Backstage at Utah Arts Festival 2014: Angelique Kidjo, Blair Crimmins, Chris Robinson highlight Friday headliners

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Friday’s headliners at the Utah Arts Festival carry impressive credentials across the board. Among the top performers scheduled are Angelique Kidjo, Blair Crimmins and The Hookers, and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood.

Angelique Kidjo, 9:45 p.m., Festival Stage

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“Having a Fon dad and a Yoruba mom put me in a special place. It gave me access to so much culture and music. The songs and dances and the ceremonies are different, but they have coexisted for hundreds of years. Their beliefs are also never in contradiction with Christianity, which is a mainstay of Beninese culture. In my family, as in many Beninese families, we go to the Catholic Church on Sunday morning and to the traditional Beninese ceremony in the afternoon. Each child born into our family has the right to two baptisms: a Catholic baptism and a traditional one, which is more about lineage. It is when we call to our ancestors to ask who will protect and watch over the child throughout his or her earthly life.” – From ‘Spirit Rising, My Music, My Life,’ by Angelique Kidjo with Rachel Wenrick, 2014. Reprinted with permission by HarperCollins Publishers.

Already with a long-running globally successful career, Angelique Kidjo is having an exceptionally momentous year. Her memoir, ‘Spirit Rising, My Life, My Music,’ written with Rachel Wenrick, was published in January by HarperCollins Publishers and features a preface by Desmond Tutu and the foreword by Alicia Keyes. The back cover carries a quote by former President Bill Clinton. Her story has been featured in many of the world’s top newspapers and she has been interviewed by many of the best-known broadcast journalists and hosts including Diane Rehm and Tavis Smiley.

Later that month, her latest album ‘Eve’ was released, debuting at the top spot in the Billboard World Music chart, which includes the U.S., U.K., Canadian, French and German retail music markets. A native of Benin who now lives in New York City, Kidjo pays tribute to African women in her new album, which is inspired by recordings she captured directly from women choruses performing traditional African music. Incorporating contributions from Beninese percussionists from the Gangbe Brass Band, Kidjo recorded the album with a ‘Who’s Who’ list of session musicians, including guitarist Lionel Loueke (who also was born in Benin), guitarist Dominic James, drummer Steve Jordan, and bass player Christian McBride. The album, produced by Patrick Dillett, a longtime collaborator of David Byrne, is a bona fide world collaboration. It includes many other musicians, such as guitarist and keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij from Vampire Weekend, Nigerian Folk singer Aṣa,pianist Dr. John, The Kronos Quartet and the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra. Kidjo’s mother, Yvonne, also is featured in  the traditional Congolese song ‘Bana.’

Ms. Kidjo agreed graciously to a Q&A with The Utah Review, which is shared below:

TUR: Your music serves as compelling a social, humanitarian purpose as it does aesthetic and entertainment purposes. Clearly there is the sense of engaging the audience and listeners to consider not only your own cultural roots and identities as a singer but of how art serves larger purposes of doing good social work for human dignity and respect. In addition, you have been a UNICEF goodwill ambassador and your foundation Batonga supports education for girls and young women. Your thoughts, especially about the foundation, would be greatly appreciated.

AK: The African continent has given me so much in terms of music, culture and human warmth. I want to give back as much as I can. I have been so lucky to receive an education and my dream is that every single girl on the continent would have the same chance. The millenium development goals have been focusing on primary education but through my travels I have noticed that secondary education is key because it prevents early marriage and early motherhood which can be so dangerous for the girls.

Also a better educated woman will be able to make better decisions for her children–girls and boys!

Kidjo_690x310TUR: You are remarkably effective and adept at avoiding being fitted into restrictive or too neatly drawn musical categories. This, of course, harkens to the story you relate in your memoir, about all of the various formative influences as a child and young woman who grew up in Benin. How did you begin to synthesize all of these diverse influences into a commanding presence on the global music scene? More specifically, to let the world see the richest extent of Africa as an indispensable source of music and of a musical language?

AK: Mixing African music with the music of the rest of the world is not difficult. On the contrary, it is very natural. You know why? Because most of contemporary popular and folk music came from Africa to the Americas with the slaves. Without knowing it, we, musicians, speak the same universal language of music even though we don’t speak the same language of words.

TUR: In a 2013 issue of Intelligent Life magazine, you listed as one of your personal seven wonders the Great Salt Lake Desert. What do you particularly look forward to coming to Utah to perform at the state’s largest cultural and arts gathering? What will be some of the songs you will be performing?

AK: The first time I travelled through the Great Salt Lake desert, it felt so surreal, so inspiring, like you’re not on planet earth and you’re just alone with your own soul. It was a remarkable experience. But I hope to be singing to a lot of souls in Utah this time!

I will be singing a combination of new songs from EVE like Shan go Wa and Bomba, and old classics that my fans love like Afirika and Tumba…

TUR: When not performing or touring, how do you relax and unwind, sustaining a happy balance in a productive, creative life as an artist?

AK: Beside music I have a real passion for cooking. My husband always says I can’t spend more than two hours in the recording studio without getting restless but that I can easily spend 8 hours in my kitchen cooking for friends. I just love it and also I am so tired of restaurant food that I have to eat on the road all the time. Like in music I mix a lot of styles of cooking: they call it “fusion” food like we used to call Fusion the style of music mixing jazz and rock!

TUR: Your memoir includes an introduction by Alicia Keys and a foreword by Desmond Tutu, as well as many photographs and even a few recipes — just a small indication of the richly textured self-portrait you lay out in the book. The opening is a dynamic account of your genealogy, especially as you describe your parents: a Fon dad and a Yoruba mom. Your parents’ support proved hugely important and of enormous value. What advice or counsel would you give to young girls and women who dream of bringing their artistic and educational passions alive?

AK: My advice is: “Don’t let anyone define who you are.” I understand I was so lucky to have such a supportive family and many girls are not, but I want to tell them: please don’t get discouraged, use your brain as a weapon to achieve your dreams. It is OK to fall but you can always get back on your feet!

Blair Crimmins and The Hookers, 8:30 p.m., Amphitheater Stage

“Feet don’t fail me now/I’m going to run that rabbit down/So take this tip, turn in your slip/When the track gets hot my heart won’t stop/You gonna see me hit and run by” – ‘Run That Rabbit Down’ from Sing-a-Longs (2013)

Blair Crimmins
Blair Crimmins

From Atlanta, Blair Crimmins has succeeded in bringing ragtime and Dixieland jazz music to new audiences, demonstrating effectively how music from nearly a century back can be expressed in fresh ways without sacrificing the style’s innate artistic integrity. In an interview with The Utah Review, Crimmins says that he studied in jazz in college but then switched over to rock. “Jazz didn’t excite me at the time because it seemed so academic, so conservative,” he explains. “There was so much emphasis on a player’s technical skill that one could easily forget about the music’s natural energy and vibe.”

However, after a personal life-changing event five years ago, Crimmins rediscovered the “incredibly good” aspects of jazz in the musical stylings of King Oliver, Cab Calloway, Jelly Roll Morton, and others who gave jazz its earliest solid foundations . Soon, he started writing music and songs for the classic New Orleans arrangement of horns and winds including trumpet, clarinet and trombone, finding the vibe that would resonate especially with younger audiences who may never had heard ragtime or Dixieland style jazz. To wit: the 2010 release of ‘The Musical Stylings Of ,’ which became a major college radio hit in Atlanta, as students repeatedly requested to hear album tracks. In 2013, he was named Best Songwriter by Creative Loafing in Atlanta, the major clearinghouse source for arts, cultural, and entertainment events in the city’s metropolitan area.

Crimmins certainly found the right muse for his artistry and many in Atlanta took immediate notice. In 2012, he wrote and recorded the musical score for an independent short film ‘Old Man Cabbage,’ directed by Raymond Carr. Crimmins and his band The Hookers were a perfect fit — tapping into a rollicking foot-tapping vaudeville style of music — for the silent film’s story line, about a couple of kids who decide to run away from an abusive home and join a ghostly circus in a speakeasy tavern from the 1920s.

Crimmins composed the soundtrack to the short indie film 'Old Man Cabbage,' a 2012 production directed by Raymond Carr.
Crimmins composed the soundtrack to the short indie film ‘Old Man Cabbage,’ a 2012 production directed by Raymond Carr.

Crimmins is rightfully proud of this collaboration. “I gave each character his own musical voice,” he says, adding that it was an immensely satisfying achievement to sync the score with the film’s storytelling pace. “We performed the music live in the theater just like the effect of the actual silent movie days,’ he explains. “The big difference was we needed headphones, teleprompter, and other equipment to really pull off the vintage look and feel in the theater.”

Naturally, Crimmins enjoys writing songs that tell simple, entertaining stories. His latest album ‘Sing-a-Longs’ is being marked as a breakthrough release for him and his band that demonstrate just how well the musicians have mastered the tremendous demands of ragtime and jazz styles that manage to make even complex-sounding music sound as infectiously entertaining as it is artistically serious. Crimmins says he doesn’t wait for inspiration to hit. As soon as he gets an idea, he jots it down or hums a melodic idea into his mobile phone, and then sits down daily working for several hours at least, playing the guitar and piano to start fleshing out songs.

Chris Robinson Brotherhood, 9:45 p.m., Amphitheater Stage

11631743Just two months ago, the group released ‘Phosphorescent Harvest,’ its third album for the independent label Silver Arrow Records, coming off a tour of more than 110 shows. In fact, the band has done more than 230 shows in its three years of existence. The latest release comprises 10 songs, including several that were tested by the band on the road. Since 2011, the band, of course, has become the main channel for the Black Crowes singer to develop a much more comprehensive range of sound than what has been typically associated with his previous work. The new album shows many inflections from a broad spectrum of musical styles that are rooted in jazz, folk, mid-century rock, electronic, and others — perhaps most accurately described by Robinson himself, who has said in various interviews across the country that it might qualify as “hippy baroque.” Indeed, the latest album confirms that Robinson, as with many other tremendously gifted musicians, have moved long ago away from any compulsion to categorize their music as being predominantly situated in one genre or another.

 The band–Chris Robinson (lead vocals, guitar), Neal Casal (guitar, vocals), Adam MacDougall (keys, vocals), George Sluppick (drums) and Mark Dutton (bass, vocals) — also hit the road soon after the album was released.  The newest release follows the musical development and experimentation that were seeded in the group’s other releases — ‘Big Moon Ritual’ and ‘The Magic Door,’ both which came out in 2012, and the 2013 live quadruple vinylrelease titled ‘Betty’s S.F. Blends, Vol 1.’  The album, produced by Thom Monahan, includes many tracks that Robinson cowrote with Casal.

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Les Roka
I am a native of Toledo, Ohio, having received my Ph.D. in journalism and mass communication from Ohio University's Scripps School of Journalism in 2002. In addition to teaching at Utah State University and the University of Utah, I have worked extensively in public relations for a variety of organizations including a major metropolitan university, college of osteopathic medicine, and community college. When it comes to intellectual curiosity, I venture into as many areas as possible, whether it’s about music criticism, the history of journalism, the practice of public relations in a Web 2.0 world and the soon-to-arrive Web 3.0 landscape, or how public debates are formed about many issues especially in the political arena. As a Salt Lake City resident, I currently write and edit a blog called The Selective Echo that provides an entertaining, informative, and provocative look at Salt Lake City and its cosmopolitan best. I also have been the U.S. editorial advisor for an online publication Art Design Publicity based in The Netherlands. And, I use social media tools such as Twitter for blogging, networking with journalists and experts, and staying current on the latest trends in culture and news. I also have been a regular monthly contributor to a Utah business magazine, and I have recently conducted a variety of editing projects involving authors and researchers throughout the country and the world, including Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Lebanon, Cyprus, the United Kingdom, France, and Japan. I’m also a classically trained musician who spent more than 15 years in a string quartet, being involved in more than 400 performances.

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