “slave” when she was 9 years old — and wanted to know more.
Now, more than five decades later, Kidjo, a five-time Grammy winner and Cal Performances’ 2021-22 artist-in-residence, is exploring the topic in Yemandja, a new music theater production co-commissioned by Cal Performances that tells stories of the horrors and injustices of the slave trade in 19th century Dahomey, then a West African kingdom that is now Benin.
On Saturday, April 23, Cal Performances will present Yemandja in its Bay Area premiere at Zellerbach Hall on campus as part of Illuminations: Place and Displacement, a season-long series that explores the effects of migration and gentrification on individuals and communities through performances, public programs and academic encounters.
Called “Africa’s premier diva” by Time magazine, Kidjo creates and performs music deeply inspired by West African traditions of her childhood in Benin with elements of R&B, funk and jazz and other international influences. Time named Kidjo one of its 100 Most Influential People of 2021; the British Broadcasting Corporation included her in its list of the continent’s 50 most iconic figures; and The Guardian newspaper listed her as one of its Top 100 Most Inspiring Women in the World in 2011.
Kidjo stars in the principal role of Yemandja and is backed by a live band and nine singers and dancers. The performers play mortals and gods, kings and villains, whose stories of love, betrayal, honor and revenge illuminate what can happen when people are robbed of their culture.
The production was conceived by Kidjo with her husband, Jean Hebrail, and her daughter, Naïma Hebrail Kidjo, who wrote Yemandja’s libretto.
“I’ve been thinking about this for so long,” said Kidjo. “And what Naïma has written is exactly what was deeply embedded in my soul. It’s humbling and scary and joyful. We don’t realize how we’ve impacted our kids, how they absorb everything we say, until it comes out.”
Kidjo said she hopes the performance and story of Yemandja, named after the Yoruba deity of water, fertility and love, will take the audience on a spiritual journey.
“We don’t want people to just sit during the show,” she said in a recent interview. “We want them to feel the music. We want them to feel everything we say, but then to listen and to see how it impacts their life — what memory it triggers, how they participate in this conversation.”
As artist-in-residence, Kidjo has been working closely with students, faculty and campus partners through collaborations and public programs on issues close to her heart.
She has already participated in two panel discussions, “Music, Diaspora and the World,” co-sponsored by the Townsend Center for the Humanities and the Social Science Matrix, and “Place and Displacement: Bias in Our Algorithms and Society,” presented in collaboration with the Division of Computing, Data Science and Society. Both discussions are available to stream on the Cal Performances’ Beyond the Stage section.
In upcoming events for students, Kidjo will visit a class, Listening for Blackness, taught by professor Victoria Grubbs in the Department of African American Studies; lead a dance masterclass on the traditional African and Latin American rituals that characterize Yemandja; and participate in a discussion about the Illuminations theme of place and displacement.
Yemandja runs 90 minutes with no intermission on Saturday, April 23, at 8 p.m. in Zellerbach Hall. Tickets range from $36 to $88 and are available at half price to UC Berkeley students. To learn more about Yemandja and to buy tickets, visit Cal Performances’ website.