“All I want is to breathe,” sings Angélique Kidjo on “Born Under Punches”. A pellucid, high-pitched guitar riff circles closely beneath her. “Won’t you breathe with me?” Synthesisers break through the mix like miniature wailing alarms, and backing chants weave around Kidjo’s lead vocal; an array of percussive instruments, including conga drums, competes for ascendancy. Every available space within the song feels crammed with sound – it’s a pressure that the musicians are at once creating and withstanding. “Take a look at these hands,” sings Kidjo. “Passing in between us.” Her tone makes it hard to know whether she’s demonstrating force or describing a gesture of supplication. Maybe she’s telling us that certain moments bring these things together: power and mercy, threat and deliverance.
“Born Under Punches” is the opening track to Kidjo’s wholesale remake of Remain in Light, an album originally recorded by New York band Talking Heads. Released in October 1980, a few weeks shy of the US presidential election that swept Ronald Reagan to victory, Talking Heads’ Remain in Light was a polysemous, polyrhythmic musical achievement, which, in its surreal complexity, refuted the regressive fantasies of American neoconservatives almost before the fact. It was the group’s fourth album, and was produced, as their previous two albums had been, by Brian Eno, a close collaborator of Talking Heads’ frontman and lyricist, David Byrne.
These musicians drew heavily upon contemporary Afrobeat, in particular the work of Nigerian band leader Fela Kuti, in order to craft their own anxious, stuttering version of funk, inflected by their origins in punk. Like the British punk groups before them, whose dread fury – partly learnt from reggae – had uncannily foreshadowed the ruthlessness of the Thatcher years, Talking Heads sensed the zeitgeist and gave it sound. “Facts just twist the truth around,” sang David Byrne on “Crosseyed and Painless”. “Facts are living turned inside out.” Vibrant, disturbed, ironic, sincere, hysterical, censorious, part knees-up and part nightmare: that was Remain in Light, version one.
An album so much concerned with the unreality of reality was perhaps bound to resonate today. Kidjo’s version of Remain in Light draws upon her formative experience of ideological perversities: she was born and raised in Benin when that country was under one-party rule. “Born Under Punches”, she recently told music website Pitchfork, is, for her, a song about corruption (“man, it means nothing to you Americans”). But she also turns these songs into reflections upon our post-colonial present. Her Remain in Light is fluid, confident, frank and haunted.
Kidjo’s arrangements give prominence to horns and percussion, both central components of the Afrobeat sound. Melodies that Talking Heads played on guitars and synthesisers are now taken over by trumpets and trombones. Most of these songs include vocal interpolations in African languages, setting up a call-and-response that is not only musical but also textual. (Kidjo herself speaks four languages: Fon, Yoruba, French and English.) “Fire cannot hurt a man / Not the government man,” sang Byrne on Talking Heads’ version of “Born Under Punches”. “And you cannot play with fire if you don’t know how to handle fire,” adds Kidjo and her backing singers, in Fon.
But it’s the similarities between the two versions of Remain in Light that underline Kidjo’s larger point: the distinction between African music and Western pop is mostly spurious. Afrobeat itself arose in the ’60s as the result of disparate influences – jazz, funk, pop, highlife – that were both African and African American. Did James Brown copy his funkiest moves from Fela Kuti, or was it the other way around? In turn, Talking Heads’ Afrobeat was an American post-punk version of African funk that had itself been partially inspired by popular African-American musicians.
And Talking Heads were hardly alone among their peers in drawing upon disparate influences. For New York musicians in particular, the late ’70s and early ’80s were a time of powerful cross-currents and crossovers: hip-hop and post-punk, downtown and uptown, live instruments and electronics, all commingling. Remain in Light is a part of the cultural moment that led Debbie Harry to rap on Blondie’s “Rapture” (1981), and Afrika Bambaataa to reference Kraftwerk on his electro-funk treatise “Planet Rock” (1982). In 2016, the Library of Congress chose Remain in Light for inclusion on its national registry of culturally significant sound recordings, alongside Judy Garland’s original 1939 version of “Over the Rainbow” and N.W.A’s landmark hip-hop album Straight Outta Compton (1988). That’s just the kind of incongruity that Talking Heads delighted in.
Kidjo, too, has always been a cross-cultural innovator. Over the course of 15 albums she has brought various kinds of African music – from Benin, Kenya and elsewhere – to the attention of listeners around the globe, while also interpreting American pop, including songs by Jimi Hendrix and Aretha Franklin, on her own terms. She has credited her father, a postal worker who loved James Brown, for encouraging her, from an early age, to keep an open mind. She insists upon the interconnection of different musical traditions, recalling to Pitchfork how she first encountered Remain in Light via its celebrated lead single, “Once in a Lifetime”, while she was living in Paris during the early 1980s. She immediately recognised its origins. “I said, ‘This is African!’ They said, ‘No, you are not sophisticated enough in Africa to understand and do this kind of music.’ But I was humming, singing along with the chorus. It seemed natural.”
The song was Kidjo’s starting point for this remake project. It’s a daunting cover to undertake, given how recognisable the Talking Heads version is, and how complete unto itself – the result of painstaking work, built up from long improvisations and refinement in the studio. Kidjo dispenses with the synthesiser that runs like nervous chatter all the way through the original, making the song at once anticipatory and exhausted. But while Kidjo’s version feels more celebratory – congas somersaulting, brass shining – it also reanimates the existential questions at the heart of the song. What might it mean, after all, to find yourself one day in the middle of a life that you scarcely recognise? “This is not my beautiful house!” yelped Byrne. “This is not my beautiful wife!” In Kidjo’s hands, “Once in a Lifetime” also becomes a story of diaspora and exile, and of the dramatic turnabouts in fortune that so often accompany those experiences. “Into the blue again,” she sings, “after the money’s gone.”
Kidjo’s voice, so much stronger and steadier than Byrne’s, brings a gravitas to songs that were previously defined by Talking Heads’ self-conscious artifice. Take her version of “Seen and Not Seen”, the sixth of eight songs on the album. (Kidjo has retained the original track sequencing.) It’s a spoken-word song, and on Talking Heads’ album it alighted like a daydream, albeit an uneasy one. “He would see faces in movies, on TV,” narrated Byrne, as instruments twinkle. “He thought that some of these faces might be right for him.”
For Talking Heads, “Seen and Not Seen” was an exploration of consumer alienation and the insidious pressure to turn oneself into an approximation of that powerfully enticing product: celebrity. Kidjo retains that meaning, but gives it a new and specific inflection. Without altering Byrne’s lyrics, her “Seen and Not Seen” also becomes a description of the damage done to black people by dominant ideals of white beauty. “Gradually his face would change its shape,” she says. “Wider, thinner lips … He imagined that this was an ability he shared with most other people.”
The following song, “Listening Wind”, was the only one on Talking Heads’ Remain in Light that explicitly addressed Africa in its lyrics. “Mojique sees his village from a nearby hill,” sang Byrne. “Mojique thinks of days before Americans came.” It’s a song about violence begetting violence; colonial plunder stoking the desire for revenge among a colonised people. Mojique turns to terrorism, planting “devices in the free trade zone”. Talking Heads’ arrangement is reverb heavy; guitars wail like ghosts.
A synthesiser rises and falls through Kidjo’s “Listening Wind”, and numerous singing voices interlock. Her song is dense, not just with sounds but with simultaneous histories: the days before Americans came are days prior to the slave trade, as well as to their modern incursions. Mojique is an avatar of both historical and contemporary Africa. The conga drums move like footsteps.
Theft shadows Kidjo’s album; exchange animates it. But was Talking Heads’ Remain in Light also a theft, a form of latter-day colonialism? Did they steal this music from its rightful players? “Acknowledgement has always been part of the problem of cultural appropriation, so if you take something from someone, just acknowledge it,” Kidjo told Rolling Stone. “And [the Talking Heads] were open about how Fela [Kuti] inspired them.” In returning Talking Heads’ version of Afrobeat to Africa, Kidjo shows us that this always was “world music”: the result of mixed influences, complex histories and alert listening. “Divide and dissolve,” she sings on “Houses in Motion”, a song she turns from fretful to poised. Keep crossing the lines.
There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.
That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.
The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.
Select your digital subscription